Contributor: Rochelle Beatty, Program Manager, TeamUP Peer-to-Peer Faculty Development.

Have you ever taken the time to compare the results of your first test to the final grades in your course? If so, you probably noticed a correlation between passing the first exam and passing the course or even persisting until the end of the semester. I remember my mentor explaining this phenomenon to me during my first year teaching college (25+ years ago) and over the years I have realized, she was correct.

In fact, we noticed that only about 40% of our students were successful in passing the first exam (in college algebra) and I found it difficult to move the needle for many years. We attributed their lack of success to their not knowing our method of testing, not understanding the rigor needed in a college level course, not setting aside enough time to study, and the list continues.

We also noticed that when students did not do well on the first test, many times their subsequent test scores did not improve. With the integration of mandatory placement for math classes (at least 15 years ago), I started to see some improvement and the needle moving a little. But it was not enough to “write home about.”

Lately, however, I found an incredible change in my students’ abilities on the first test and contribute this result to using Enhanced WebAssign as my online homework system. The change is so amazing that not only am I seeing more students persisting in the course and passing my first test, but I am also seeing the first test scores improve. In fact, the first semester I incorporated Enhanced WebAssign into a college algebra course with 18 students, the mean on my first exam was a 76% and the median was an 82%. I was absolutely blown away.

I continued to watch the students as they progressed through the course and realized that they constantly strove for perfection on homework and took as many attempts as needed to accomplish their goal. It seems reasonable to infer that the immediate feedback given to students through the online assessments did not let their learning get cold, but rather encouraged them to develop the correct reasoning. It also increased time on task, which in turn increased exposure to different problems.

Three Best Practices

Today, I continue to see similar results when I use Enhanced WebAssign, but I also ramped up my personal encouragement to students to build community and master the content by adding a few more features to my courses and assignments.

1. Encourage Peer Mentoring
First, I include a discussion at the beginning of the course asking students to describe one positive experience they have had while attending school. Most often, the students start talking about their successes in mathematics (although that was not in the introduction to the discussion) and in the mandatory reply to others’ posts, I find that they provide comments to fellow classmates who express some discomfort toward mathematics. Their replies are encouraging and often include information as to how they might incorporate a new strategy or make a change so their grades and understanding improve. Peer mentoring has a profound effect toward modifying behavior of other students and is much more influential than an instructor’s comments. So, I find this approach to be helpful.

2. Provide Practice Assessments
One feature for assignments that I include is a reward of bonus points for students who submit their assignments at least 24 hours before the due date. Secondly, I offer practice assessments that include tutorials and hints followed by a homework assessment that does not contain tutorials and is algorithmically changed after five attempts with a penalty to their score.

My hope is that the homework without assets more closely models a testing environment. Another approach I use is to monitor my students’ access and progress in the course. When I see that they are not starting their homework until the last minute, I send them a note to remind them that math is cumulative and their ability to keep up will snowball if they fail to keep a pace in line with the course schedule.

3. Enable the Personalized Study Plan (PSP)
Other features of Enhanced WebAssign that can also encourage students to do well on their first exam are the personalized study plan (PSP) and addition of review materials. I encourage students to take the pre-created tests in the PSP as a pre-test for their exam. Based upon their results, a customized personalized plan of study is created to help them improve the skills needed to be successful on the test. The ability to provide review by accessing materials from other texts supported by Enhanced WebAssign is key to getting all students off to a good start. I create optional review assignments for students and have them open for most of the course. I find that many students go back and access the reviews at various times in the term.

Making sure your course contains the right materials to engage students where they are and move them to where they need to be is the first step in improving the results of the first test. Continuing to monitor progress, add review material, and provide timely feedback will assist students in passing the first test, keep students marching forth, and encourage persistence to the end.


Have you seen success with Enhanced WebAssign in your class? Share your teaching tips and ideas in the comments.

Rochelle Beatty is a TeamUP Program Manager for Cengage Learning, an adjunct mathematics professor for Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, KS, and an online mathematics instructor for Wharton County Junior College in Sugarland, TX. As a mathematics instructor, she has experience at both the secondary and higher education levels, which ranges from differential equations to developmental mathematics. Rochelle has provided training for faculty in many disciplines, but her main focus is mathematics. In addition to consulting for the Cengage Learning Mathematics and Student Success texts, Rochelle’s expertise includes: math study skills, cognitive development in the mathematics classroom, graphing calculators, computer graphing programs, online math homework systems, technology for engaging students, and math anxiety. She earned her A.A. at Northeastern Oklahoma A & M College – Miami, OK; B.S. and M.S. in Mathematics at Pittsburg State University — Pittsburg, KS; and has a Ph.D. in Instructional Leadership and Curriculum Development with an emphasis in Mathematics Education from the University of Oklahoma — Norman, OK.