Answer-Dependent WebAssign Questions

WebAssign is the most flexible question-writing engine I’ve ever seen. Today, I want to share how I whipped WebAssign into submission yet again.

I wanted to make a question where students self-report which type of musical instrument they built and the rest of the question asks them about that instrument. After looking up answer-dependent questions, I learned the documentation suggested they were for numerical values only. Writing my question took some wrangling but everything was documented (thanks, anonymous WebAssign tech writer!). Here’s the end result, an answer-dependent non-numerical question:


The question is shared on WebAssign under QID 3736476.



Help! Looking at HTML/CSS/JS, 15 Years Later


Sublime Text editor

How would you teach html/css/js to students from grades 7 to 12 so they can create websites? Asking for a friend. Oh, and this friend tells me they meet for about two hours a week.

I was a webmaster before becoming a teacher. I ran a corporate website, organized early electronic marketing, and even set up webinars for my employer — from 1996 to 2004. Does that qualify me to teach a club of girls how to code for the web? Only a little, I’m learning. I don’t have to tell most of you that the web was a vastly different place 15 years ago than it is now. I’m working with a club leader, another teacher with similarly rusty html and strong google skills. Our base knowledge is so ancient, we’ve lost count of the depreciated tags we’ve run into.

Introduction: A First Web Page

I love to let kids dive in on new technology, so here’s how I structured a one-hour lesson on writing web pages:

  • grab a good text editor: I’ve been using Sublime Text for Mac
  • start with these four tags: paragraphs, links, headings, images
  • learn a tiny bit of style notation: colors and fonts
  • be ready to show whatever your club asks to learn — W3Schools has had an open browser tab on my computer all semester
  • practice! make the world’s tackiest web page — sure it’ll look like MySpace or Livejournal but don’t worry, these kids don’t remember those days

Kids were super-excited about what they’ve learned. The younger ones are mostly interested in background colors, text colors, and fonts. We’ve played with these ideas for a few weeks and I think they’re almost ready to understand the value of separating content from presentation with css.

Next Level: Bootstrap, Templates, and Editors?

So this brings me to the weekend. We’re ready to take the girls to the next level. We figure that means finding some web space, teaching them about ftp and designing off of a web template.

Apparently Bootstrap is the “most popular HTML, CSS, and JS framework for developing responsive, mobile first projects on the web.” Sold. Well, it’s free, so does it even make sense to say “sold”? Anyhow, there are even free templates that use Bootstrap over at Start Bootstrap. I downloaded the Business Casual theme and started making a personal project website to practice.

Are there other frameworks I should look at before showing Bootstrap to the girls?


  1. Where do you go for basic web hosting? I’m looking for ftp access and NOT a wysiwyg-only interface.
  2. Who online is doing the best job teaching html & css? Looking for inspiration. We’ve used codecademy’s lessons but want to stay away from “welcome to club, now go follow a tutorial on your own” for now.
  3. Got any industry-standard tools I need to be showing the girls?
  4. Are you a woman who codes, especially for the web? Want to be a guest at a meeting?

How I Set Up My First WebAssign Quiz

So I gave my first WebAssign quiz today and am happy with the set of options I chose. Maybe you’d like to see what I did?


The questions are a mix of ones I wrote and ones from the textbook. Below are screenshots of one randomization of the quiz. All questions are pooled to allow different versions AND make retakes easier.

Screen Shot 2016-08-31 at 7.45.16 PMScreen Shot 2016-08-31 at 7.59.17 PMScreen Shot 2016-08-31 at 7.59.39 PMScreen Shot 2016-08-31 at 7.59.48 PM

I’m really proud of the animated GIF of a ticking grandfather clock. There’s another one in the deck of a transverse wave being drawn out.

Quiz Settings

Here are settings I chose:

  • Submissions Allowed: 2 (during the quiz, in class — every kid gets a free redo on every question but I do take points off)
  • Submitting Answers: Question Parts (if I have a three-part question, I want kids to be able to check their answer on each part as they go along)
  • Feedback: Scores Assignment: Off (turn off students’ ability to see their numeric grade, though individual answer scores are shown — helps relieve anxiety over a grade that I haven’t finalized yet because I haven’t looked at the work)
  • Automatic Point Adjustments: Deduct 75% for each submission used beyond 1 (this didn’t do quite what I want, so I’m switching to “assign penalty for an incorrect answer” next time)

Quiz Taking Rules in My Class

This is my first year using WebAssign but I have a few routines I like that I’m figuring out how to do: 1) kids need more than one attempt at quizzes because they’re developing their knowledge, 2) kids should get immediate feedback on quizzes so as to not delay that learning cycle, and 3) retakes shouldn’t require me to write another quiz.

#1 is the biggest change from last year. I need more time to think on this one. Here’s how I’ve run quizzes the last few years:

  1. quiz day: open notes, get immediate feedback because quiz is computer-scored, and make corrections to anything you got wrong and are able to correct.
  2. overnight: I look at the papers students turned in. There were several ways to earn partial credit, but it all came down to showing work. Typically, students earned 1/4 to 3/4 credit based on the paper.
  3. next day: first opportunity for a quiz retake. On Moodle, the questions were sorted into categories and randomly selected, so a retake quiz was no extra effort. I’ve done similar in WebAssign using question pools. One retake per quiz AND it must be used by the unit test.

I have a few details to work out but the quiz experience was excellent from my POV. I’ll get student feedback tomorrow.

Physics First without the Supporting Math?

The question in front of me now is “How do I teach a Physics First course to a student inadequately prepared in mathematics in a setting where most other students are so prepared?”

Middle School Math

I teach Physics First in a school with strong middle school math preparation. Our middle school teachers have modified their Algebra I courses in a few ways to prepare kids. Most notably, in Algebra 1, students apply trig ratios to solve right triangles and they see it again at the start of geometry in 9th grade. In contrast, the local public schools have put trig ratios in 10th grade mathematics.

If a kid went to our middle school, chances are high that they are competent with all the math needed in my physics class. Trig is the most obvious accommodation. Here’s all the mathematics topics I need physics students to have:

  • Solve an equation for any unknown. The hardest equation in my course is for thin lenses and spherical mirrors: \frac{1}{f}=\frac{1}{d_{o}}+\frac{1}{d_{i}}. Solving for anything in the denominator is always problematic for the kids who struggle in math, so this one’s a doozy because it also always gets them on order of operations and fractions.
  • Work out how two variables relate. For example, for F=ma, if I double m and hold F constant, what happens to a? The hardest ones are the quadratic relationships such as in K=\frac{1}{2}mv^{2}
  • Have solid Cartesian graphing skills. Some kids will scale axes weird (using data points as increments, so every line looks like slope of 1). I include in this computing the slope and y-intercept of a line.
  • Estimate a best fit line from the graph of a messy data set (in freshman physics, we don’t use the fancy computational best fit methods) and then find the slope and y-intercept of that line
  • Understand slope as a rate of change.
  • Detecting a quadratic relationship from a data set using first differences (we spend a lot of time talking about the concept of an increasing slope on a f(x)=x2 graph)
  • Solve a right triangle for either an unknown angle or an unknown side

Additional Reading: “Mathematics Underlying the Physics First Curriculum: Implications for 8th and 9th Grade Mathematics

Unfortunately, students who transfer in for upper school here often don’t have this math. As we open up to more kids from wider socioeconomic and geographic areas, we must set them up for success in the upper school.

Helping transfer students succeed, then, is my task. I have three main ideas for supporting transfer students of mine. But really, I don’t have good answers or plans in place to support the unprepared. This post is more about getting the problem description out there.

Support #1: During Class

To get the most out of my class time, students need to be able to work together and with me. To me, the during class support is all about building a kick ass class culture. Ideally, my students are comfortable being open about their struggles, with me and each other.

My class culture isn’t where I’d like it to be. In the past, students worked with groups of their choice — which leaves out new kids more often than it includes them. Then I moved to working in table groups which I mostly selected. Still a no go. If you’re the only one not getting it at a table of three others who do, you’re just going to copy along rather than slow down the group to ask for explanations (and feel like you look dumb).

I can’t help but think several of the ideas Sara van der Werf presented at Global Math Department will be useful. The Pursuit of 100% Engagement: Practical ideas to get you closer. Specifically, she talked of how she models group work from the start of the year, including building norms and taking pictures. Also, she spoke of creating quality group or partner tasks. Where the former is about developing student habits, the latter is about changing up my game to get students working together. I like this balance.

How do you support students during class? Seriously, I feel like this is my weakest of the three supports here.

Support #2: During Office Hours

We have a half an hour per day set aside as office hours. Students drop in to any class they need and ask questions. In my room, I most often have students asking about a homework problem or retaking a quiz. Students who came through our middle school are already familiar with the setup and use it from day one.

Transfer students are often new to the idea of office hours. I need to get them in early in the year for office hours. It took me entirely too long this year to build a relationship with one of my students to where they’d ask for help. I’m leaning toward setting mandatory office hours, coordinated between the student, math teacher, me, and the grade chair.

Support #3: Building a Team

Every student has an advisor (aka homeroom teacher), a grade chair (who handles half their class’ students), a math teacher, and a physics teacher. That sounds like the basis of an excellent student team. What if I could do the following?

  1. Every new-to-our-school student gets a Team that includes the math teacher, the physics teacher, and the advisor. The team would meet once at the start of the year, possibly with counseling or whoever has the kids’ records from the last school. They then keep in touch throughout the year. This is pretty much happening informally after a kid gets into academic trouble, the change is being proactive with the team.
  2. Every new-to-us freshman gets mandatory office hours in math and physics for the first 9 weeks of school, at which time the SST determines if it needs to be continued.
  3. Everyone on a Team gets some training in researched-based interventions that might not be obvious. Maybe even instead of “sage on the stage” type training, we just hold a roundtable to decide what our own best practices are at our school. Might be received better by the teachers in a roundtable format.

Final Thoughts

I’m not saying that all transfer students struggle in my class. However, my data suggest that when a kid struggles, there’s a good chance they’re a transfer. How, then, do I give these kids the kickass experience they deserve?

What strategies have you seen work? Who should I be reading? Who should I be following on Twitter? C’mon friends, tell me what you know!

(oh and today’s T-minus-3 days till kids return on my 13th year teaching)


Homework Plan, 2016-17

I’m about to talk about homework even though I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. The system I’m about to describe is all about working around my big teacher weakness (I hate updating grade books) and as a bonus, helps me at staying organized. I have no idea if this is even a feasible system, so would love your feedback before I unleash it on my freshmen in two weeks.

About the environment: We’re a 1-1 laptop school, student absences are mostly due to doctor appointments and sporting events (and therefore mostly known in advance), and more kids do homework than don’t.

About me, the teacher: I absolutely hate grading work overnight. I have trouble establishing routines like starting class.

I’ve developed a homework & classwork tracking system that I think will be manageable. Would you consider giving me feedback once you’ve read about it?

The System

1. Students get Work Tracker handouts to be kept in their binders. Here’s a screen grab of the current iteration of the Work Tracker:


2. At the end of each class meeting, students update the Work Tracker with the next due date.

3. At the start of class (while kids are doing a warm up problem), I go around to each desk, glance at the work laid out for me, and enter a grade for yesterday’s assignment on each Work Tracker. In the event of absence or tardiness, a student must see me during the next scheduled office hour.

4. I update the gradebook once per unit with the average of the 15ish assignments on the Work Tracker.

Potential Problems

What if a kid loses the Work Tracker? That’s gonna suck for them. I plan to model backing up their data by taking a picture weekly. Also, the data can be recompiled because all the work should either be on paper in their binder or in the cloud in WebAssign. Side note: it’s gonna be rough on anyone who loses their binder. We’ll cross that bridge if it happens. I’m not trying to be a jerk here but this will still make some kids nervous.

How open am I leaving myself to fraud? Couldn’t a kid write in their own scores on the Work Tracker? Yes. That’s a flaw in my system, because I’ll be writing the scores in by hand. We have an honor code and if I catch anyone cheating, I’ll hand it over to Honor Council. On the flipside, the Work Tracker accounts to just 10% of a kid’s grade, so getting away with this crime isn’t terribly valuable.

Won’t it take a long time to go around the entire class and grade everything? Yes. I’ve tried to mitigate by putting many of my assignments on a generous “did you even try to do something?” scale, so I envision laying eyes on most papers and granting a perfect score. Class discussion will sort out the correctness of the work. The stuff I grade on correctness is kept in WebAssign, so I’ll ask kids to open their computer so I can just copy the grade down. Yes, it takes time but I see three benefits: 1) no matter what, I enter grades daily, 2) I get an idea of who’s falling behind daily, and 3) kids have an established class start routine. All of these were problems in last year’s system.

Benefits for the Students

Organization is generally good. I hear from the type A students that they like when teachers give out all the assignments at the start of the unit. I’ve never been organized enough to do it, plus I’ve always held on to notions of the class being too prescribed. I’m thinking that the type A kids could possibly work ahead and if I get a weird idea, I can always change out assignments and accept either the old or the updated work for credit.

Thinking about physics nightly is generally good. The nightly work ranges from “read this and answer 3 questions” to “solve these 10 problems”, from 15 minutes to an hour. In the past, I’ve only ever given out the second type of work and it was far more infrequent (maybe once a week). The new assignments encourage more independent reading, which I think will help their study skills.

Get the Work Tracker

Download the Work Tracker (.docx, it’s on the last page)

Your Homework

So, that’s my system. What do you think of it? I have a few questions if you want to help refine the process:

  • Did you spot potential problems I haven’t thought of?
  • I’ve never looked at work at the start of class. Have you? How hard is this to maintain?
  • Would it make more sense if I kept all the Work Trackers in my own binder to eliminate fraud and loss risks? Kids could have a blank copy with assignments and due dates.

Math Teachers Curate the Internet

The Global Math Department newsletter is my single favorite element of the internet for math teachers. This weekly gem highlights all the best stuff happening in our little corner of the world and that’s gold for busy teachers who don’t have time to be on Twitter or their blog reader hours every day.

This week’s issue includes blurbs on

  • social justice in math class, NCTM’s response, and resource links
  • analyzing student work using Desmos by Michael Pershan
  • highlights from the Park City Math Institute (PCMI)

Subscribe to Global Math Department’s newsletter. It’s free & weekly.


A Day Playing with WebAssign

Here’s what I learned from a day writing questions in WebAssign — I’m a fan of its randomized question-writing engine. It’s quite flexible and can do just about everything I want with the feature.

As a long-time Moodle fan, I think I’ve been convinced to make the switch to WebAssign. Lemme show you some of the stuff I learned:

Randomized Questions

I can write randomized (Moodle calls them calculated) questions. Here’s what that looks like to the student:

Screen Shot 2016-06-24 at 6.01.13 PM

Numbers in red are randomized — everyone gets a different value within the parameters I’ve set.

WebAssign supports all the usual question types such as multiple choice, numeric answers, and matching. (By the way, the second part to the above question above uses a new-to-me feature: physPad, a symbolic equation editor. More on physPad later.)

When coding these randomized questions, I can do something like this:

$v = randnum(342,348,1);

which means make the variable ‘v’ be a random whole number from 342 to 348.

Because the WebAssign authoring system is based on Perl syntax (I’ve used it before), I found it fairly straightforward to adapt to the code. Below is a question I wrote with a multi-part randomized set of questions. In case you’re wondering, line 2 shows a weird workaround for randomizing numbers less than one.

Screen Shot 2016-06-24 at 6.07.29 PM

WebAssign’s question writing interface is also its programming interface.

I’m impressed at WebAssign’s documentation, which includes video introductions and fully-documented details. Check out “Create Numerical Questions” for example.

Multi-Part Questions

I mentioned multi-part questions above. These were tough to do in Moodle, though possible. Multi-part questions are important to me because I can string together several questions into a coherent whole. Here’s another I wrote:

Screen Shot 2016-06-24 at 6.06.09 PM

Multi-Part questions are natural friends with the randomized question feature I loved on above.

With more time, I’m eager put together smart multi-part questions that help  students move from concrete arithmetic to symbolic algebraic problem-solving.

physPad is Promising

Oh, so working with numbers is too juvenile for you? WebAssign also has a feature to write symbolically. Below is an example from the student POV:

Screen Shot 2016-06-27 at 5.05.57 PM


The interface is similar to most WYSIWYG equation editing software out there, plus obvious keyboard equivalents do what you want (for instance, I used the slash key to create the fraction above instead of the physPad button).

I’ve played with some answers that are mathematically identical but look different symbolically and the system was smart enough to recognize a correct answer in several forms. I’m eager to push the limits with physPad.

Direct Measurement Videos Included

Peter Bohacek’s Direct Measurement videos are the bomb and they’re a resource available to WebAssign users.

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This is a screen grab from a Direct Measurement video.

The Verdict?

WebAssign is robust. Combine the question-writing interface with the numerous supported textbook question banks, and I think I’ve got myself a pretty good  system for online testing and homework. WebAssign may replace Moodle for me this year.