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Do these problems please!

Geoff Swan
Physics Program
Edith Cowan University
Students expecting to master physics need to allocate significant out of class time for study. In particular, they need to attempt a wide range of exercises and problems, and seek help for difficulties not resolved. In semester 2, 2001, SCP1112 Waves and Electricity students at ECU have been given the option of attempting regular online quizzes that assess their progress and provide feedback.

These quizzes have been developed using WebCT and have incorporated both original questions and edited questions from an online test bank supplement to the textbook. In this paper, the online quizzing environment is explored and the impact of various quizzing options discussed. Students found the online quizzes easy to access, relevant, and helpful in learning physics.


Publishers of university textbooks are starting to offer online (Harcourt College Publishers Web Site, 2001; Wiley Higher Education Web Site, 2001) resources to lecturers and students who adopt their textbooks. Physics is at the forefront of this new trend with the latest edition of the two most popular first year physics textbooks in Australia (Halliday, Resnick & Walker, 2001; Serway & Beichner, 2000) both offering integrated online resources that were not previously available (Halliday, Resnick & Walker, 1997; Serway, 1996). Publishers are increasingly committing large amounts of money to produce quality online resources on publisher owned web sites that universities cannot afford to produce independently, but can adopt at a fraction of the cost.

In order to do well in physics at university level, students need to gain a good grasp of the fundamental concepts and knowledge of the relationships between physical quantities. As part of the learning process, students need to attempt a variety of problems that target their understanding of the concepts and test their ability to apply this knowledge. In my experience at ECU (and for a variety of reasons), few first year physics students seriously attempt sufficient problems out of class time.

A new WebCT online quizzing supplement to the textbook (Serway & Beichner, 2000) was therefore adapted for use with SCP1112 Waves and Electricity students at ECU in semester 2, 2001. An online quizzing environment had the potential to radically increase the amount of problems students seriously attempt out of class time for a number of reasons. Online quizzes are flexible in how they are set by the lecturer and taken by the students. Lecturers can set quiz options to suit the content and the needs of the students, while students can attempt the quiz on any computer connected to the internet. Students can also be provided with immediate and timely feedback upon submission of a quiz. For the lecturer, online quizzes might also provide substantial time and cost savings in marking and monitoring students' progress. The monitoring aspect is useful for large classes, and also acts as an incentive for students to attempt even non-assessed quizzes. This project did however aim to produce an online quizzing environment that facilitated learning and provided an assessment option.

The publisher arranged access to the online test bank supplement on a WebCT server on the east coast of the United States of America. The author did not have access to WebCT at ECU, as both the faculty and university moved to Blackboard in 2001 for which online supplements were not available. In addition, the author was unable to get access to create Blackboard quizzes during the semester, hence the publisher provided server was used by ECU students for all quizzes. Version 2.1 of WebCT was used for the first half of the semester before an upgrade to version 3.1.

Creating and integrating online quizzes

In semester 2, 2001, the Waves and Electricity unit had 2 lectures and 1 laboratory session per week for 12 weeks with a mid-semester break between weeks 7 and 8 and a swotvac week after week 12. Students were assessed on the basis of their laboratory performance over the semester, a mid-semester test in week 8, and an exam at the end of the semester. Online quizzes were given to students to supplement selected problems from the textbook (Serway & Beichner, 2000) and student solution manual and study guide (Gordon, McGrew & Serway, 2000).

Although students were not obliged to complete the online quizzes they were strongly encouraged to do so. Firstly, it was articulated that the selected problems and online quizzes would be most relevant to the sorts of problems likely to be encountered in the exam. Secondly, they were informed that the total mark gained over the semester in online quizzes could become a component of the formal assessment for the unit if it was to their advantage. This was a bit of a con as students successfully completing all the quizzes were unlikely not to do well in the test and exam.

The unit class list was loaded onto the WebCT server so that students could access the quizzes using their student number as a password. In week 2, students received a one page handout on how to log on to the WebCT server and access the quizzes. This was also demonstrated using the lecture theatre computer. Only a handful of students experienced any problems and these were quickly and easily resolved.

Table 1: Summary of quizzes

No. of
Type of
1Waves 1 21002Best
2Waves 2 31002Average
3Electricity 1 51002Average
4Electricity 2 71001
5Light 101002Average
6Magnetism 11502Average

Table 1 gives summary information on each of the six quizzes offered. Each quiz was accessible immediately after the relevant material had been covered in lectures and normally available for a period of about 6 days. Students were allowed two attempts of up to ninety minutes each with each attempt at least 30 minutes apart. After the first attempt, they could immediately access detailed feedback on their performance including substantial hints on how to successfully answer individual questions. Students could then apply the feedback received to score better on their second attempt. Although the best mark was used for the first quiz as an incentive for students to access the quiz site, the average mark was normally taken to encourage a serious first attempt. Quiz number 4 was different to the other quizzes in that two weeks were given for just one attempt. This quiz fell during the mid-semester break and just before the mid-semester test in week 8. To allow for revision, quiz number 6 was half the length of the other 5 quizzes. Students who chose not to attempt a particular quiz during the accessible period subsequently had neither the quiz nor associated feedback to use in their revision programs.

Creating questions

The online quizzes were not just intended to provide students with problem solving practice, but also to provide detailed feedback that would enhance their knowledge and problem solving skills. Unfortunately, the publisher provided test bank of over 1000 questions does not take full advantage of the WebCT quizzing environment. The questions are almost exclusively multiple choice type questions with no feedback (other than the correct answer). WebCT not only allows for detailed feedback on individual questions, but also allows for other potentially useful question types including "calculated" and "paragraph" type questions.

Similar but different individual tests can be created fairly easily in WebCT thus allowing for a more authentic assessment for individual students. This was facilitated in part through the use of alternate questions, but mainly through the use of "calculated" question types where individual students get exactly the same question but with different numbers (within set limits). Students cannot therefore guess an answer or copy from another student's test. This question type was most suitable for exercise type problems. Most of the questions given to the students were "calculated" type questions and all questions in the quizzes were edited to include detailed feedback.

Participation and student feedback

Three quarters of the students attempted at least one quiz, with most of these students doing at least three of the first five quizzes. One of the questions in the fourth quiz (worth zero marks!) was a "paragraph" type question that invited comment on the quizzes. A few students took the opportunity to write comments like:
Helped me study throughout the semester - not just before tests
By making the online quiz an optional assessment item it personally forces me to study the corresponding chapters before attempting the quiz.
These sorts of comments indicate that online quizzes can motivate students to seriously attempt problems throughout the semester.

Students were also asked to complete an anonymous survey in the last teaching week. A preliminary analysis shows that students found the quizzes easy to access, relevant and helpful. For example, 83% of respondents agreed that "overall, the quizzes helped me learn physics". Students were divided on whether a series of online quizzes should replace the mid-semester test in the unit's formal assessment.

One interesting result was that over three quarters of students normally completed the online quizzes using a home computer. This was surprising given that the lecturer encouraged students to use the computer laboratories at ECU due to his belief that a modem connection from home might not be as reliable for the duration of the quiz. There were however only a handful of complaints during the semester from students losing their connection to the WebCT server during the quiz.


Online quizzes have provided an environment in which students can both get problem solving practice as well as immediate feedback. They have also provided an efficient way of assessing and monitoring the progress of students who believe that these online quizzes have helped them learn physics. Online quizzes will be further developed and integrated into the first year physics program at ECU.


The author would like to acknowledge time release obtained through a $3000 University Teaching and Learning Grant for this project.


Gordon, J. R., McGrew, R., & Serway, R. A. (2000). Student Solutions Manual & Study Guide to accompany Volume 1 Physics for Scientists and Engineers Fifth Edition. Orlando: Harcourt College Publishing. ISBN 0-03-020972-2

Gordon, J. R., McGrew, R., & Serway, R. A. (2000). Student Solutions Manual & Study Guide to accompany Volume 2 Physics for Scientists and Engineers Fifth Edition. Orlando: Harcourt College Publishing. ISBN 0-03-020973-2

Halliday, D., Resnick, R., & Walker, J. (2001). Fundamentals of Physics extended. (6th ed.). New York: John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 0-471-39222-7

Halliday, D., Resnick, R., & Walker, J. (1997). Fundamentals of Physics extended. (5th ed.). New York: John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 0-471-10559-7

Harcourt College Publishers Web Site. (accessed 2001). Thomson Learning. http://www.harcourtcollege.com/

Serway, R. A., & Beichner, R. J. (2000). Physics for Scientists and Engineers with Modern Physics. (5th ed.). Orlando: Saunders College Publishing. ISBN 0-03-022657-0

Serway, R. A. (1996). Physics for Scientists and Engineers with Modern Physics. (4th ed.). Orlando: Saunders College Publishing. ISBN 0-03-015654-8

Wiley Higher Education Web Site. John Wiley & Sons. http://jws-edcv.wiley.com/college/

Author: Geoff Swan, Lecturer, Physics Program, Edith Cowan University. Email: g.swan@ecu.edu.au

Please cite as: Swan, G. (2002). Do these problems please! In Focusing on the Student. Proceedings of the 11th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 5-6 February 2002. Perth: Edith Cowan University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2002/swan.html

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