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Kids hate doing homework. Parents hate nagging about it. Teachers hate grading it. There are even ongoing debates among educators about whether all the assignments help students learn much.  Here’s one way that homework might be more effective: crowdsourcing help from teachers.

Neil Heffernan, a professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, came up with the idea in 2016 after a Maine middle school math teacher, Chris LeSiege, uploaded hundreds of hints he had written for solving textbook problems to Heffernan’s free online homework help website, ASSISTments. When LeSiege’s 7th grade students felt stuck at home, they could click on a help button for each problem and get a tip or a reminder of something LeSiege had discussed in class. 

LeSiege believed his prewritten hints and explanations were helping his students and Heffernan wondered if all students might benefit from having a virtual tutor hover over their shoulders during homework time. Since not every teacher has the time or inclination to come up with hints for every homework problem, Heffernan was curious whether hints written by one teacher, with a particular way of explaining things and a unique style of instruction, might still help students who are taught differently by another teacher. 

Related: Three lessons from rigorous research on education technology

So Heffernan and a graduate student decided to create a system that could crowdsource teacher hints and then conducted an experiment to see if these hints were useful.

To test them, they set up a battle between hints and answers for each student. When  students clicked on a help button, they sometimes received a teacher’s hint, which could be a pop-up text explanation or a video of how to solve the problem. (See examples in the accompanying illustration.) But other times, the help button simply revealed the answer, like when you look up a problem in an answer key in the back of a textbook.

CLICK TO ENLARGE: The examples above show how a text explanation (left) and video explanation (right) appear to students who click on a help button. Source: “Effectiveness of Crowd-Sourcing On-Demand Assistance from Teachers in Online Learning Platforms,” August 2020 Learning at Scale.

In early trials in which 11,000 students completed more than 370,000 online homework problems, the teacher hints seemed to be more effective. Students who had access to teachers’ hints answered the next problem correctly on their own without any support 58 percent of the time. In comparison, students who did not have access to the hints got the next problem correct 54 percent of the time. The difference wasn’t a big one but it was statistically significant. 

“Teachers [can] stop wasting their time writing and rewriting explanations for the Pythagorean theorem,” said Heffernan. “Instead [they can] spend their time motivating and challenging their kids to not fall off the wagon during these COVID times.”

Computerized motivational messages from a random teacher, Heffernan suspects, wouldn’t be as effective. “You really need to hear your own teacher say, ‘Hey you’re not working very hard, Jill. I see that you haven’t done anything in three days’,” Heffernan explained to me. 

The peer-reviewed study, “Effectiveness of Crowd-Sourcing On-Demand Assistance from Teachers in Online Learning Platforms,” is slated to be published in August 2020 in the forthcoming proceedings of the Learning at Scale conference. 

A crowdsourced system like this would depend on different teachers wanting to assign the same homework problems to their students. It also relies on a cadre of experienced teachers who can make astute guesses as to what a typical struggling student might need to solve a problem. Individual students might need another hint entirely. Perhaps one is making a basic computational error. Another might be forgetting how many degrees are in a circle or doesn’t even understand why that fact might be important to solve a problem on calculating angles. Only a human tutor, sitting next to a student during homework time, would be able to figure out the proper hint that an individual student needs in a particular moment. 

To build the crowdsourced hint system, the researchers paid 13 teachers to write hints. “We selected teachers who both wanted to create feedback for their students and we trusted to create quality content based on our knowledge of their past work,” said Heffernan by email. 

Even some unpaid teachers became interested in writing homework help. Eight of them created more than 200 hints each for their own students. Altogether, nearly 150 teachers — out of 5,000 who were using the free homework site —  created more than 40,000 hints for more than 25,000 problems during the three years of this experiment, from 2017 to 2019. 

The faceoff between hints and answers was also interesting because there’s a lot of disagreement among experts on how best to give feedback to students. Some research has found that wordy explanations can be confusing and do more harm than good. Others have found that simply telling the student the right answer can be quite helpful. Crafting a clever hint that prods a student to think and work out an answer is an art. Too often teachers unintentionally give away answers in the hints. Teachers in this experiment found that it was simply easier and more straightforward to explain, step by step, how to solve a problem.

Related: Three lessons from data on the best ways to give feedback to students

The next step in this line of research is to see if this kind of teacher assistance is actually helping students to complete more math homework instead of feeling stuck, getting discouraged and giving up. If it proves effective, Heffernan says that the idea of teacher crowdsourcing could potentially be added to any instructional website, not just the ASSISTments site that he created. 

In the meantime, Heffernan is working fast to build a new homework system that can be used in real time during coronavirus remote instruction so that teachers can see exactly where students are in their independent, practice work. 

I’ve often written about how ed tech often hasn’t proved effective in rigorous research tests. It’s interesting to see an ed tech developer, whose work has previously succeeded in randomized controlled trials, still looking for new ways to allow teachers’ ideas rise to the top.

This story about homework help was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our Proof Points newsletter.

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Jill Barshay is a staff writer and editor who writes the weekly “Proof Points” column about education research and data. She taught algebra to ninth graders for the 2013-14 school year. In school,...

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