UniServe Science News Volume 13 July 1999


WebAssign: Assessing Student Performance Any Time Any Where

John Risley
Department of Physics, North Carolina State University


Motivating students to learn and keep up with instructional material and assessing their performance is a constant concern for teachers. Doing this task asynchronously at a distance is an even more daunting task.

At North Carolina State University we are developing WebAssign - a web-based delivery, collection, grading, and recording system that has shown the potential of solving this problem for homework and quizzes1. WebAssign delivers content that can be graded automatically. WebAssign is an important, versatile instructional tool that can be deployed for any kind of learning, distance or local, any time any where.

  • WebAssign can be used on any computer connected to the Internet at any location and at any time. As such it is a powerful tool that can broaden access to education that is not limited by time or place.
  • WebAssign has agreements with major publishers in the US to include questions from their textbooks in our database.
  • WebAssign is used by 10,000 students throughout the United States (count taken during the spring semester, 1999).
  • WebAssign can be used to develop and assess distance learning programs by providing the teacher (and/or researcher) with instant access to student involvement and progress in the course material.
  • WebAssign fully supports HTML tools so that full multimedia presentations can be incorporated into the distance learning programs.
  • WebAssign's built-in assessment methodologies allow teachers to quickly identify and measure the skill competencies of their students.
  • WebAssign is aggressively pursuing opportunities to develop and implement courses in all disciplines.
  • What is WebAssign?

    WebAssign is a versatile, web-based homework service for educators who want to offer expanded learning opportunities to their students. WebAssign delivers, collects, grades, and records customized homework assignments over the Internet. Assignments can contain content as well as questions. The questions can contain different numerical values, so each student can be provided with a unique question to solve. This feature encourages independent thinking with the benefit of allowing collaboration on solution methods. WebAssign's unique homework delivery system will save teachers time spent grading and recording homework assignments, plus allow them to assign more homework, more often, and with more content.

    Teachers can write their own questions, and use questions that their colleagues have found successful. If teachers are using one of the textbooks supported by WebAssign, they can offer pertinent exercises and problems directly from the book.

    Access to WebAssign is secure. With the use of passwords, only the teacher and the student have access to the student's records. See Figure 1.

    Figure 1.

    Figure 1. The secure entry into WebAssign. For trial of WebAssign, use demo for username, institution and password.

    Where are the WebAssign servers?

    The WebAssign servers are located on the North Carolina State University campus. These servers with high-speed connections are available 24 hours a day 7 days a week (except for short maintenance periods). NCSU provides the technical support.

    If a university decides that it is more economical to host their own server, the WebAssign code can be transferred. A high level of computer experience and training in WindowsNT or Unix and databases is required for maintaining a WebAssign server.

    Who is Using WebAssign?

    A growing number of educators are currently using WebAssign. The latest tally showed that nearly 10,000 students at more than 100 educational institutions are using WebAssign, in physics, biology, physical sciences, mathematics, computer science and computer proficiency (count taken in 1999). The list of some of the universities using WebAssign includes:

  • Auburn University;
  • Catholic University of America;
  • Davidson College;
  • Duke University;
  • Eastern Nazarene College;
  • Gainesville College;
  • Georgia Institute of Technology;
  • Jacksonville University;
  • North Carolina A&T State University;
  • North Carolina State University;
  • North Georgia College & State University;
  • Old Dominion University;
  • Penn State;
  • Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute;
  • Rhodes College;
  • Rutgers University;
  • South Carolina State University;
  • Spring Arbor College University of Michigan-Dearborn; and
  • University of Tennessee.
  • Using WebAssign

    The main advantage of WebAssign is that teachers can offer homework or quizzes frequently with immediate feedback to students and no grading/recording chore for the teacher. This feature gives students more practice while eliminating the work of grading and recording homework. Student performance can be assessed regularly to keep abreast of individual progress for "Just-In-Time" teaching2. With WebAssign, teachers can add more weight to homework, and decrease dependence on tests. WebAssign reduces grading errors and automatically provides an answer key after the assignment due date.

    Teachers can make assignments using questions and problems from the class-adopted textbook. Homework is graded instantly and automatically. Password control protects access to student records. Questions can be modified, created anew, or used directly from the database. Grades can be downloaded into a spreadsheet so that they can be combined with other class grades.

    Students can access their grades immediately after completing an assignment (Figure 2). Students can work an assignment multiple times until they get the correct answer if the teacher sets up the assignment with this option. Students can have secure access to any or all of their test, homework, laboratory, or project grades.

    Figure 2.

    Figure 2. Students can access homework results immediately

    Teachers and students using WebAssign have access to a comprehensive User's Manual and Student Guide (both printed and on-line), email and telephone technical support.

    Partnerships with publishers

    While NCSU is directing the development of the WebAssign tool, publishers have the content. Publishers allow WebAssign to deliver their questions (Figure 3) if teachers have adopted the publisher's textbook. The following publishers have given us permission to use questions from their textbooks: Addison Wesley Longman ("Physics for Scientists and Engineers" by Wolfson and Pasachoff and "University Physics" by Young and Freedman); Brooks/Cole ("Physics: Algebra/Trig" by Hecht and "University Physics" by Reese); Duxbury ("Modern Engineering Statistics" by Lapin); Glencoe/McGraw-Hill ("Glencoe Physics: Principles & Problems" by Zitzewitz); John Wiley & Sons, Inc. ("Physics" by Cutnell and Johnson and "Fundamentals of Physics" by Halliday, Resnick, and Walker); Prentice-Hall ("Physics" by Giancoli and "Physics for Scientists and Engineers" by Fishbane, Gasiorowicz, and Thornton); Saunders College Publishing ("Physics for Scientists and Engineers" by Serway and Beichner, "College Physics" by Serway and Faughn, "Principles of Physics" by Serway, "Chemistry & Chemical Reactivity" by Kotz and Treichel); and W. H. Freeman ("Physics for Scientists and Engineers" by Tipler).

    Figure 3a. Figure 3b.

    Figure 3. Sample questions from standard textbooks in WebAssign

    More information on WebAssign

    Reports on some of the features of WebAssign have been published in Computers in Physics3 and in The Physics Teacher4. Two popular reports have been published about WebAssign, one in the Chronicle of Higher Education "Textbooks and Tests that Talk Back", by Lisa Guernsey on February 12, 1999 and the other on NBC Nightly News on February 19, 1999.


    Box 8202
    North Carolina State University
    Raleigh, NC 27695-8202 USA
    Tel. (800) 955-8275 or (919) 515-7447
    Fax: (919) 515-2682

    Web site

    To try out WebAssign and see what it is like to take an assignment, access the web site at http://webassign.net/info/ Use demo for the username, demo for the institution, and demo for the password. Faculty options are located at http://webassign.net/faculty/ Use demo for all three entries.


    1. WebAssign.net User's Manual, North Carolina State University, 1998-99.
    2. Noval, G. M., Patterson, E. T., Gavrin, A. D. and Christian, W. (1999) Just-In-Time Teaching, Upper Saddle River, NJ, Prentice Hall.
    3. Titus, A. P., Martin, L. W. and Beichner R. J. (1998) Web-Based Testing in Physics Education: Methods and Opportunities, Computers in Physics 12, Mar/Apr, 117-123.
    4. Bonham, S. W., Risley, J. S. and Christian, W. (1999) Using Physlets to Teach Electrostatics, The Physics Teacher 37, May, 276-280.

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    UniServe Science News Volume 13 July 1999

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