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These days there is so much material on the web that it is difficult to set good exercises/assignments for students, because they often find the questions on the web simply by googling (or else ask at a site such as http://cs.stackexchange.com).

How do people deal with this problem? How do you generate unique assignment questions?

For the record, the area I teach is computer science.

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for a small class: ask them to explain the answers in person. –  Artem Kaznatcheev May 25 '12 at 18:19
    
Indeed, oral exams and oral defenses are very common here. –  Dave Clarke May 25 '12 at 18:23
    
If the answer can be quickly googled up, then the question hardly tests anything (and the knowledge is hardly gives an advantage). And, very likely, is boring and not up-to-date. –  Piotr Migdal May 26 '12 at 22:32
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That's naive. There are perfectly good, challenging questions that people have written full answers for and put them on the web. I'm thinking mathematical proofs. Without the web, doing the proof would be a challenge. –  Dave Clarke May 27 '12 at 0:05
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@Snowball although speaking out can be stressful for many, it is an extremely important skill in both industry and academia, and so it is important to hone it while you are a student. –  Artem Kaznatcheev Sep 3 '12 at 15:18
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5 Answers

I do agree that asking creative questions in assignments and exam papers is quite a challenge. (Doffing my hat off to all profs who do that regularly.) Some of my thoughts:

  • Different wording: The web may be a huge repository, but that should not be a limiting factor when it comes to questions. For example, consider the topic of probability. The basic stuff a student requires to know is limited enough to be taught in detail in the classroom, but the applications are innumerable and so are the questions that could be asked in probability.
  • Grouping questions: Often the sort of questions that I find are the most difficult (and the most useful) are the ones where there is a single question with a number of interconnected sections, each of which draw from a different concept taught in class. Such questions require genuine understanding, and solution manuals and SE sites may not be of real help.
  • Research-based: I would also appreciate questions where the faculty has included a small fragment of their own research (proving a small lemma, for example). This also gives the students a peek into the research of the professor's lab.
  • Using WWW constructively: Yes, the web can play a dampener to assignment marks, but ultimately if the student uses it constructively to learn stuff, why should one discourage it? One solution could be to give google-able assignment questions, conduct a mini-test in class on those questions and mark the students based on the performance in this test. This is a better solution than home assignments where submission without learning is a possibility.
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Thanks Bravo. These are excellent suggestions. I particularly like the last one. ('Get with the times, Professor', it says.) –  Dave Clarke May 26 '12 at 7:40
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This is certainly an important question. Here are some of my own thoughts on it:

Having the regular homework consist of questions that the students do, in principle, have access to on the web is not necessarily problematic.

For example, I recently finished teaching a year-long course out of Michael Spivak's acclaimed Calculus text. At the beginning of the year I found that I was able to freely download the solutions manual. I told the students that the solutions manual was available online and that it was their job to look at it from sparingly to never. In fact they did a good job of this: the amount of time that they spent coming to me instead, sometimes more than once per problem, and the amount of effort and verbiage that most of them put into their homework strongly suggests that they hardly ever consulted the answer book. (I remember one instance in which a student freely admitted that she had cited the answer book for a single problem, which I found most impressive.) It also helps that the answer book is on the terse side and the grader was very picky and detail-oriented. Finally, the grades they were receiving on their homework were not such a large determining factor in their course grade so as to tempt students to cheat. This I think is an important point in undergraduate classes: make the homework be worth a not completely negligible percentage of the course grade -- say, 15% - 20% -- but grade it generously enough and/or drop enough problem sets so that the students can see that (i) they need to spend significant time and effort on the homework and (ii) the homework that they themselves can do and turn in is earning them good enough grades.

It takes some skill to successfully use the web to answer your questions. The average young university student does not find the web the miraculous, Borges-ian answer book that those of us who have spent years studying our subject and honing our google-fu do.

If you hang out at a subject-oriented SE site like math.SE, you will be surprised how many students ask questions for which your tempted first answer is to include a link to a wikipedia article. But these questioners often clarify that they don't understand the wikipedia article / weren't looking at the right part of it / didn't understand why it answered their questions (in cases where it is immediately clear to the trained eye that it does). It's easy to forget how fragile your knowledge and understanding is when you first start out learning a discipline.

This has several implications for undergraduate teaching. (One of them, relatively little explored, is that we should probably be teaching our students how to search for information on the web. This is certainly an important skill...) One implication is that two questions which the instructor will regard as "isomorphic" (for the non math people: essentially the same, but perhaps superficially different) will not necessarily be regarded so by the students. For instance, when teaching (non-honors) freshman calculus class one can use webwork/webassign to give students various problems. Often these problems are generated from a much smaller class of template problems with some parameters randomized for each individual student. This is already enough difference to prevent students from easily doing each other's homework. But if you take things one level higher, then you'll see that most of what we ask students to do in freshman / sophomore level classes is to be able to solve a type of problem given a certain template. As a calculus instructor, I no longer have to think of "new" min-max or related rates problems: the internet has plenty of them. A student who combs the internet trying to get hints on which min-max problem is going to be on the test is quickly going to find out that if she can solve all five sample problems appearing on any one webpage or problem set then she can solve most of the problems that are likely to appear on the exam.

The best way to generate unique questions and coursework is to take a unique approach to the course.

When I teach courses at the advanced undergraduate level and beyond, I often type up my own lecture notes, which leads me to present at least some of the material in a different / new / nonstandard way. Having done that, it is easy to ask questions which are nonstandard. And any given undergraduate course (at least in mathematics, but I'd be surprised if other subjects were much different in this regard) can be taught in many different new / nonstandard ways.

With regard to what I said above, whenever I do something in my course or course notes which I think is "new", I then go the internet to see to what extent it is actually new. More than half of the time I can find something which I recognize as being an essentially equivalent idea or approach...but again, what seems "isomorphic" to me probably will not seem that way to a student first learning the material. A lot of times I find the past precedent in some article or note published up to fifty years ago. I am pretty sure the students are not reading such things at all: if they were motivated to try to do so in order to get a jump on assignments, that would be fantastic!

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Yeah, I think it's helpful to remember that what we see as isomorphic is often not seen that way by our students. +1 for google-fu. –  Dan C Jul 5 '12 at 15:38
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Here's what I do (or at least try to do) in my algorithms classes:

  • Make homework useful. The whole point of homework is to help the students master the course material. Students learn by doing, not by passively reading or listening. So I try to choose homework problems that exercise the insights and skills that I want the students to master. (Among other things, this means keeping busywork to a minimum.) If a student "writes" their homework solutions using Google and a stapler, they've robbed themselves of an opportunity to learn; all else being equal, that student will do worse on the exams.

  • Give homework relatively little weight in the final course grade, usually 30%, with the other 70% from exams. I'd make the homework worth 0% if I thought the students would still do it. See the previous point.

  • Tell the students that homework is useful. Many students think of homework primarily as a vehicle for points, not as a tool for learning. This is not entirely unreasonable—in some classes, homework is primarily a vehicle for points. Better warn them early!

  • Include new questions in each homework assignment and exam. Because I want to sleep occasionally, I regularly recycle homework problems from previous semesters, but if I recycle too much or too quickly, students don't learn the material as well. (Whether they should learn the material as well is immaterial.) Coming up with new useful problems is really hard, even if "new" just means "I haven't used it before". I scour through a lot of textbooks and papers and web pages; if you teach algorithms, I have mined your web page for homework problems. Still, I don't always succeed. (On the other hand, failure sometimes suggests interesting research problems.)

READ ALL THE THINGS

  • Insist on ethical scholarship: proper citation of all sources, and no verbatim copying of anything. Within those minimal constraints, students can use whatever source they want, and can collaborate with whoever they want, with no penalty. In particular, students are welcome to use my official solutions from past semesters, if they can find them, as long as they cite them and don't just parrot them back to me. Breaking this rule has harsher consequences than not doing the homework at all.

  • Homework presentations. I used to ask students to present their homework solutions three times a semester, instead of submitting a writeup. Here's the whiteboard, you have ten minutes per problem. A single question like "But what about the empty string?" or "Why did you split the cases that way?" usually reveals students who didn't work out the solutions themselves. Sadly, growing classes and shrinking TA budgets make this impossible now.

  • Remind the students that the course staff also uses Google. (Remember, we're already scouring the web for new homework problems!) And we have all the old textbooks, and their solution manuals. And we read StackExchange. And we have all the official homework solutions from past semesters, because, you know, we wrote them. (I really wish I didn't have to say that last bit, but more than one student has submitted my own homework solutions, typos and all.)
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I don't think this is too much of a problem in courses where students have to build and demonstrate something.

  • I teach first year, second semester programming. We set three weird courseworks that aggregate together to make a nethack like game. No one will have precisely this game on the web. Of course they can take advantage of code libraries from the web (in fact, I have a lecture teaching them to do just that when we get to GUIs). But that's a lot of what they'll be doing in the "real world" as well, so that's fine as long as it's acknowledged.

  • I also teach a final year AI / Cognitive Systems course. Here it's even easier to set weird questions that aren't available on the web, e.g. replicating recent results or using new versions of research software (though either of these can be hazardous and therefore time consuming. Good TAs that test assignments in advance are a necessity!)

  • Material that they can just look up but you want them to know by heart for some reason doesn't belong on assignments, it belongs in exams.

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Regarding point 3: Students have been able to find the proofs of various questions asked of them on the web. It's not a matter of knowing it by heart or not. –  Dave Clarke May 26 '12 at 19:49
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(My answer applies to fields of study that have been around for some time. So it doesn't apply to, say, computer programming classes that use a recently created computer language.)

Go to a library and look at an old textbook with problems and solutions; the older, the better. (Anything before 1980 should do.) Chances are the contents of these references will not be on the internet (unless they have been recently revised). The problem with this is that, to imply that you were not the one who created the problem, you might need to cite where you got it.

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Does one need to cite the source of one's exercises and assignments? –  Dave Clarke May 27 '12 at 10:25
    
Actually, that's a good question to ask separately. In my opinion, if the problem is pretty general and straightforward then I don't feel the need to cite the source. But creating good questions is an art, and if the question is pretty specific and elegant, I believe the one who made the question should be given credit. (I'm thinking along the lines of the problems posed in periodicals such as the American Mathematical Monthly, where posting without citation a problem that has appeared elsewhere is considered bad form.) –  Joel Reyes Noche May 27 '12 at 12:33
    
I posted my answer before I read the final two sentences of Pete L. Clark's answer, where he essentially makes the same point. –  Joel Reyes Noche May 27 '12 at 12:36
    
But there is a huge difference between publishing a problem in a periodical and giving the problem to students. But you are right, this is not the right place to discuss this question. –  Dave Clarke May 27 '12 at 15:21
    
@Dave Clarke, I hope you don't mind. I've asked your question here: academia.stackexchange.com/q/1744/64 –  Joel Reyes Noche May 27 '12 at 15:44
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