I am a teaching assistant auditor at my university and my duty is to assess the working conditions of the TAs in my department (Physics & Astronomy). To do this, I send out surveys towards the end of every semester asking about the working conditions and work load of the TAs. Based on their responses, I draft an audit report, outlining the challenges and potential solutions, and share it with the heads of the department. This semester, due to the decreasing number of TAs in our department, the workload on the remaining TAs has increased manyfold. Although I haven't sent out the surveys yet, I am confident that all the TAs will be complaining about the heavy workload that they have to carry. I was thinking to propose the following solution:

The classes that require homework assignment grading could switch to an online grading system like WebAssign. The positive side of this switch would be that TAs would not have to grade homework assignments. They could sit for some help sessions if the students need assistance. However, the downside is that the students can copy the answers from the internet or from their peers. Since WebAssign only cares about the final solution and not about the procedure, it will give full points to the student even if they copied the answers from elsewhere. Are there better alternative online grading systems that also give importance to the steps that the student took to arrive at the answers?

I think that if I could convince my department to switch to an alternative, online grading system (only for homework assignments), it would be better for the TAs. That way, the TAs can concentrate more on experimental lab sessions, grading the lab reports and homework help sessions. I would appreciate any helpful advice in this matter.

Disclaimer: I can only suggest possible solutions to the department heads. I am a graduate student myself. I have no authority to enforce anything in the department.

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    You have an abusive system. The TAs aren't just slaves to be misused as you like. They aren't there to be cheap employees, but to earn a degree. You are stealing from them. And, your solution, to lessen their burden, is to degrade the undergraduate program by rewarding cheating and lessening student feedback. I assume you have some authority. Use it. Change the system. TA hours should be regulated so that research progress is optimized. But it is unethical to do it at the expense of the quality of the undergraduate program. Don't put a band-aid on a cancer.
    – Buffy
    Commented Sep 9, 2023 at 16:50
  • Perhaps the regular faculty has to step up and cover more of what TAs are now doing. Horrors. My comments aren't directed at you, personally, but at the system, which is broken.
    – Buffy
    Commented Sep 9, 2023 at 16:52
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    Okay, first of all, I am not the department head. I am a graduate student and the TA auditor. I am very sympathetic to the working conditions of TAs (because I have been through that myself). I can only make suggestions but I don't have any veto on the decisions of the department. Please keep that in mind. I appreciate your comments and concerns though.
    – cr_007
    Commented Sep 11, 2023 at 12:28
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    Like I said, I'm not criticizing you, but the system is broken. If you can make that known, all the better, but don't jeopardize your own future over it. The responsibility lies elsewhere, perhaps even with government.
    – Buffy
    Commented Sep 11, 2023 at 12:32
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    You are putting a lot on yourself with the idea that you will not only provide an assessment as auditor, but also provide (fairly detailed) solution proposals. My honest suggestion is to not do that - it's not your job to devise ways how the department could be teaching more effectively, and attempts to do so can easily be perceived as stepping on somebody's toes.
    – xLeitix
    Commented Sep 11, 2023 at 12:54

4 Answers 4


I am surprised that you don't mention your department having an online course management system (CMS), e.g. Blackboard, Canvas, Moodle, etc., with the capability to add online quizzes. If your department does not use a CMS, there's no point in talking about efficiency until you implement a good CMS.

With that aside: so much of the answer to this question depends on the particulars, for example, are these TAs part of a large course with assessments standardized across the department? Say, 2 sections of 400 students each with 40 TAs each grading the same assignments? That would be relatively easy to implement as an online grading task, as only one person would have to enter the quizzes online. If, on the other hand, we are talking about small sections, which each one having its own assessments, etc., then the overhead of the online system will be greater than any possible benefit. Professors who teach the same class year after year can reduce the relative cost of the overhead by reusing courses, but if each TA has to develop their own material, and TAs change frequently, the benefit is lost. There's also little advantage of setting up and online grading system for a course that is taught infrequently, as textbooks, and advances in the field might have changed enough to make it necessary to develop a new set of online questions.

Regarding the issue of online cheating, that train left the station a long time ago. The minute the questions go online, they will show up in Chegg and similar cheating websites, Chegg will post the answers and within an hour all of your students will be just copy/pasting answers. That's assuming that you develop your own questions. If you use questions from test banks provided by textbook publishers, the time for cheating to start gets reduced to zero minutes, as all answers to all textbook questions are all online, right now.

What that means is that even though the Internet has brought new efficiencies (e.g. you can give quizzes and grade them online), it also made those assessments useless. Today, the only thing that online quizzes are good for is a way to trick students to read some particular information. For example, a list of definitions you want students to get familiar with before lecture. You can make a 1-pt quiz that asks for the definitions, with the quiz due just before class starts. The hope is that as students copy/paste the answers, they accidentally read the definitions and perhaps learn something.

If the department really cares about learning, the only solution is to hire more TAs, so that true and efffective assessment methods can be developed and implemented.

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    "it also made those assessments useless" Yet students continue to not ace them ... Commented Sep 9, 2023 at 19:21
  • I appreciate your comments. While the department uses BlackBoard for certain courses, I don't believe (not sure though) it is used for quizzing/testing. I will look into this matter further. The easiest and best solution would be to hire more TAs. However, it is not up to me as I can only make suggestions about how to improve the conditions. I have no say in the admission process in the department.
    – cr_007
    Commented Sep 11, 2023 at 12:36

I would not advise micromanaging your TAs or instructors by requiring them to use some particular platform for "efficiency".

It sounds like you need to hire more TAs.

(edit: I understand you may not have direct decision-making authority here, "you" is meant to refer broadly to include whoever does, not necessarily you personally)

  • Yes, that was my initial solution. But many students switch to RA (research assistants) as their projects get funding. So, I cannot impose that condition too.
    – cr_007
    Commented Sep 9, 2023 at 16:07
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    @cr_007 Then maybe you need to accept more students, or need to hire separate teaching staff.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Sep 9, 2023 at 16:18
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    Other problems aside, I'm not sure that selecting a quiz delivery platform department wide is really that micromanage-y. It seems like a fairly normal thing for a TA coordinator to do, instead of allowing each TA to come up with their own system. Commented Sep 9, 2023 at 19:23
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    It's one thing, but I still don't think it's outrageous for someone in the OP's position to decide on considering the needs of the whole department. Commented Sep 9, 2023 at 20:07
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    @cr_007 I think it's perfectly reasonable for you to bluntly suggest that more TAs are needed, on account of your audit finding TAs are overworked. It's not necessarily your job to fix this problem, but rather to communicate it.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Sep 11, 2023 at 12:59

It seems that your question is actually mostly about decreasing the marking workload by using online, automatically marked, quizzes. As such, I will focus on that aspect of your question.

You list some downside, namely that only the final answer gets marked and not the procedure, and that such a format makes it much easier to cheat or copy your answers from external sources.

I've replaced some marked components with an automatically-marked online quiz last year, and I have to say I'm actually pretty pleased with how it turned out. The main thing to keep in mind is that online quizzes can not replace every other type of exam. They are better at testing some things than some others.

That being said, there are things which you can do to both make your online quizzes better as well as make it more difficult to cheat (I personally use "Blackboard tests", but I'm sure other platforms must have similar options):

  • Ask your questions with images. That way, it is much more difficult to look it up on Google

    Example: "What is the y value for x=3 in the graph below?"

  • Use auto-generated and auto-evaluated formulas. I believe Blackboard has the option where you can provide only the general format of the question and formula to mark the answer.

    Example: "Calculate f(x) for x=4 where f(x) = ax^2 + bx + c", but the values of a, b, c are randomly generated for each student

  • Use (well-formatted) mathematical formulas in your questions. Those are also not very easy to look up on Google.

  • Use inventive types of questions. Your bog-standard MCQs (Multiple-Choice Questions) are usually very boring anyway.

    Example: Blackboard supports "hotspot" questions. If the correct answer is to click on one of the 15 orange blobs in the upper-right corner of the image, it's much easier to share and communicate the answer

Again, these types of quizzes will have their place -- they're probably much better suited to test introductory/first-year material than complex topics taught later on. Or, when used in more complex modules, they're likely better suited for a early semester "warm-up" examination, than to properly test all the complex concepts taught through the module. But, in my experience, using these correctly can and does improve the marking load substantially.


This tentative answer provides added information based on comments in other answers. It appears that the OP's institute uses Blackboard for an LMS, and they're not aware of some of the testing capabilities.

Blackboard tests have an available question type called "Calculated Formula" (actually it's first in the drop-down list of types) in which the creator makes the structure of a question, and behind-the-scenes the specific numbers shown are randomized, and the correct answer computed by a formula for each student. Having been set up, a certain set of value combinations are generated in advance so the instructor can inspect and accept only ones that look good enough (i.e., you can reject degenerate or too-easy combinations of values). I usually make a bank of 20 such combinations, but you can make as many as you like. The responses are automatically graded by the system, of course.

Creating a Calculated Formula Question on Blackboard

This is far from a silver bullet. But for the narrow concern of "copy the homework answer from another student or Chegg [et. al.]", having a large number of formulaic question combinations means almost no two students will have duplicates. Students can still get someone else to do their work, or likely use technology like Wolfram Alpha or other homework AI to get answers. But I've found it to be a useful little tool in the toolbox.

Blackboard Help Center: Calculated Formula Questions

  • All CMSs I know have the ability to do formula-type questions, but these mostly work for things like basic algebra courses. There are some strategies to stop students from sharing the exam questions on Chegg and sites like that, e.g. fingerprinting the question (every student gets the same question, but with slight modifications so that each question is unique, even thought the answers are the same-- you can then quickly ID The student who posted it). But all of these carry overhead, which takes, ahem, TAs to manage.
    – Cheery
    Commented Sep 11, 2023 at 15:00
  • @Cheery: IME as a math instructor, an algebra course is the very last place I could use calculated formula questions, b/c they can't handle answers that often have algebraic symbols, fractions, radicals, etc. in non-decimal approximation form. They're much more useful in other science courses, and I've used them successfully in CS courses. Commented Sep 11, 2023 at 21:36

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