I'm teaching a programming course with ~20 students, guiding them through coding assignments and helping them understand what they are doing, and why it works or doesn't. Tasks expected of them range from trivial to medium-complexity in the range of a 40-hours curriculum.

Now, toward the end of the course, they know enough to solve moderate programming problems. In order to get them to work on a few things more "exciting" than what we offer them, I am considering asking them to join an online coding (or problem-solving-through-coding) competition, such as Project Euler. I wouldn't expect them to be able to solve all problems, of course, but I could select a list of problems for them to pick from. For example:

For this session, you are expected to solve between 5 and 10 problems from the following selection of Project Euler numbers: 1-10, 13, 15, 20-24, 26-29, 33, 35-38.

Sure, I could just copy these problems and make them "assignments" for them, but I think it could bring some fun for them to see it as part of a competition. Also, why I don't understand why, it seems that to their generation, doing anything online is vastly more exciting than doing the same thing otherwise. Finally, I have some hope that a few students might actually get into it, and continue doing it for fun after the course.

Now, comes the question: what downsides do you see to requiring them to participate in one of these online challenges? (I'm most interested in the specific case I detail above, but generic advice/answers for other types of online participation might be interesting too!)

  • Possibly related: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/5076/… in that the question mentions using challenges in teaching, but then asks about research
    – StrongBad
    Commented Jan 31, 2013 at 10:11
  • You really want to answer my question about why "students would want to cheat themselves on Proj. Euler", don't you? :-) Commented Jan 31, 2013 at 16:25
  • 2
    @WillieWong In fact, I wouldn't consider “looking for hints online” cheating. After all, it's pretty easy to recognize when I will interrogate them: “cool, you thought about using <unusual number theory theorem you have no reason to know>… I’m wondering how you would apply it if the question was changed thusly…” (watch student become livid)
    – F'x
    Commented Jan 31, 2013 at 16:32
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    One issue I'd see that should not be considered on its own (thus not warranting an answer), but that is at most alluded to in the answers is that you would require your students to sign up with an external service. Asking students to use online services provided by (and thus within both the responsibility and range of influence of) the university is one (reasonable) thing, but asking students to sign up with and use a third-party service is a very different story. I for one would have considered it a serious issue if any professor had forced me to use a service by some external entity ... Commented Jun 3, 2014 at 17:09
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    ... and divulge any of my data (starting with connection details such as my access/working times and my IP address, but most probably not limited to that, as I'll not just access the service but actually have to upload solutions to questions, thus illustrating my problem solving techniques and the like) to that external, essentially uncontrollable (by the respective professor) service. Commented Jun 3, 2014 at 17:11

4 Answers 4


This sounds like a great idea to me overall, but I can see a few potential issues:

  1. It's possible that one or more of your students might already be a participant, which could raise issues of fairness. (Other students may complain that he/she got a head start.)

  2. Similarly, the fact that these problems are widely distributed on the web may make it easier to find solutions online. I haven't looked at the Project Euler solutions online and don't know if they are any good, but it's not hard to find purported solutions. This could also be a pain for you: if you make it easy to cheat, then you're more likely to have to figure out how to deal with cheaters.

  • 4
    I don't see that #1 is an actual problem; one can raise the same issue about any assignment. Some students had good high school calculus teachers; others didn't. Some students have read Martin Gardner; others haven't. Some students read StackExchange; others don't. Some students have been on job interviews; others haven't. It's a fact of life that some students do have a head start.
    – JeffE
    Commented Jan 31, 2013 at 16:55
  • @JeffE: Sure, life is never fair, but it's awkward if one student has already completed an assignment before the other students were even notified of it. That could happen here if one of the students was already participating in Project Euler. I wouldn't cancel the whole thing because of that, but it's worth keeping in mind that students may be upset over it. Commented Jan 31, 2013 at 17:48

One potential problem, if you're within the US, is running afoul of your University's interpretation of FERPA. My university forbids me from requiring students to participate in an publicly-accessible forum using their real name or university email address, because the fact that someone is a registered student is considered a protected educational record.

  • 1
    Thanks for the advice… my country hasn't yet reached the standards of US craziness, but we might get there one day (certain people are certainly trying hard!). I think I would never have asked said students to use their real names and email address… but then, you may have already perceived hints that I like pseudonyms :)
    – F'x
    Commented Jan 31, 2013 at 17:16

Project Euler is pretty reliable but (as well as the other answers) I can see two risks:

  1. The website (with the challenges on it) may become unavailable.
  2. The owner of the page can edit the content as often and as much as they like, so there is no guarantee the challenges set when you viewed them are the same as your students will see.

I'm doing my entire Bachelor course by distance (online) from an interstate university in Australia, when I live in antother state. To check that we've done all the related online module readings, etc, for most subjects we have 10-20 marks of the total marks for the subject set out for forum participation. You could allocate a small percentage of marks for this which would hopefully give your students the incentive to do this online task.

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