At our uni, the first year maths students do the majority of their assignments online using MapleTA, and this week MapleTA was having problems. As always happens with technology glitches, it was an absolute schemozzle. It was bad enough for students that it was intermitently not working at all, but what made it worse was that even when it was working, the “preview” and “how did I do” functions were both failing. This meant that students could not use the computer to check if they were right, and a lot of them were extremely distressed by this.
And this has confirmed something that had been bothering me for a while: many students are not learning the skill of telling if they’re right for themselves. I had suspected this to be true, considering how many students in our survey on “cheat” sheets mentioned how useful it was to have a way of checking they were correct, and also considering how many students in the MLC ask us the question “can you check if this is right?”. It seems that a lot of students need an authority outside themselves to tell them they are right, whether it be the computer, the cheat sheet, or the MLC staff.
It’s strange, but I remember as a student spending hours trying my assignment questions in multiple ways, or reproving a result to make sure it was really true and I really could use it in my assignment, or simply subbing my answers back into the original equation to see if they worked. And in our puzzle gathering, One Hundred Factorial, we often ask ourselves how we can tell if we’re right and sort out ways to be sure. It’s clear that at some point I learned to be sure I was right on my own.
When will our current students learn these to do this? Because right now they seem to be relying on others to tell them they’re right. Yet at some point there won’t be a higher authority, and they’re just going to have to know if they’re right for themselves — most imminently, during the exam!
I’m not suggesting going back to the frustrating days of not being able to check if your syntax is correct, or not being able to submit the assignment multiple times. These things encourage students to at least try and retry the questions, rather than see it as all too hard, and this has very positive learning benefits. But what this means is that it falls to us, their teachers, to encourage the confidence and skills to know they are right for themselves. We can always show them how to check their work, rather than check it for them when they ask us. We can always help them check their work on paper even before they put it into the computer. And we can keep building their confidence so they will be more independent, and won’t feel as strong a desire for someone outside to tell them they’re right.