How students use WeBWorK
Students log onto WeBWorK using a login name and password which has been assigned to them. Since WeBWorK documents are web pages, they can use any terminal or computer which has access to the internet and can run one of the freely available internet web browsers such as Firefox, Internet Explorer or even Lynx.
For the benefit of students who want to do extra practice problems (and for anybody else curious about WeBWorK but not registered in any mathematics class) Many courses allow guest login via the "Guest Login" button on the login page.
Because mathematical symbols are not yet displayed perfectly on HTML pages, and because it is probably better to work most mathematics problems away from the computer screen, each WeBWorK assignment can be downloaded as a PDF file and printed out. Students frequently use this typeset printout to solve their homework problems and then return to the computer to have their answers checked. On the University of Rochester campus students have constant web access from public computer labs and with "ResNet" many have web access from their dorm rooms as well.
On the computer screen the problems, with spaces for the answers, are displayed in close-to-typeset format as a web fill-in form. Since WeBWorK uses standard HTML syntax it is possible to display graphs using standard PNG formats. Even typeset mathematics can be displayed on the screen using PNGs.
Upon receiving the student's answer (or answers) the computer checks it against the answer provided by the professor and tells the student whether the answer(s) are correct or not. The correct answer is not given, but the student can try as many times as he or she wishes to supply the correct answer. While all of the student's attempts are recorded, currently only obtaining the correct answer counts towards a student's homework score and the number of attempts is not used in this calculation.
A professor might choose to ask many matching or multiple choice type questions, but since WeBWorK does not indicate which matches or selections are wrong, it would be very time consuming, and perhaps impossible, to obtain the correct answer to such questions merely by guessing.
The WeBWorK system is quite flexible. For example, if a problem has several parts the professor has the choice of informing students whether answers for the separate parts are correct or not. Typically, if a problem involves parts with numerical answers, the professor will have WeBWorK inform the student which parts he or she have done correctly but would not do this for a multiple choice question or a question with multiple True/False parts. Similarly, the professor has flexibility in how he or she grades an assignment.
An important aspect of WeBWorK is that every problem has a "Feedback" button which sends an e-mail message directly to the instructor. Students use this to communicate with the instructor in many ways; from reporting spelling errors on the homework pages, to asking for help when they think they have the right answer, but WeBWorK won't accept it (sometimes the instructor has programmed in the wrong answer for some versions of the problem), to setting up a meeting time with the instructor or TA to get additional help because now they realize that they didn't understand a concept which they thought they had understood.
In general, WeBWorK promotes "mastery" of the material, since the students cannot mislead themselves into thinking they understand a problem until the computer accepts their answer. Without WeBWorK most students will make a calculation, get an answer, and forget about the problem until, under the best circumstances, their homework is graded and returned a week later. To paraphrase the words of Tom Lehrer, with WeBWorK "it is important to understand what you are doing AND to get the right answer."
Because of the "FeedBack" button, and at the price of spending an hour at 11PM the evening the problems are due, an instructor, working from home, can answer a good many simple questions which, unanswered, would have prevented the students from completing their homework. In this way WeBWorK and web technology allows one to reach students at "teachable" moments, with only moderate inconvenience to the instructor. After the due date, students can review the homework, including the answers expected by the instructor.