MOOC Assignments – Screwing Up

I can’t tell you how exciting it’s been to actually blow some questions in my most recent MOOC assignment.

I’ve talked before about how assessment and other scored exercises tend to get short shrift within many MOOCs.  In some cases, this manifests itself as test questions or homework assignments that are ambiguously worded or confusing.  But most of the time, it just leads to a grade being based on a few multiple-choice questions that are far too easy (either because incorrect answers are obviously wrong, or because the right answer is always the longest – typical mistakes made by untrained item writers).

Now for many MOOC courses, professors are trying to make it easy for students to stick with the class, which is why they don’t want to include exceptionally hard tests that could create a barrier to completion.  And I can appreciate the sentiment, even if it means people can pass a class (and even obtain distinction) without fully mastering the material.

But as much as I can understand where such decisions are coming from, it’s nice to be asked to put what you’ve learned to work every now and then.

The fact that my courses have skewed towards liberal arts meant that I’ve probably missed a number of truly challenging assignments in some of the computer science classes that continue to be among the most popular MOOCs.  And I don’t think it’s an accident that the courses that have presented the most difficult test questions have been in math and science subjects.

My Udacity statistics class, for example, included hundreds of assessment items sprinkled throughout the course, many of them open ended (requiring you to supply numbers that result from statistics-related calculations).  And Coursera’s Einstein class took things a bit further by publishing open-ended problem sets once a week which they asked students to complete before submitting answers into a final (multiple-choice) form.

Humanities classes don’t tend to have things as concrete as numbers (calculated or otherwise) to ask about, which is why you tend to see so many vocabulary or true/false questions on MOOC tests covering topics like literature or philosophy.  The creators of The Ancient Greek Hero probably did the best job I’ve seen so far of coming up with multiple-choice questions that were subtle enough to require more than recall to answer successfully (which may be why I never got a 100% on any of their weekly assignments).

Most recently it’s been another HarvardX Class, Science and Cooking, which provided me the chance to screw up.

Having studied chemistry as an undergraduate, some of the things the course covers (such as heat capacity and balancing chemical equations) should seem like old friends.  So it may be just a matter of time before the rust comes off those brain cells, allowing me to finish each week’s assignments with less effort.

But until then, I leave you with a paraphrased version of the question I got wrong (although my 14-year-old son got right) to see if you know the answer:

So take two equally sized pots made from the same material and fill one with 3 liters of water and the other with half that amount (1.5 liters) and bring both pots to the boil.  Now throw a cup of uncooked pasta into each pot (which will cause the water to stop boiling).

Which of the two pots requires more energy to return to boiling?

[Write me for the answer since the question is still live until early November.]

No comments yet, your thoughts are welcome »

Leave a Reply