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Physics students initiate petition to end Expert TA

By Zainab Iqbal

Published: March 1st, 2017

What should students do when they oppose a software system that is required by their professors?

They start a petition.

At least, that is what Brooklyn College senior Mikhail Manasherov did.

For months, Manasherov heard of students complaining about Expert TA—an online homework system used by students in several physics courses. Two weeks ago, he decided to do something about it.

“It doesn’t make sense to pay $32 for something that doesn’t fit the needs of the students,” said Manasherov. “It takes a lot of time, and is less efficient.”

According to the petition, which currently has 18 signatures, Expert TA consists of various mathematical questions rather than questions that are conceptually based. Though students are given the option for multiple hints, feedbacks, and chances to get the answer correct, they still feel as if they aren’t learning anything.

“The problem doesn’t lie in the concepts,” said Manasherov. “It’s more like how can we navigate this website and give the right answer—the right answer meaning what the website is looking for.”

Each homework assignment has about 15 to 20 questions, but each question has multiple parts. The number of questions, attempts, and credit reductions for wrong answers is dependent on the instructor. The instructor has the option to deduct points when a student accesses hints, and feedbacks. Expert TA consists of two types of feedback: Direct and Socratic. Direct feedback let’s a student know exactly what they did wrong, while a Socratic feedback poses a question such as “Have you considered the following?” Though this may sound quite useful, students feel otherwise.

“The hints aren’t always helpful and the feedback isn’t always clear either,” said sophomore Melissa Beagle. “And they only give you a limited number of tries, which doesn’t really help.”

Expert TA was adopted into the curriculum in Spring 2016, after a free trial run the semester before, by Professor Karl Sandeman.

In 2015, Sandeman had received a call out of the blue from a sales executive at The Expert TA. Always out to find the latest educational aide for his students, he was intrigued.

“They explained how the software worked, what its advantages were, and what its limitations were,” said Sandeman. “One of the selling points was that it provided unique questions for us, the instructors. Unlike other systems, the solutions to these problems could not be found online. It’s nice to have some problems where the temptations to look at the answer straight away is withheld.”

Another selling point for Sandeman was the fact that Expert TA stimulates the effects of an exam.

“Exam preparedness is one of the tougher points of the course [Physics 1100],” said Sandeman. “Many students are completely new to physics, so we need to provide them with a variety of problems they can work on in their own time [or] with their colleagues and instructors. And by stimulating the conditions of an exam, students can get over nervousness and be more comfortable.”

Sandeman last taught Physics 1100 a semester ago Though students were fine when he used Expert TA last year, he can understand that they may now feel a different way.

“I’m not wedded to the system,” said Sandeman. “My colleagues and I welcome feedback from students for all of our teaching methods. We are always trying to figure out the best tool. If there’s something better, I’m sure we’ll look at that in the future.”

Though Manasherov believes that students shouldn’t have to pay to do homework, Sandeman thinks about it in a different way.

“The older software system we used, had a per year cost. Expert TA is a per semester cost,” said Sandeman. “So we basically halved the cost for students, especially for students who don’t need the software for the whole year—such as those who are just taking Physics 1100 as a pre-requisite.”

Among those currently using Expert TA in their classes, is Professor Chakra Maharjan.

Maharjan insists that using the Expert Ta is a department policy, and not his own. “I think this is a very good conversation to have, though using [Expert TA] has to do with the department, and I cannot do anything about it,” said Maharjan.

Manasherov is one of Maharjan’s 75 students and according to Manasherov’s petition page, the petition will be sent to the Physics Department of Brooklyn College and/or Professor Maharjan.

Manasherov states that he’s “never heard one student tell [him] this website helped them and was useful.”

However, his professor said, “You also have to go with the other students… I know students who say it isn’t difficult.”

Maharjan also said that the multiple parts within a question are simply intermediate steps that will help students get the correct final answer. “For some problems, you cannot get the answer from doing just one or two steps,” he said. “The Expert TA will ask you to find the different components. It will split the questions, so it’s easier to solve it doing it step by step.”

Maharjan has only taught using Expert TA since last Fall, and believes that the students did really well. For his class now, he wants to see exam results before judging its effectiveness.

When asked if he would consider changing the software system if a lot of students signed Manasherov petition, he said, “You can’t conclude the effectiveness. If you don’t study hard, how can you say it’s not effective? Sure, some students are really smart, but if they can’t manage time and give more effort to prepare, then they won’t do well on the exam.”

This is quite contrary to what Manasherov and Beagle said—that they study for hours in addition to the long homework assignments.

Maharjan is entirely open to students talking to him about their difficulties. “Students are always welcome to talk to me for any questions. If they visit me, then I’ll know,” he said. “Then I can also give feedback to the department. But if a student complains that they have other homework and stuff they have to do—as a physics student, you can’t say that. You come here to learn.”

Manasherov is waiting to get plenty more signatures on his petition so he can go and advocate on the students’ behalf.

“I just want to get enough signatures, so that the professors and the department can take my word, and the students’ word seriously,” said Manasherov. “I want them to understand that the students as a whole agree to this.”

Though Manasherov doesn’t have an alternative, he first wants to establish the fact that Expert TA isn’t useful and that students don’t like it, and then work on it from there.

He, along with plenty other physics-loving students, wants something to better help them.

“I don’t want in any way, shape, or form, to attack the physics department, or the professors,” said Manasherov. “I think they’re doing a great job, but I don’t think the Expert TA is working out. And I just want to make that statement.”

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