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Will Students Earnestly Attempt Learning Questions if Answers are Viewable?

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2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


New Orleans, Louisiana

Publication Date

June 26, 2016

Start Date

June 26, 2016

End Date

August 28, 2016





Conference Session

Technology-Related Educational Research

Tagged Division

Computers in Education

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Paper Authors


Joshua Sai Yuen University of California - Riverside

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M.S.student in Computer Science at University of California, Riverside

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Alex Daniel Edgcomb University of California - Riverside

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Alex Edgcomb finished his PhD in computer science at UC Riverside in 2014. Alex has continued working as a research specialist at UC Riverside with his PhD advisor, studying the efficacy of web-native content for STEM education. Alex also works with zyBooks, a startup that develops interactive, web-native textbooks in STEM.

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Frank Vahid University of California - Riverside

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Frank Vahid is a Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at the Univ. of California, Riverside. His research interests include embedded systems design, and engineering education. He is a co-founder of

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Modern online learning materials may include built-in questions that are used for some of a class' homework points. To encourage learning, question solutions may be easily available to students. We sought to determine to what extent students earnestly attempt to answer questions when solutions are available via a simple button click. An earnest attempt means to try answering a question at least once before viewing the solution. We analyzed data from 550 students in four classes, at a four-year public research university, a four-year public teaching college, and two community colleges. We found average earnestness was a rather high 84%. We also found that 89% of students earnestly attempted 60%-100% of questions, with 73% earnestly attempting 80%-100%. Only 1% of students blatantly "cheat the system" by earnestly less than 20% of questions. Thus, the heartening conclusion is that students will take advantage of a well-designed learning opportunity rather than just quickly earning points.

We noted that earnestness decreased as a course progressed, with analyses indicating the decrease being mostly due to tiredness or some other student factor, rather than increasing difficulty. We also found that analyzing per-question earnestness can help question authors find poorly-formulated questions.

In addition to providing results of our earnestness analysis, the paper also describes the style by which the questions are made -- how they complement text, teach rather than test, take only a small amount of time each, always include explanations, strive to occasionally "trick" students to explicitly dispel common misconceptions, avoid drill/kill and instead each teach a unique concept, create questions where alternative right answers are less likely to be marked wrong, and more. Via such design, students seem to discover that the questions are worth their time and effort, and thus most students earnestly try. We also discuss processes that can hurt earnestness, such as assigning excessive work. We describe our philosophy of not limiting student attempts for such learning questions, to create a safe learning environment (whereas other activities may indeed benefit from limits).

Yuen, J. S., & Edgcomb, A. D., & Vahid, F. (2016, June), Will Students Earnestly Attempt Learning Questions if Answers are Viewable? Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.27205

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