By Michelle Bui

Recently, Pearson Education began selling access codes for Mastering, an online homework forum promising online learning resources and a virtual edition of the accompanying textbook. These programs are provided to complement a variety of courses including chemistry, genetics and physics. Students can purchase them for prices ranging from $30 to over $100–generally a cheaper alternative to buying physical textbooks.

However, as a biological sciences major who has used Mastering in several classes, I must say that the $70 I pay per course is not worth it.

I say this knowing that many researchers and professors would disagree. While research has shown that the program has helped students perform better in their classes, it simply is not a cost-efficient platform.

A 2013 study conducted at Collin College in Plano, Texas examined the correlation between student participation in Mastering Biology quizzes and their performance on exams. Over two quarters, those students who took all the pre-class quizzes consistently scored above the class average, with the score difference between participants and non-participants being as high as 20%.  Researchers hypothesized that this is because in taking quizzes, students can see what information they do and do not know long before they take the exam. The quizzes test their recollective abilities as well as force them to look back at information that they did not fully understand in the first place. Without these checks, students would feel over confident in their skills.

BS3These trends have been observed here at UCI as well. Dr. Justin Shaffer, who teaches human anatomy and introductory biology, uses Mastering not only for quizzes, but homework assignments as well. He has students go through the scientific skills exercises, videos and animations offered on Mastering to enhance their understanding of the material. Dr. Shaffer says that doing these activities before class allows students to come in ready to “hit the ground running.”

His praise for Mastering is not unfounded either.

“In Bio Sci 93 and Bio Sci D170, greater than 75% and 60% [students], respectively, said that they would have done worse in the class without having Mastering pre-class assignments,” he noted.

The evidence makes it pretty clear that Mastering is a valuable teaching tool, and many students, even myself, see its advantages.

However, while Mastering offers learning resources such as online videos and interactive models, it should not be a mandatory aspect of classes at UCI.

Mastering is especially excessive considering that there are many cost effective alternatives out there. Some UCI professors use programs such as Sapling or even just EEE to post quizzes and homework sets for their students. Sapling only costs about $20 a quarter, while EEE is already integrated.

What makes Sapling unique is its independence from a textbook provider. As a result, homework problems are easily customizable, and allow instructors to look to other courses to find necessary material.

But like Mastering, Sapling allows students to answer homework questions multiple times, allowing instructors to determine the topics students struggle with.

According to UCI general chemistry lecturer Rebecca Shapiro, the results in student performance are just as favorable using Sapling.

“I surveyed my class at the end of the semester, and Sapling was universally appreciated…Students did better because Sapling was the next best thing to having a live chemistry tutor,” she commented in a case study profile on Sapling’s website.

At the end of the day, online quizzes and problems are basically the same learning tools that teachers used to provide on paper and in the classroom. Why should this new “flipped classroom” philosophy, wherein students do more of the learning at home, cost more money?

I am all for extra practice outside of the classroom and using technology to improve my education, but $70 in addition to my tuition, my housing and other supplies like iClickers and handbooks is asking for far too much. Online tools should add to my learning experience, not my college debt.


Michelle Bui is a first-year biological sciences major. She can be reached at mkbui@uci.edu.

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