Friday, May 3, 2013

Morality of Solution Manuals For College Homework

I recently got into a discussion with a former professor about the morality of providing college students with a solution manual to problems in a textbook. I’ve taken several of my emails and re-written them here, polished up a tad bit.


Background Knowledge: Many college courses use textbooks to help provide reading material, as well as assign homework from. Many of these textbooks have a companion solution manual, published by the same publisher. Most professors attempt to tightly control access to these solution manuals.

The Question: Is providing students with a solution manual morally wrong?

  • I submit that the point of taking a college class is to learn useful knowledge and skills.

  • I submit that students are taking the class of their own free will, and in fact paying to take it.

  • I submit that if a student fails to learn material, the only being harmed is that student. (No one else!)

  • If a student was taking classes just for themselves, there would be no need for anything other than learning. No need to exams; No need to prove knowledge to anyone. However, this is rarely the case. Most commonly, students take college courses in order to get a degree (and therefore a more profitable job). Since Purdue (or whatever university is in question) grants this degree on the assumption that students are really learning the knowledge that is taught, Purdue is putting their name on the line to say that X student does know X knowledge. Therefore I'll concede that X knowledge needs to be tested in some way. Hence we have exams.

  • I therefore submit that the purpose of exams is to test knowledge, while the purpose of homework is only to help students learn.

  • This affects our current topic (a solution manual to homework problems in the textbook). If the sole purpose of homework is to help students learn, then testing and proving knowledge should be no part of it (That should only come into play during exams). It doesn't matter if a student knows the material during or after homework. From this it follows that homework should not only not be graded, it should be optional. In a perfect world, homework would be optional completely, and if turned in would be checked to provide feedback to students; it would not be graded though. This would allow students the opportunity to learn, without punishing them for not learning fast enough.

    We don't live in a perfect world though, and there is also the consideration of how to we keep students involved. Many professors feel the need to force students to be involved. Hence homework is graded (and attendance is recorded). While I disagree with both of those, it's just the world we live in. We can mitigate them though, by making homework (and attendance) worth very little. And by dropping stupid homework policies like keeping track of how students complete homework. This brings us to the solution manual.

    With students that use a solution manual, there are three possible situations (One might argue that 2 and 3are the same, but I'll address each separately for the sake of logical completeness).

    1. Students attempt homework problems before looking at the solution manual, using it to check answers and help with areas they still don't understand
    2. Students copy word for word from the manual without first attempting the assignment, but still pick up a lot of the knowledge just through memorization and repetition.
    3. Students copy word for word from the manual without first attempting the assignment, and learn nothing.

    Lets examining all three of these possible scenarios.

    In scenario 1, students are learning the material without copying. I've found that most professors don't object to this, but also don't believe that it ever happens (assuming instead that students will always take the easy way, and that any other assumption is just nativity). Regardless of the frequency though, if no one objects, then it's not a problem.

    In scenario 2, students are copying, but still learning. I've found that this scenario too is assumed to be highly unlikely by most people. And unlike scenarios 1, I'll concede that it probably is. However, again regardless of the frequency, if the student is still learning, then it's not a problem.

    Finally, we have scenario 3 (The only area where there seems to be actual disagreement). These are the students who will look at the solution manual, copy word for word, and not learn anything. These students are the reason that professors for the most part try their hardest to remove solution manuals from general availability. But here is the thing. There's nothing wrong with students doing this, and here's why.

    If you look at my assertions 3 and 4 together, I submit that students who are learning for themselves are responsible only to themselves. Responsibility to Purdue only comes into play when Purdue is putting it's name on the line to vouch for a student. Since exams cover the testing and validation of knowledge, Purdue is covered. Therefore until a student takes an exam (during homework, for example), they are responsible solely to themselves, not to Purdue (and not to professors). If a student doesn't want to learn, then a student doesn't have to learn. It follows that if a student doesn't want to complete homework assignments or do complete them in a way that doesn't help learning, then they don't have to, and professors shouldn't be attempting to force them. It is the professors' job to teach students who are willing to learn, not to control students who are unwilling to learn.

    This covers all three possible situations that arise from students having a solution manual. If none of them are objectionable, then having a solution manual isn't objectionable. Additionally, another reason that banning solution manuals is silly is that going to office hours has the exact same result. Solutions are provided. And nearly every college course has office hours.

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