Monday, February 10, 2014

WeBWorK Exercises as a Source of Supplementary Problems

One criticism repeated often in the Baltimore sessions was the paucity of exercises in open-source texts.  Authors uniformly indicated that providing a carefully edited and complete set of exercises (including solutions) for their texts was the most demanding part of creating the text.  For some texts at the pre-college and early college levels (algebra, pre-calculus, and calculus) the MAA's free and open-source WeBWorK on-line homework system can help to fill this gap.

A couple of years ago, I decided to give WeBWorK a try in my calculus II class.  Since it's free (I'm a cheapskate at heart) and I have a few computer servers at my disposal, I downloaded the instructions for installing WeBWorK from their Get WeBWorK page.  In particular, I had an Ubuntu 12.04 linux machine, so I downloaded step-by-step instructions for an Ubuntu 12.04 system.  I will admit to having a fair amount of unix system administration experience, but if you're passingly familiar with unix, you can probably get through this in an hour or two.  If you're not a unix person (and not a cheapskate) you can actually buy access to a WeBWorK server at a relatively low-cost.

Long story short, I set up my own server and proceeded to use WeBWorK to provide students with additional exercises.  I taught out of Guichard's Calculus text (free, open-source).  Guichard's text has a decent number of exercises, but WeBWorK had far more to choose from.  In addition, WeBWorK provides instant feedback which students indicated they liked.  Finally, with WeBWorK the instructor can closely monitor whether students are actually doing homework and whether they're doing it on time.  (Can you tell I'm a fan?)

Back to the point of this post, open-source authors faced with the daunting task of creating exercises and solutions for their texts should consider pre-existing open-source repositories of exercises, like WeBWorK, to fill this gap.  IMathAS is another open-source homework system for mathematics (but I haven't used it).  If any of you know of other open-source collections of exercises for mathematics, please post references in the comments.

If any of you are teaching calculus I, II, or III out of Guichard's book, I have since created WeBWorK problem sets that correspond to nearly every section of the text.  You can download the .def files for calculus I, calculus II, and calculus III.  They may not perfectly fit your needs, but they certainly provide a good starting point for your problem sets.


  1. For those interested, there is a free-to-use install of IMathAS at focused on providing exercise sets aligned to open textbooks. Our emphasis so far has been community college pre calculus courses, but we recently added a course based on Dale Hoffman's open calculus text, and the questions can of course be used with any open text. Our question library extends beyond what you'll see in the preassembled exercise sets, though it is not as extensive as WebWork's for calculus (but is more extensive for pre-calculus topics). If you want to try it out, you can log in at with username guest (no password).

  2. My colleagues and I have selected some sets of WeBWorK exercises to go with my free, open source Active Calculus text. Anyone interested can simply request the .def files and I'm glad to share them. (These exercise sets were not written from scratch by us, but rather were chosen from among the many excellent existing WeBWorK exercises for calculus.) You can learn more at or

  3. To anyone interested in community college level basic math and basic algebra, we donated about 2000 problems by now to WeBWorK's Open Problem Library. They are not yet part of the main OPL; they reside in the Contrib folder. The curators have not had time to go through our problems yet (nor have we tagged them very well.) You can access them by following