Homework MyOpenMath Teaching

Bug Bounties for Classrooms

One of the most famous bug bounty systems was the Knuth Reward Check. Donald Knuth sent out reward cheques for finding typos and other errors in his books. The idea being to reward those that found and provided helpful suggestions to improve his work.

Knuth cheque for the value of $2.56 for "3.589" Dated march 1999
Actual issued Knuth cheque

A bug bounty is a system where people can submit mistakes to the creator for a reward. Bug bounties are common in large companies, where they are designed to incentivize hackers to notify companies of potential harmful exploits and issues, rather than using them for their own nefarious purposes. Essentially bug bounties encourage users to report mistakes and provide continual feedback to the creator. Just make sure no one can prove the entire body of work incorrect and “claim their prize”.

Dear Reader: Enclosed is a check for ninety-eight cents. Using your work, I have proven that this equals the amount you requested.

Classroom application

Typos and errors in assignments, or any course content, can lead students astray and impact their understanding of the material. Implementing a bug bounty system in a course ensures these issues are reported and improves the course material as a whole. It also creates a safe space for students where they can ask why they got something wrong, and spark discussion and feedback. “Bugs” in a course are any time there is a mismatch between a student’s grade and their understanding of the concept.

Students will also start work earlier, in hopes of finding a mistake or improvement they can suggest to gain a bonus. Students reviewing the homework before class, even if it’s just to hunt for a typo, are more interested and better motivated to listen and ask questions during class. Knowing that they can interested the professor if they get something wrong, helps them avoid resorting to guessing or cheating if a question is not behaving as expected. Although bugs are primarily found by keen and advanced students, the resulting changes make the course clearer and more error free for all. Pedagogically the bonus is good, as the student has gone above and beyond the course objectives and investigated a deeper understanding of the material.

In most assessment systems, like MyOpenMath, there is a “Message Instructor” button built in to every question. The message that is sent includes the student’s question/comment, a link to the student’s grade, the original question and the edit code window. This process is by far the easiest way fix to the question, and the grade.

From: email (link) | grade book (link) | assignment (link)

Hi, for this question part a, my answer is 92.98. The decimal points were not mentioned in this question, so I rounded as seen in Minitab output
Example “message instructor” with links to e-mail and assignment

The student may only identify a point of confusion, and not the actual fix, but it’s still good practice to award them the bonus for bringing a problem to the professor’s attention. Often it takes the professor, and a view of the question code, to see why the confusion occurred and what a clear fix or solution for their mis-graded question actually is. Typically the more involved and supportive the student is in the process, the more generous their bonus. Either way, the student is helping the professor to identify and correct items that are resulting in confusion and a mismatch of the students’ abilites and their grade, so it’s always worth recognizing their contribution.

The reward could be a small mark added to the assignment in question (in addition to the correction), or it could be a entry in to a draw for a gift card. It doesn’t have to be large but it’s the recognition and acknowledgement that is important. Depending on the student it can be nice if these contributions are made public as well. Students are generally very happy with the recognition that “ok, so I’m not crazy” and “I helped improve the course”, and less concerned about getting the bonus.

Score: 1.5/1.5, 1.6/1.5, 1.5/1.5
Bonus: Decimals needed clarification
Example bonus and feedback

Common Course “Bugs”

An example of a common math “bug” seen by students is that of rounding. The question may state “round to 4 decimals” but if the question only gives 2 decimals, or by random chance the answer comes to exactly 3 decimals, this can cause a little confusion. Even if the question “clearly states 4 decimals”, sometimes students regularly get it wrong. Perhaps they missed it under the stress of the exam or thought it only applied to part one, but either way the wording and layout of the question could be tweaked to make that clearer.

Sometimes questions are simply a little too ambiguous, or have easy to miss components when students are stressed or rushing. For this Venn diagram question the professor might find themselves responding “you forgot the 6” a lot. This showed that there was something about the layout that caused students to miss part of the question. Something as simple as a box around everything eliminates this confusion.

Before and after question update (use slider)

One way to encourage students to engage the professor early in their coursework if they are struggling, is to include a blurb in the course information. And as part of this you can encourage a bug bounty.

Example Course Information

While completing work in this class you may get a question wrong. If this happens, one of three things should occur to you:

  1. “Oh crap, I forgot to carry the 2”, or “Ah, it does say 4 decimals, whoops” etc
    • If this happens, correct your error and try again (Homeworks and quizzes have multiple tries)
  2. “Hmmm, guessing is not going to work”
    • If you haven’t already, come to class and bring the question to discuss in class. Alternatively review the textbook/notes/lecture video and/or get someone to help out
  3. “Nope, I’m sure I’ve done this right, wtf”
    • If this happens, press the Message Instructor button in the question, explain what you’ve done, and hit Send. If based on your suggestion the question can be improved/fixed, you could earn a bonus mark!

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: