Wednesday, March 27, 2013
This semester I am teaching an upper level graduate course, but the enrollment is quite high as I hadn't taught it for several years. I have no TA or grader, and I am very, very grumpy.
In the school system that I went through, homework for a grade was basically nonexistent -- I stopped having homework assignments in 4th grade. After that, there were lectures (you needed to take good notes) and textbooks to learn from. For math and physics, there were books of problems and you were supposed to go through them and practice in order to do well on the exams. The same thing in undergrad: there were traditional lectures and discussion sections, the latter were where the TA would do typical problems with us; still, there was no homework, just books of problems, and it was up to us to study and practice in order to do well.
When I came to the US to grad school, I actually liked the fact that there was homework in graduate courses; turning in homework weekly or biweekly forced me to study the material at a regular pace (I couldn't goof off and then cram before the exam), which meant that preparing for exams was trivial and took no time at all. I also liked that there were term papers and projects, which I had never had before.
Then I became a professor and started having to grade.
What I dislike is that, unless homework is graded, students will not do it at all. Especially at the undergraduate level, students have beautiful, colorful textbooks, full of examples and problems, yet no student (at least none that I know of) would even think of doing anything other than the problems assigned for homework. This is totally mind-boggling to me. I had a student a couple of years ago come ask me what he could do to prepare for the next exam, as he hadn't done so well on the previous one. I said the minimum is to read the lecture notes, his own in-class notes (students here take very few notes, which is another thing I just cannot wrap my head around; most sit and listen with their arms across their chests), read the book, and go over all the homework problems in detail, asking himself what it is that each problem actually emphasizes. He said he wanted more, and I said sure, by all means, do all the problems in the textbook, but he didn't find this to be an appealing option; he wanted me to select the extra problems for him to do.
I love assigning term papers and projects, and I don't mind grading them.They are substantial chunks of work, requiring students to synthesize multiple concepts and deliver a meatier result, but they are of most use in upper-level undergrad or graduate courses. But the week-by-week homework is really just for the students' benefit. So many of them copy from each other, or from previous generations if you recycle any problems, that it's pointless to grade this work. Sure, you can assign very little value to each homework assignment, but someone still has to grade the whole thing. Either some poor graduate student spends many hours every week grading undergraduate homework assignments or I have to do it. No matter how little homework counts for, the time needed to grade t is the same.
This is what I would ideally like to see regarding grading (I am talking about physical science STEM fields here): I assign homework every week, there is a due date, right after the due date I post the solutions. Most homework assignments are not graded, but students take the responsibility for their education and do them anyway because it's good practice of their craft. Or, for those who just want the grade, they do the assigned problems because it's good practice for the exams, and the exams count for a lot. Most homework would fall under this category, i.e. the traditional HW where students work some problems on a piece of paper; for undergraduate courses, this would cover nearly all assignments, depending somewhat on the class. Then there would be a few assignments, e.g. involving programming or calculating something complicated, that would be turned in and graded (the percentage of these would be higher in upper level undergrad or grad courses). I could also assign some larger projects and/or term papers that I would collect and score, and they would count for a nontrivial percentage of the final grade.
The point is, I don't want someone to have to waste time on grading trivial practice problems that the students should do in order to gain a basic level of proficiency, problems that can be (and are) easily copied and thus count for little. I would like to see more student ownership of their own performance in the course, and them being ready to put in the time to practice, without necessarily every minute of their time actually counting for a grade. (I hate the "But I worked so hard! I put in so much time!" pleas for a higher grade. I want to see what you learned, not just that you put in some time.)
I actually tried doing what I wanted to do this semester in my large graduate course. I told the students that most HW assignments would not be graded, but that they should do the problems anyway in order to be ready for the exam. I said there would also be small projects and a paper, and those would be graded. You know what happened? No one was doing the homework. Referring to examples from homework in class was pointless, because students hadn't looked at them. So I went back to having them turn everything in, which I then have to grade, because this is a high level graduate course and the department gives no TA's or graders at that level. I am so darn grouchy right now.
Maybe I should have stuck to my guns. If they all do poorly because they don't practice, so be it. I have tenure, teaching evaluations don't matter much any more.
Has anyone tried and succeeded to somehow reduce the amount of grading (regardless of who does the grading) without affecting student learning? Any tips on how to make students put more effort into acquiring proficiency without every picosecond of their invested time having to count towards a grade? Or am I just being the Don Quixote of grading?