Homework: To grade or not to grade

Grading homework has undeniable value. Students need feedback on their work to learn and the more personal and individuated the more they are likely to benefit. But the turnaround time for grading can make it frustrating for everyone. The class has already moved on to the next topic or so by the time students receive graded feedback, and so both students and instructors end up juggling multiple cognitive skills in a way that seems to interfere with learning, and the progress of the course.check-mark-1292787_960_720

So this term I’m not grading any homework. I’ve done this before in a fallacies class, just go through the answers in class. Previously, I simply kept it on the honour system, but it was a small enough class at around 20 that we could have good discussion. This time with 90 1st-year students I will give them credit for simply completing their homework: 1 mark for completion when they arrive in class ready to take it up, and partial marks for partial efforts. Not done or done late? No credit. Students can miss one — due to illness or whatever — and still get a perfect grade: They will have 11 opportunities to earn 10 marks.

I developed this structure in part because of advice I received from a friend who teaches the very large intro psych class: keep them busy in class. That applies to class rather than homework, of course, because in a large class it’s especially easy for student to disengage.

But it reminded me how valuable simply attempting the exercises can be — especially at a first-year level with students from all across the campus, many away from home for the first time, most who will never take another philosophy class. Engaging such a range of students who are just discovering post-secondary education is a big challenge.

All argumentation and critical thinking classes depend greatly on practice, like any other skills-based course such as a performance or lab course, and keeping students engaged can be as valuable as detailed feedback. This may be especially true at the introductory level where they have more to gain from simply working through the problems. In learning the proper answers in class they still have the opportunity to learn from their errors, to start their descent on that Dunning-Kruger curve.Dunning Kruger Chart


It may be too that being responsible for evaluating the correctness of their own answers will give students an authority that they appreciate. Of course I know that people have a difficult time recognizing our own errors, but that is a skill students can develop during the course.There will be opportunities for students to get detailed feedback and coaching too, but they must seek it out.

Perhaps students will collaborate in their learning? The in-class exercises will encourage that. Are they likely to plagiarize their homework? To copy from each other? Unfortunately, I expect it from time-to-time, and will direct my graduate assistants to be on the lookout. However, the students’ greater loss should they cheat in copying homework will be in their lost opportunity to learn from their real mistakes; and that will hurt them when it comes to the tests, which are worth a great deal more in terms of grades. Those who go through that may learn something distinct too, about how learning can’t be short-cut, that they have over-estimated their own competence; but they will still in other ways be behind the others.


7 thoughts on “Homework: To grade or not to grade”

  1. I beg to differ. I have taught Critical Thinking classes of 50-150 over 30 years, plus numerous other first year classes. No matter how much we think students will behave at their best, many won’t: they look for what is easy. And those who submit a friend’s answer don’t learn from “their” mistakes. Some accountability needs to be built into the system. Having students bring a copy of their answers to class, having otter students, assigned at random, mark those, and then recording those marks as well as attendance can help. Having the markers give comments, and then returning them the next class can be far more helpful as it introduces peer evaluation (and peer approval) into the system. I also have students submit their work through a plagiarism service (TurnItIn) to preclude multiple submissions of the same response by multiple students. You will be surprised at how many students submit identical answers for extended answers (and when confronted admit copying). I have used the points for submission policy, but coupled that with a points for quality. In my Natural Science class, students were given 1 point for submission but then scored 0-3 for quality of submission (based on stated criteria). Some submitted crap and got 1 for submission. This rewarded not just effort but achievement. Those with low scores were given ways of improving their marks through other means. Having students submit material is a very minimum requirement; and many will do that at a very low level (especially in year 1). How do we get more engagement and learning? I have used an online system (e.g. Moodle), where students submit material. If the class is on Tuesday, they must submit by Sunday evening. Another student critiques the work online by Monday evening. There are ways of setting this up in Moodle. Students get a mark for critiquing, This allows me to review what has been done and take it up on class onTuesday. 1 point for submission,1 for a review, and 1 for a good review. Total points available = submission + review + good review = 3. I am lenient on what constitutes a good review (basic criteria = relevant, substantive informative for the student, concise), but don’t reward it easily. It is a form of peer review. Students get a point for submitting and for critiquing. This both encourages interaction and quality interaction. I find tis takes me about 2 hours a week. With 90 students, maybe 70 will submit and 45 comment. You focus is on the 45 and assigning 0-3, plus possibly a 1 paragraph comment on the submissions and critiques. With this system, I found both submissions and critiques went up over the term. Students were allowed multiple critiques, with the first counting 1, the second.5 and the third .25. Willing to discuss more.

  2. Thanks Jean! That provides a number of good models. As this is my first time with this textbook and this size of class in this course, I’m keeping it rather simple. You have suggested a number of ways that I’ll consider when I redevelop the course in the future.
    I have had troubles with peer evaluation in the past — students resented the loss of privacy. Right now I can’t investigate that but I will in the future. My impression was that it had become legally difficult in the new climate that gives greater weight to student privacy, but I would love to be wrong about that. Peer evaluation is an excellent tool in my experience too.

    1. As I remember, Moodle (or possibly TurnItin) had ways of ensuring that peer reviews were double-blind, which handles the privacy concerns.

  3. I’m not inclined to use either of those, but I am going to look into the legality of doing it in class.
    I’m guessing Blackboard might be able to do this too, and will consider that also. I do appreciate the discussion, Jean!

  4. Well, I have checked with my school’s teaching and learning experts, and it looks like I can use peer evaluation. It’s not a final grade, or even a major assignment, and the TAs will be reviewing it.
    Thanks again Jean for drawing me back to a superior practice. I plan, as you suggested, to make it half participation and half graded to encourage effort.

  5. Giving students an opt-out for peer evaluation is really creating a ton of grading. So this strategy is not working . Perhaps next time I won’t make give the option. I was never told I needed too.

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