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.


“…accepting that our kids make mistakes and fail …

“We have a culture now where we have real trouble accepting that our kids make mistakes and fail, and when they do, we tend to blame someone else,” said Tricia Bertram Gallant, author of “Creating the Ethical Academy,” and director of the academic integrity office at the University of California at San Diego. “Thirty, 40 years ago, the parent would come in and grab the kid by the ear, yell at him and drag him home.”

One common cause that experts cite for increased academic cheating is the refusal to accept failure and the insistence that it’s someone else’s fault.  (The most common seems to be the increasing ease of plagiarism.)

Hopefully adopting Edward Burger’s strategy of giving “failure points” will counteract some of what seems to be an increasing reluctance to accept failure, and the lost of learning opportunities which that myopia entails.  So far, so good, in my fallacies class.

I congratulated several students on their failure (to distinguish observation from inference) this week.  It was great fun to watch their faces move from distrust (in being told they are wrong) to perplexity to amusement as they began to accept the learning opportunity.  My grad students also find the idea quite delightful, and so far there seems to be no insecurity or anxiety surrounding it, compared to that normally accompanying innovative pedagogy. They know about failure, and (so far) seem to find the chance to engage it straight on to be more exciting than scary.

Fallacies and failure

Why teach fallacies?  There is no universal way to get an argument wrong, many argue.  It’s derivative on some positive theory of argumentation.  We have positive theories to support fallacy theory (the three aspects of argument strength from Blair and Johnson, and Govier; argumentation schemes from Walton; or pragma-dialectical errors) so why concentrate on an archaic theory of failure?  Doesn’t that encourage an unhealthy emphasis on nay-saying?  knee-jerk scepticism?  Certainly it can.

For the exact same reasons teaching fallacies can be a serious opportunity for students to learn about the value of failure.  “Teaching students to fail” by Edward Burger in Inside Higher Ed recommends not only informing students about the value of taking risks and learning from their own failure, but making that part of the assessment.  He makes it sound pretty simple and very effective.

Combining this with fallacies seems perfect, as it encourages students to consider the epistemological (or in Douglas Walton‘s terms maieutic) qualities of fallacy analysis and criticism in general.  I’m teaching fallacies this term so I’ll let you know how it goes!