Dot Physics

Another Take on Homework

I thought this was an interesting idea. One of my colleagues does not collect homework. Instead, the students turn in a sheet that lists which homework problems they worked on and how much time they spent on homework. By doing this, the students get a small homework grade – independent of how much time they claim they spent. I am pretty sure it is not a large percentage of the total grade.

Along with this “report”, the students are supposed to keep notes on the homework they claim they did – just for reference. Theoretically, the instructor could verify that the student did the problems reported.

So, is this is good idea? Well, it is certainly not a bad idea. The best thing about this method is that reinforces the idea that homework is for the student. It helps students become more aware of how much time they are spending on the material outside of class.

I am sure there are students that over report the number of hours they are working on homework – but they are clearly just fooling themselves.

What is not so great about this method? I think the biggest downside is that students don’t get feedback on their homework. Well, they get feedback if they ask the instructor – which they should.


  1. #1 Chris Pettit
    February 25, 2010

    Your colleague’s method is similar to what I have done for the past two semesters. I require students to submit a Homework Self-Assessment for each assignment. (See the form at Students submit work only for one or two problems they were unable to complete. They receive a small amount of credit for the completed form, but not for their work. Of course the expectation is that laziness and procrastination, as well as lying, will ultimately be rewarded with poor exam grades.

    The main objective is to promote self-regulated learning and to allow me to add input where it is most likely to be effective. Forcing students to formulate a description of their difficulties helps prepare them to receive guidance.

    As professors, we also must respect the fundamental error of attribution. Those students who work hard and mean well might need to manage their workload across their courses by spending more time on somebody else’s course in a given week. My system allows them to freely admit they were unable to put forth a full effort in my course for the assignment in question. It also gives me enough data to know when a student is consistently falling behind and requires intervention.

    Does this approach work? I do not have statistical proof, but course evaluations suggest it is more palatable to today’s students than the more traditional, punitive method. Also, because we do not have teaching assistants or graders in my institution, my approach allows me to feel like I am wasting less time than I did through the more traditional approach.

    The approach is not perfect. Some students are their own worst enemies or hope they can scrape by without putting forth a full homework effort. They lie and claim they completed the whole assignment, but that also is part of self-regulated learning. These usually are the same students who don’t bother to properly review the published solutions either. They also are the same students who do not hesitate to copy another’s homework and submit it as their own, so take your pick about which lie you choose to confront. For me, the student self-assessment process is easier to manage, more informative, and more satisfying in general.

  2. #2 Rhett Allain
    February 25, 2010


    I like your self-assessment sheet. I think the best part is the name with the inclusion of “self”. So, how long have been using this?

  3. #3 FrauTech
    February 25, 2010

    The drawback that comes to mind is; this equates effort with success. I think students already have a tendency to think if they worked hard on their homework they deserve a higher grade. Doesn’t necessarily follow though. I mean it’s nice to reward students who work harder sure, but if another student understands the material in much less time they should not be punished. And when it comes around to tests, being graded on an effort-scale can really backfire.

  4. #4 Joan
    February 25, 2010

    On the theory that this was for their benefit,not for mine, I used to give students two grading choices: submit, get feedback, and get a grade, or submit, get feedback, and resubmit. In other words, they could keep trying until they got it right, and the icing on the cake was that they would all but guarantee themselves an A. Needless to say, at the beginning of the semester, they jumped at that the section option (which was a huge amount of work for me). Before we were halfway through the semester, they were complaining bitterly about the amount of work. Conclusion? They wanted the A but they didn’t actually want to learn. I would offer them the chance to switch to regular grading but they didn’t want to do that, either.

  5. #5 Chris Pettit
    February 25, 2010


    Thanks. I have collected less formalized self-assessments for the past few years, but last semester was the first time I provided a form and required it for every assignment. I decided to continue it this semester. It is an uphill battle to get students to provide thoughtful, reflective answers because most have never been expected to do so before in their STEM courses, but I see some progress.


    I agree that too many students equate effort with success, or even perceived effort with success, but I do not think the approaches Rhett and (especially) I described necessarily perpetuate this. I constantly emphasize the reflective aspect of homework to snuff that perspective as quickly as possible. Some students still do get the wrong message, but in my experience they are the minority as long as I describe my intent and remind them of it during the first few weeks of the semester; moreover, they probably are not destined for much success in their academic endeavors, so they are free to be mediocre in either path. Some students are more capable and interested, but still do need a carrot and stick approach to maintain constant attention. As long as homework is not weighted too heavily in the grade, those students know they will get whacked eventually if they fail to learn and apply the knowledge. Finally, if professors do not take active, tangible measures to disabuse students of the perspective that work equals success and to convince students that success is more than getting the answer in back of the book, then we shouldn’t complain when the persist in thinking that way. One approach may be to use a bigger stick, but nowadays this seems futile and a race to the bottom, at least in my experience. Sticks have short-term benefits but their constant use seem not to produce long-term deep learning or interest.

  6. #6 Ian
    February 26, 2010

    I really like this in that it encourages (forces?) the students to reflect on what they have been doing (or, perhaps, not doing).
    @FrauTech: I would assert that effort is often a necessary, though not alway sufficient, condition for success in pretty much any endeavor. I am not sure how rewarding effort can ‘punish’ anyone. If one combines effort based “rewards” with outcome based “rewards” (e.g. exams) one might help students learn that effort is both necessary and often leads to better ability. Of course, one should probably not do this throughout the curriculum since one goal is that students who make it through the program should be self motivated and mature enough to realize that one must work to be successful.
    @Chris: I think we need to take active measures to show students that work and success are often correlated. Of course, one need also ensure that the work is productive. That may be a somewhat stickier wicket.

  7. #7 Chris Pettit
    February 26, 2010


    I agree and try do so, but probably didn’t make that clear in my earlier replies. I often paraphrase for my students the best definition I’ve heard of “professional” (via Jacques Barzun): A professional is someone who does his or her job even when he or she doesn’t feel like it.

  8. #8 Jim Thomerson
    February 27, 2010

    Early in my university career I did poorly. I thought I was working diligently, so maybe I am stupid. Went to testing center and, no, I am not stupid. What to do? I started keeping a log of my activities. I found out that the hours I thought I was spending studying were mostly spent goofing off. So I wathched the clock and studied for 15 minutes before I allowed myself to goof off. I got to where I could actually spend considerable time studying rather than goofing off, and made the Dean’s List. Perhaps the tactic under discussion would help a student like me to identify their problem.

  9. #9 Chris B
    March 1, 2010

    For several years I’ve been using an online homework service. There are several out there with varying degrees of cost and capabilities, but I’ve been using the Quest service provided by the University of Texas.

    They have tens of thousands of physics problems (as well as many chemistry, math, earth science, etc.) for me to choose from, and I typically assign about 12-15 problems 2-3 times a week, giving plenty of time for students to print the .pdf of their assignment, work the problems and enter them on the computer. The system randomizes the numbers in each student’s assignment (e.g. one will have mass 43 kg, the next will have mass 57 kg) so that cheating is not possible, although it is possible, and encouraged, that students work together.

    Students get immediate feedback on right/wrong answers and have several tries, with decreasing point values, for getting the problem right.

    Although I have to create the assignments, I don’t have to manually grade them, and can just copy/paste from the site to a spreadsheet in order to track and move to my gradebook.

    I strongly suggest looking at this and other online options. My AP Physics students have certainly benefitted, as demonstrated by their AP scores.

    – Chris

  10. #10 qaz
    March 2, 2010

    I find that homework is a really good way to communicate what I want my students to be doing on test questions. The years that I have foregone homework, the students tend to bomb exams (in large part because they don’t seem to “get” my questions). Homeworks in my class are short essays on the primary literature. I don’t grade the homeworks in depth, just give them a simple score (minus/check/plus) with a few comments of feedback. It’s a relatively small advanced class that I teach, so it’s not too much work, but I find it helps a lot.

  11. #11 vinod arora
    March 8, 2010

    I think homework give a chance to students to show their own potential about problem solving.Home work given to students make them to work as a team ,allow communication among students due to which they create their own insight for problems and hence get interested in subject.Problems should be planned in such a way that we can bring out from student what we are requiring

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