Academic Poll: To Grade, or Not to Grade?

Over at Dot Physics, Rhett wonders about the role of homework in a world that includes cramster:

Then what is the problem? The problem is with my jobs. Yes, jobs. I have two jobs. My first job is to help students learn. I am a learning-faciliator if you like. I do this in many different ways. One way is to assign homework. Oh, my other job is to evaluate how well students understand the material. I have to give them some grade at the end of the semester. One obvious way to do this is with an exam or feats of strength.

Here is the question: Do you grade homework? Oh, I know what everyone says. If you don't give a grade for the homework, they won't do it. But I think if it is worth a grade, they will try to get a grade, and not try to learn. Clearly, it is easy to get solutions off the internets. Yes, I know there are other strategies to prevent them from cheating. But I say, why? Why prevent them from helping themselves?

The obvious way to settle this is with an online poll:

A follow-up poll, and my take on the matter, below the fold:

Personally, I tend to think that homework needs to be graded to get people to do it, but it shouldn't count very heavily in the final grade. And every effort should be made to help students get through the problems.

My usual homework policy is to have homework and quizzes together count for 20-30% of the grade. I assign ungraded homework nightly, but use those problems as a source for quiz questions (which I tell the students in advance). I also assign a handful (3-6) of homework problems on a weekly basis that I collect and grade in detail. After grading the homework, I post the solutions, and allow students to re-write their assignments for half the credit they lost (so a student who got an 80/100 can re-write the assignment and gain 10 points). This gives them an incentive to re-visit the assignment and see what they did wrong, and hopefully learn from that mistake.

This past spring, I used WebAssign for the nightly homeworks, and did away with the quizzes. I kept the weekly assignments, though, for feedback purposes-- I think it's important for students to get at least some problems that are graded in detail, to give them an idea of how I apportion partial credit, and that sort of thing. That way, they know what to expect when they take exams.

Also, while WebAssign provides a nice overview of the big picture of who's doing the assignments and so on, it's a little tricky to extract detailed information about widespread sources of confusion. Especially with mutliple attempts allowed, as students can try to guess their way to the right answer. Annoying as it is to grade homework, I find it gives a better sense of the class's level of understanding. If the vast majority of students are making the exact same mistake on a constant-acceleration problem, for example, then I know I need to go over that more in class.

That's what seems to work for me. What do you think?

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My perspective as a mathematics undergraduate is that graded homework is often used to get people to do work that they should be doing themselves anyway. I found myself annoyed at having to do question after question of something for a homework, when I'd 'got it' after the first couple.

In scheduling graded homework, there must be a trade-off between forcing the more enthusiastic students to do work they don't need to and forcing the least enthusiastic students to do work that they wouldn't otherwise. What I find particularly annoying about excessive amounts of graded homework is that the markers quite clearly haven't had enough time to treat every piece of homework adequately, and making an extra effort can go unnoticed or lots of marking errors are made. This can add to the annoyance of more enthusiastic students.

In the UK, where I did my undergraduate degree, it is very common for the homework in introductory classes to not count at all for the final grade. We still did it though, and the reason is that we had weekly tutorials with a teaching staff member (sometimes a TA but often a faculty member) with only 2-3 other students. In this system, the tutor notices if you haven't done the work and that is more than enough motivation for most students. This wouldn't work with the common North American system of having humongous class sizes for everything, including problem classes. It is, however, the only real solution to this problem.

I think that there is another major reason for having homework count in the final grade, which you did not mention in your post. It is needed in order to construct a labyrinthine grading scheme, e.g. only your best eight assignments out of ten count and you can exchange one of the assignments for the intro quiz if that works out better unless you get over 95% on the final exam in which case you can substitute your exam grade for your entire mark. Labyrinthine grading schemes are commonly used in big universities to avoid failing too many students so that the teaching in a department seems much better than it actually is. Maybe this sort of scheme is less common in the Liberal Arts world, but in big research universities it is almost ubiquitous. In order to implement such as scheme, you need to grade a lot of different things, e.g. homeworks, midterms, intro quizzes, exams, computer labs, etc., so that you have a lot of room for maneuver. In my opinion, we would be better off without labyrinthine grading schemes because they make the students feel like they are constantly being assessed and they are a big contributor to grade inflation. Also, since there is so much grading to be done, a lot of it ends up being farmed out to TA's, or in some cases teams of advanced undergraduates, so the lecturer does not get that much feedback about how the students are doing.

By the way, I noticed that there seems to be an implication in your post that if you have a teaching staff member mark students homework then it has to count for the final grade. As you may remember from high school, it is possible to have a teacher mark homework without having it count for anything. This way you get the benefit of knowing how your students are doing and they get useful feedback without having them feel the pressure of assessment. This is another practice that is common in the UK university system, but again it is probably made impractical by very large class sizes.

In high school, my calculus teacher used a system that I thought worked very well, and I'd like to try out one day. The total value of test, quizzes, homework and class participation was something like 120%; the value of tests, quizzes and participation was 100%. So, if you were acing all the tests and participating in class, you didn't need to do any homework. However, his tests were difficult, and his grading harsh, so most people did a fair amount of homework.

I like the idea of having a system that encourages people to work harder when they are having trouble. I think one important thing with this system would be to give frequent quizzes, so students would have an accurate estimate of how they were doing.

By David Speyer (not verified) on 24 Jul 2009 #permalink

I have a mix of homework to grade and homework to discuss in class, with more of the latter than the former. The students don't always do the discussion homework, but also recognize that they are hurting themselves when they don't do the work. Plus I "shame" them in a variety of languages if I call on them to give an answer and they didn't do the work. I will be doing even less graded homework this next year, with increased class sizes. Homework will be regarded as an opportunity to practice and learn from mistakes (meaning that I have to show them their mistakes in some way), and tests will be the evaluation of their ability to apply their skills and knowledge.

If you have to grade people's homework to get them to do it, they're not ready to be doing work at the college level. Now, if you are using "assignment" or "project" synonymously with "homework", then I would say that of course you should grade papers, lab reports, etc. But if people's independent learning skills are so poor that you effectively have to tell them how and when to study and make them do it by grading their homework, then I would have serious concerns about whether or not they are ready and able to succeed at the college level.

Nearly, if not all, the homework my students did (I'm retired chem prof) were problem-solving exercises. I told the students the purpose of them was to see whether the students understood the material. If they didn't, then they shoud get help. The exercises were to be treated as driving lessons. The exam was the driving test. I've taught many students whose perfomances were pretty dismal until something clicked. Then they shone. I do not see why such students should should receive any penalty.

My Grandaughter, a highschool student, does 'projects' at home for mark. I'm not sure whether these should carry any weight towards the final grade as these projects turn inevitably into a family affair.

By killinchy (not verified) on 24 Jul 2009 #permalink

I don't grade homework, because I don't have enough TAs to do so. However, I assign homework for each chapter - and I tell students upfront at the beginning of class that ~30% of the midterm and final will be very closely related to the homework.

Students can do the homework or not as they prefer; but when students are told exactly what homework does for them, a surprising percentage does complete it!

What I do grade is frequent, very short quizzes on the aspects of the course that require memorization, to encourage students to keep up with the material.

I like your marking scheme. The worst class I ever had was the second introductory chemistry courses in my first year. We had nightly homework that was graded assigned every two days, plus assignments, plus a test every three weeks. I never really agreed with grading homework, and I particularly don't in university. University is time to man up, and if you don't do you work, tough luck.

By Kevin Sooley (not verified) on 24 Jul 2009 #permalink

@ F-L in #5:

The problem with that response is that a large fraction of college freshman are not prepared to do what you are referring to as college-level work. High schools in the US don't often go out of their way to challenge students so there's a bunch of kids who haven't ever worked hard for school. And many of them have completely freaked out at the opportunity to get out of their parent's house and need something tangible to be responsible for, like a grade. You can gripe about it all you want but it is what it is. And maybe letting a bunch take the "sink" route in "sink or swim" would be a valuable learning experience but I'm less willing to agree with that given the high costs of tuition.

So I think freshmen need graded homework. Now once you get past the freshman level, I agree that they should be acting like adults and you can start backing off of that. And by the time they are seniors, a few exams/papers should be good enough.

I have no strong feeling on how much of the final grade should be homework-based, but i do feel strongly that it should be graded. Not, however, for the purposes of getting students to do the work, but for the purposes of giving the students some feedback on how well they grasp the material. People often forget that expertise in a field means not only understanding it, but gauging how well one understands it.

You, as a professor, have an excellent grasp of your own knowledge-- you know if you understand something, if something nags at you, or if you're still missing something. Undergrads, however, can easily misjudge their own level of competence, in either direction. It's a judgement call as to where that ends, but I'd probably place it more at the undergrad/grad dividing line rather than the freshman/sophomore level.

By John Novak (not verified) on 24 Jul 2009 #permalink


When I taught last year at the local community college, I used something close to your system and it worked pretty well. The students really appreciates the chance to earn back credit, especially the highly motivated ones, and especially if you explain why you are providing the opportunity. I can only see two potential downsides. Some people will try to do it again anyways when they are overloaded, which is good for reinforcement but bad for time management when you are in school on top of a full-time job. Second, more grading - ugh.

We did have to work out some things because you have to be flexible when a hurricane comes through. When I teach again (probably not for a few years, but will happen eventually), I will continue to tweak this system.

Also, I think it is important to spend some time explaining the purpose of the homework, exams, etc, and the policies surrounding them. Understanding the motivation for doing things a certain way makes it easier for people to decide how to prioritize. Whether they agree with (and then will put reasonable effort) or want to cruise through to a C, or just drop, explaining what's going on helps make things clearer for everyrone.

I assume you weren't grading 3-6 problems a week for 100 students. (Actually, I know you aren't, but I wanted to set the scale of other parts of the world.) But you didn't say how often the Honor Code came up when doing that.

I use an open source homework system, but still collect some problems where I think they will benefit from feedback. Ditto for quizzes and/or in-class work. I think it works well, but I know it does not work for students who take an impulsive approach (guessing) when doing it "on" the computer rather than working it out in a notebook and simply checking the answers on the computer.

That is something I am going to try to fix this year.

The system I use allows me to see, at a glance, which problems are giving them a harder time than should be the case, so I can address the issue even if no one volunteers a question in class. It also allows me to look at what they did on the first attempt on certain kinds of problems, so I can see what concepts they are missing. I know it helps my teaching a lot.

Of course, it doesn't show who interprets "collaborate" as "copy" or "use cramster". The exams show that if no learning took place as a result of non-collaborative collaboration. That is always the case, but you waste less time when the computer looks at copied work than when you have to do it.

I think it's essential to grade homework for a couple reasons. The first being that it provides some form (although sometimes minimal) of feedback to students and can go a long way toward learning. In addition I think it's also motivation for student's to not only do the homework, but also to prevent them from copying (at least to some degree).

That being said, homework is all too often copied. Having homework worth 10-15% means that a student who does copy doesn't end up with an inflated grade based on their friend's ability.

Exams and finals should make up a more signficant part of a student's grade as these tend to be a more realistic measure of understanding.

In an idea world student's grades would be based largely on actual product (labs, practicums etc), and less on testing. These types of assessment provide a much better picture of what a student is able to actually do. Unfortunately this is difficult, if not impossible, to do at the college/university level (it's difficult even in grade school).

Yes, but for entirely selfish reasons. :D

I find the small amount of padding from homework to be beneficial to my ego. But I disagree that grading is required to force students to do homework from my limited and subjective viewpoint: Everyone I know does or doesn't do their homework regardless, and in both cases their grades reflect their respective tendency.

As a current first-year undergrad, I agree with F-L and others. If you need a carrot-and-stick approach to force you to do your university course, you shouldn't be doing that university course; and at this level, there should be flexibility so that those who don't need to do homework don't have to do homework. However, maybe my perspective is affected by the fact that I'm at uni in the UK. On my course, we are taught in smallish classes (~12) and very small "supervisions" (~2-3) in addition to lectures. If you don't do your homework (which is marked, so that you get useful feedback, but doesn't contribute towards anything), the lecturers and tutors are going to notice. If you don't do your homework AND you're underachieving, someone is going to be having some sort of chat with you sooner rather than later. The system works very well, IMO.

There's a very strong reason for grading homework at the university which employs me: accountability. Faculty here are discouraged from giving students low grades. If I give many homework assignments and can show that student X turned in only 6 of 20 assignments, I (or my department chair) might have an easier time justifying a grade of F or D or C for the student.

Nothing to do with education. Just one more tool for faculty in their fight to assign grades as they see appropriate.

It doesn't help much, though. Sigh.

By CaptainAhab (not verified) on 25 Jul 2009 #permalink

I do not routinely collect homework in my intro level class.

In a perfect world, I would have the time to thoroughly grade homework for all of my students. In a perfect world, I could also believe that my students would only turn in their own work, and not that of a discovered key or a classmate.

Hrm. When I was a college student, having deadlines for graded work kept me on track, made it easier to organize my study time, gave me feedback, and was absolutely required to get me to do the work. If something wasn't graded and I'd had 3 other classes with graded work that I'd done? Chances were good that the "optional" work wasn't going to get done. Total slacker you say? Not really. I graduated with a B+ average from MIT.

All kinds of research has been done showing that if people have regular deadlines for work, whether or not it's turned in on time, and some sort of accountability (grades, tick mark, etc...) which benefits them to turn it in, they'll do better, and get the work done in a more timely manner. It's not even a matter of moral or organizational failure as some commenters are saying, but human nature. Sure, maybe 10% of students can organize themselves without assistance. But don't count on the bulk of your class to self motivate, even if they're quite interested in the class. There are competing priorities.

Plus, as someone who graduated very near the top of my HS class without ever really doing much homework and having no study structure guidance from my otherwise excellent parents, I was a case study in someone who had no study skills to speak of when I arrived at university. For people like me, please continue to give and grade homework. (Although I'm long out of school.)

I do like your idea of being able to earn half credit for reworking problems. I often find even now that I "get" a concept quite readily, but without working through a problem or 4, I don't retain it very well. The doing is what cements the knowledge. I can sit in class all day and parrot it back to you quite easily, but turning it into useful work requires homework.

By CrankyOtter (not verified) on 27 Jul 2009 #permalink