How do you manage ungraded student assignments?

Some questions for you in the “vlog” below:

Update: I’ve put the video “below the fold” because there is apparently no way to prevent Ustream embedded videos in blogs from autoplaying when you load the main page. Just click “Keep reading” and you’ll see it.

Leave your thoughts in the comments; and if anybody has problems with the video here, let me know — it’s my first time doing a real Ustream production.



Filed under Education, Teaching

15 responses to “How do you manage ungraded student assignments?

  1. James Crooks

    Nifty video thing; I’m surprised it worked. I’ve been having some trouble with embedded video (not always a bad thing really!) since I moved to Linux, but this worked great.

    Okay, so I’m a student who took a class like the one you’re describing last year. The course covered basic logic and set theory, but was focused on proof techniques rather than the content. Both this class and my more recent Linear Algebra class were run like you describe. Linear had some lecture as well, but the Sets and Logic course was almost entirely exercise and discussion driven.

    It’s hard to force students to do work that isn’t graded. I know because I am one. That said, we were graded via participation in class. My professors had index cards with everyone’s names on them and they would pull cards and call on people that way. If you couldn’t at least contribute to the class–maybe you didn’t do/figure out the problem, but you’ve got a good question–they would mark it down. In one class this was an actual grade, in the other there were bonus points for participation.

    However, the real motivator was usually making you look like a jerk if you didn’t do your work. It probably seems a bit mean, but one of my professors would actually mock us if we didn’t do the work. Getting stuff wrong was okay, but not trying got you made fun of. On the other hand, people who actively participated got a nod and occasional praise.

    There was one time in Linear where nobody did anything. We spent five minutes or so listening to the professor lament our laziness and call us a bunch of jerks, and then I think he did one problem before sending us off with the same assignment again. More people (not all, but more) did their work after that.

    In the other class, our professor would make us do the problem anyway. She would have people go up to the board and try. If you got really stuck, she’d solicit help from the class.

    I dunno, maybe I have mean professors, but it’s not high school. Their approaches seemed to work for the most part. People particularly seemed to respond to accolades when they brought in a tough problem.

  2. All of my professors have had different approaches to this problem.

    In Philosophy, the prof used only test grades. Didn’t read the material? Aren’t prepared for class? That’s fine, because you’ll just fail the test later. No extra help for you. Of course, there are plenty of opportunities for catching up if you fall behind (office hours, study groups, etc), but that’s likely more work than just doing the assignments in the first place.

    In my last math class, the assignments were sort-of optional. Averages were based on four tests and a final. However, skipping out on assignments knocked 5 points off of one test grade, doing lots extra work added up to 5 points, and doing the “suggested” amount of work prepared you well for the tests, but didn’t tack extra points onto your grade. The work wasn’t due until each test was administered, so I usually hung around the math lab during the days preceding tests, tutoring people who were clueless as a review for myself.

    However, in my current English class, graded assignments are rare. Mostly, there aren’t consequences for not doing the work, excluding embarrassment. It’s a summer course at a community college, so there are quite a few high school students in the class. Didn’t do the assignment? Gee, lets see if the 16-year-old did the work. If that’s not embarrassing, I don’t know what is.

  3. I had a son in a math class with ungraded assignments. He did them. The teacher did not discuss them. So when it came to the test, he would discover that two or three things that he thought he knew, that he had done on his homework, was wrong. I was appalled.

    I don’t do ungraded assignments for reasons like the ones you mentioned and my son’s situation. But you are going to be doing discussion, so that probably isn’t an issue.

    I like the idea above of making the students work them out in class, perhaps for a grade?, if no one in the class does them. I, at least, would make sure that never happened again.

    What I do is easy grades. I have assignments that I want them to do, but I don’t want them to spend hours on the assignments. They are to give them familiarity with a topic and to demonstrate that familiarity. So I make the assignment and take them up. (We also discuss them in class.) I quickly check for errors in one section, but not the others. If there are no or only one or two errors and the work is all done, they get a 100. If the work is all done, but there are lots of minor errors, they get an 80.

    It takes away from the “ungraded” part, but it does get them working.

  4. elementaryteacher

    I liked your podcast. After reading it and the three comments above, I’d like to make a suggestion that might work.

    I already use an approach like this in Grade 3 (hopefully you read about that in one of my other comments). I don’t grade the homework, but students THINK it is graded (because I put A or F on it, based on whether or not is DONE, but NOT whether or not it is RIGHT). I think this is what you are looking for–getting students to work as far through the problems as they can, before coming to class, so that they are ready to LEARN from the class discussion (which is exactly what I’m doing, too).

    Why not give a SMALL number of problems that are each representative of what you need to explain. Then explain at the beginning of the course that this is how the course is going to work. If people don’t do the problems before, they will NOT be able to benefit nearly as much from the discussion, as if they copy down the explanations afterward.

    Furthermore, tell students that you expect everyone to come prepared, having worked as far through the problems as possible. Then start calling on students by name (if you don’t know their name, call them off the roster). It isn’t necessary to humiliate them in order to get them to work (as one commenter suggested), but just by calling on them with a question such as, “John Smith, what’s the first thing we should think about/do here?” And then, “Suzie Jones, what’s the next thing,” or “What do we do about this dilemma we’ve come to?” If someone has had trouble, you can ask them politely, “Wha

    Believe me, when you teach this way every day, they will either drop the course if they aren’t prepared to do the work (and DO let them know the first day what you

  5. James Crooks

    Given Eileen’s comments (which are quite good), I should like to clarify: I don’t mean an instructor should be actively putting people down, but a comment about not working before moving onto the next student prevents the feeling that it’s “okay” to not do the work as assigned.

    Also, I’d like to echo the point about assigning a small number of problems, with more suggested problems. Larger assignments are easier to blow off if they’re not being graded, sure you feel a little bad, but it’s a lot of work! Also, if you actually address every, or at least nearly every problem assigned, then students don’t feel cheated. I know I was annoyed when we’d have a dozen problems to work and we’d cover one proof and maybe one or two computational problems in Linear.

  6. elementaryteacher

    Hi Robert,

    Last night when I was in the middle of my typing, my keyboard stopped working, which is why a couple of my sentences are unfinished.

    What I meant to say is just what James has added above, is if someone has had trouble (which is why they didn’t finish), you can politely say, “Could you explain to me what trouble you are having,” or “What gave you trouble with this, exactly?”

    On the other hand, if you find the student didn’t do his work, you can make a comment about it, but politely, such as, “I’m sorry to see you weren’t able to do this short number of problems. HALF the benefit of this course will come out of your doing the problems in a timely manner before class. I hope you will be better prepared for our next class.” Then move on to the next student. This also covers the cases where the student didn’t do the work because of some personal problem beyond his control (doesn’t humiliate him for no reason, especially when you don’t know the reason), but if he was just lazy, it makes him a little embarrassed in front of his peers.

    Three things are key here:

    First, as James says, you must do ALL of the problems, so that students who did their work don’t feel cheated, and students who didn’t do their work don’t feel “relieved,” and encouraged to take a chance again about not doing the work.

    Second, there should be only a small number of problems. It would be better to do only one problem a day like this, and GO OVER IT, than to do three problems, yet only go over one or two.

    Third, let students know RIGHT UP FRONT, the FIRST DAY, how the course will work. Those who are really against it will drop the course and take another. Students who stay in and understand it WILL be willing to do the work for you (at least 90 percent of them, I assure you) when they see the method giving them definite benefit. Even my third-graders see the benefit after the first three or four weeks of class. Even they understand that they are only cheating themselves if they come with their work undone, or ERASE it instead of marking corrections in ink, or a different color pencil.

    Fourth, I suggest that you might even suggest that method to your students, of not erasing corrections, but making corrections in a ink, or in a different color. That way, when they go to study for the test, they will be able to use their time efficiently, concentrating on where they went wrong, rather than floundering around studying material they already know! (It’s what I do with my third-graders, too.)

    If you decide to go ahead with this new plan, please do let us know how it works out for you this year.

    Before I taught Kindergarten and Grade 3, I actually started out teaching banking and investment courses at the college level. Then I moved to junior high and high school, then eventually wound up in elementary. I’ve found that education is pretty much the same at any level (college, kindergarten, grade school, high school) in terms of how information needs to be presented–an explanation, then some practice guided by the teacher, then homework (practice on your own); then a review by the teacher, and if it is not correct, anther opportunity for explanations of errors, and more practice at home.

    Last comment: I really like the idea of a minimal number of problems that will be gone over in class, AND a few more suggested problems, BUT WITH ANSWERS PROVIDED. If you provide answers for additional problems (even two or three problems), MANY more students will be encouraged to DO those problems at home, because they will have a way to check if they did them right. You can cover this in class, by asking, “Did anyone have any major problems with any of the other problems (the ones with answers)? When students see you asking that every day, more and more of them will be encouraged to try those problems.

    Good luck!

    Dedicated Elementary Teacher Overseas (in the Middle East)

  7. elementaryteacher

    I forgot to say that one thing I liked about your podcast is that it makes readers feel like they they know YOU. For the first time, we get to see your face, instead of your eyes peering out over the book.

    Since you’ve exposed your face now, why not consider changing your picture to one that doesn’t hide your face? It feels much more friendly watching your podcast, or even seeing your whole image in your podcast; compared to the photo, which seems cold, and even feels a bit stand-offish.

    I also thought you expressed yourself very well in your podcast!

    Dedicated Elementary Teacher Overseas (in the Middle East)

  8. Eileen: Despite having blogs and making a living by standing up in public and doing stuff, I’m actually pretty shy, and I have a personally difficult time plastering my face all over everything, hence the choice of photo. But perhaps you’re right.

    Actually I made the video just because I was wanting to see how Ustream did on a — and because at the time I was too lazy to type! Although I like doing things differently every so often and a video post is a nice change of pace and kind of fun.

  9. It’s very useful articles.

    You’ve done a good job

    Many thanks

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  10. Thanks for sharing that!

  11. rwp

    Business students don’t do ungraded assignments. We found that out the hard way.

  12. I rarely give assignments that are not graded because I’ve found that too many students simply won’t do them. But I will often give just a completion grade (either they tried to do the work of they didn’t) or I spot-check the work (grading only part of the assignment). If you assign five problems, you could grade just one of them but the students would not know ahead of time which one.

  13. Speaking as a nearly-graduated undergraduate, I find that most of my classmates do not *want* to participate in class discussions, and given the chance to skip out on work (and not be able to participate the next day) is just dandy with them.

    I recall something one of my HS teachers did, which I always thought was a good idea: he would assign various students (2-3 a day) to dig up background information on the next day’s topic. It was only supposed to be a paragraph, enough to give the class a short introduction. The benefit was that *those* students were gauranteed to know the stuff (because otherwise they were embarassed in front of the class, as being only one out of three that failed), *and* they had a commitment to spur conversation (because they felt that they had a stake in that topic). It was one of many things he did, but it helped.

    Of course, he also went to war with the school administration to get us a classroom where the desks could actually be arranged in a one-seat-deep *full* circle (not that squashed oval that some teachers manage to pull off), such that everyone really could look at and speak with one another. That helped, too.

    He also didn’t call on us. We were fully expected to call on one another, and if he wanted to participate he raised his hand like everyone else (though we always called on him because – well – he was the teacher).

    Essentially, he did his best to create a sense of equality, partnership, and ownership on the part of the students. I think that’s important: discussion classes based on the standard inequality of power between teacher and students are bound to fail with anything but the most assertive students.

  14. Different level, same problem: I need high school kids to do homework each day, because it often generates the next day’s work. But do I want to grade 500 or so assignments a week? No.

    One thing I do, credit for anyone who puts up a problem, right, wrong, or with question, you can’t do that.

    Another thing I do, checking for completion, not content, you could do. Would it violate the spirit of ungradedness to ask them to produce two copies of each assignment, one for turning in, one for class discussion – and to associate no credit for turning them in, but a small penalty for failing to do so? (beginning of class, no other time, since it’s all about the discussion). Could be each class, could be random, could be when you sense a bunch are unprepared (as long as they are warned in advance that this might occur).

    Another thing I do, establish that homework problems or closely related problems might be on a test, and that they are responsible for all of the homework material, whether it is reviewed in class or not, there might be a variant that you could use.


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