By John Prather
Experienced teachers are aware of the inherent tension in grading homework. On the one hand, students need feedback on the lessons, and the instructor needs to know how they are doing. Moreover, some students will not do homework that is not collected. On the other, homework is time-consuming to grade. More than that, many students will not even look at the comments that the teacher has written. And even if they do, by relying on the instructor?s grading students are not learning to assess whether what they have done is correct.
A solution to this tension occurred to me at a Project NExT workshop in which end-of-class one-minute essays were discussed. Adapting this idea to homework, I now require students to include a short cover page on every assignment in which they must briefly reflect on the material.
On the cover page, I ask students to answer three questions: First, what topic did you believe was the most important in the assignment? Second, why do believe that is the most important topic? Third, what problems did you have with the assignment, if any? The students are required to answer each question with a complete sentence, but, otherwise, the cover (and the assignment) is not graded outside of credit for turning it in. I do not look at the actual homework problems unless the students ask me to on the cover sheet, or if I need to see a student?s work to fully understand a question that is asked. I do occasionally peruse the assignments to make sure the students are making some attempt at the problems.
The first two questions give me feedback about what the students understand. More important, however, is the third question. Typically students will give me a list of exercises that they could not do, or did not fully understand. This gives me the opportunity to reply specifically to the students? needs. Therefore, I have some confidence that when I give them feedback on these questions, they will actually look at it. If many of the students have the same question, I can go over it in class, saving even more time. At other times, students reply to this question with personal problems external to the class. The cover page gives them an easy way to let me know what is causing them trouble without embarrassment. Occasionally, students will even notice patterns in the homework or will do problems differently than I did, and will want to know if the pattern or their methods will always work.
Of course, there are some students who do not understand problems in the assignment, yet do not write them on the cover sheet. Typically this happens because students thought they understood, because they are too embarrassed to admit the scope of their problems, or because they just don?t care enough to ask. The last group would not look at my comments even if I graded the entire assignment, and I approach them just as I would any other unmotivated students.
The students who are too embarrassed to ask their questions probably pose the greatest challenge in any class, but also require more intervention than homework can provide. For these students, the instructor can use the cover sheet to start a more general conversation. The group of students who thought they understood usually self-correct quickly due to feedback from frequent quizzes and in-class discussion of the homework.
While there can be some delay in correcting mistakes on individual problems, over time they also start to take more responsibility for their own learning. They get a better sense of when they do not understand something, and ask more questions later in the course. In the end, they become better learners than they were before.
I have been pleased by the effectiveness of this requirement. In addition to the information that I expected to get, there are other benefits. Since the sheet is due at the beginning of class, students have thought about the problems they are having before arriving which makes the students more prepared. Perhaps most importantly, the sheets start a dialogue, and that makes me more accessible. I think I get more students in my office than previously because of the covers.
In the end, I feel like the time I spend responding to the cover pages is well worth the effort, and is an effective way to communicate with students.
Time spent: About a minute per student per assignment. Time saved: About 1-5 minutes per student per assignment depending on how much time the instructor would otherwise spend grading.
John Prather is an Associate Professor at the Eastern Campus of Ohio University and would welcome any feedback on this article. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.