Sunday, November 08, 2009


"Why do homework?" I ask myself, after a long and frustrating day (yesterday) spent plowing through somewhat lackluster and clearly lackadaisically-done homework sets completed by my Calc I students.

Why, indeed?

For the opportunity for practice it offers in applying important concepts.

For the chance to experiment with relatively unfamiliar computations.

For the offer of exploration it gives.

Not for a grade.

So why grade it?

Because, like it or not, students are motivated extrinsically by receiving highly idiosyncratic, often arbitrary, and sometimes meaningless numerical scores on their papers...the bigger the numbers, the closer to the onset of the alphabet the letter they can receive for those numbers at the semester's end.

About those letters, at the risk of sounding crude, who really gives a flying fuck?

I don't.

Nor should the students.

I wrote "like it or not" above almost cavalierly, as though I myself am a victim of circumstance, that I play no role in establishing the primacy of those numbers, the hegemony of grades.

Of course, that's nonsense: it's clear from the comments I receive on student evaluations and the feedback I get from them after class that I play a major role in their academic developments. I'm proud of that.

But I can't be proud of building up and bolstering the hegemony of grades.

This shit has got to change.

Those grades have got to go.

Not the homework: the homework should stay. As should the feedback provided on it. But the homework itself should be the end, and not the number scrawled at its top.

The same goes for quizzes, exams, team projects: they all should stay, sans numerical rankings.

That much is clear.

But it's just as clear that making the transition from a graded to a gradeless introductory mathematics course is going to be a tough task, and I'm not sure it's one I'll be able to tackle between now and January's start of a new semester (and a new Calc II course).

I am, however, willing to try. I've just got to wrap my head around this portfolio idea.

Anyone else up for it?


Izzi said...

Regarding what you discussed in class, about turning in the homework being optional, I think it will definitely separate the people who want to be there and the people who don't. I have a feeling that some people will lose grasp on what's going on. I know that I will continue to do the homework because I need the extra work to make sure I know what's going on. Some people don't have that mindset though. If it doesn't have to be turned it, it isn't going to get done. I don't know though, maybe the people that you deal with daily are more mature than that, but I have a feeling that's the way some of your younger students will feel about it.

So, there's my two cents.

DocTurtle said...

Izzi, I think you're right. There'll be a few folks who'll think they can make it without turning the homework in, and strangely enough I'd bet dollars to donuts that the people likely to have that mindset are the ones who's most benefit from continuing to submit the homework in the first place.

We'll see.

I'm comfortable with the decision, since for those in our class (like you!) who're going to do the homework anyway, nothing's really changed. All the new policy is going to do is make my weekend a little lighter: I'll have slightly fewer papers to grade, and I'll be spared the task of grading the sloppiest ones, most likely.

Thank you so much for your feedback!

Bret Benesh said...

I am struggling with this very question for my abstract algebra course next semester. My gut says to make the homework optional, but to comment heavily on it when it is handed in. However, I am still a bit gun-shy--in part because I am untenured.

However, I have been known to do potentially career-ending experiments, so we'll see.

I have been implementing a compromise for the past couple of years: homework is graded on an all-or-nothing basis, but students get to redo it. On most assignments, they get one chance to redo it (only because of the time required to redo and evaluate). On some assignments, they are allowed as many redos as possible to get a near-perfect answer. If they do not finish by the end of the semester, I simply grade the last assignment on a regular scale rather than give them a zero.

I would love to be a partner with you next semester. Let's stay in touch in planning our courses.