Archive for February 2009

Do and Redo

One of the things I think I’ve become known for at UNC is my homework policy, which is very lenient: I allow students to turn homework in late, and I allow them to resubmit assignments for a higher grade as many times as they can until they get a perfect score or the semester ends. This is not just something I do in order to be popular or well-liked (although that’s a nice side-effect, to be sure); it’s a policy about which I’ve given a great deal of thought, and which has evolved over the last ten years or so. It works the best for me for several reasons:

  • In my classes, homework presents the student with the topics and types of exercises that they will find on the exams. Thus, gaining a real understanding of the homework is the best way to prepare for the exams.
  • Often, the misunderstanding of a single element can cause a cascade of errors throughout the homework. If someone misunderstands how to build a particular type of chord, for example, it could be disastrous for a long assignment which uses that chord throughout. Grading that assignment objectively might result in a very low score — a 12%, for example — that does not truly portray the student’s understanding of the assignment as a whole. However, knowing that the student can fix and resubmit the assignment frees me from feeling like I am condemning that student to a horrible fate while remaining objective.
  • Allowing a student to “try again” — or submit homework even though they didn’t meet the deadline — reduces the chances that the student will throw up his or her hands and “give up” with that particular assignment… something that benefits no one.
  • The system actually makes grading much easier. Because students can redo their assignments, grading consists of identifying which problems are wrong, and not explaining why they are wrong — this is left as an exercise to the student as he or she is redoing the assignment. Of course, if a student continues to make the same mistake after a few redos, I will give them some guidance either on paper or in person. And because I allow students to turn in assignments after the deadline, I don’t need to keep track of when a particular paper is handed in, nor do I need to play judge and jury regarding reasons for papers being late. (And, as any teacher can tell you, the whole “judge and jury” role is an exhausting one.)

The only drawbacks to my system is that students sometimes take advantage of it too much. I’ve had students go the entire semester without turning in anything, only to frantically complete all of their homework by the end of the semester and hand it all in. Unfortunately, this generally results in some very poorly done homework and no chance to redo it, and I can only hope that the student learns a valuable life lesson as a result. However, I think that giving students these opportunities to manage themselves — even though, to quote a colleague, it gives them “freedom to fail” — is an example of respect from professor to student, something to which all students have a right.