|Keeping track of extensions on the white board. The check|
mark means an extension was used. The "Thr" means this
extension is due on Thursday. The blue boxes
One of the primary principles of the "Less is More" philosophy of physics teaching is to assign very little homework, but to expect all homework problems to be done thoroughly and correctly.
The first challenge to executing the "Less is More" vision is to select the homework assignments carefully. You only get to ask your class to respond to a few questions -- which ones? But problem selection is an issue for a different post, or a Summer Institute where I can give you a CD with all my assignments on it to use as a starting point for your class.
The bigger challenge to making "Less is More" work is to get students to pay careful attention to each night's assignment. Your students might require an attitude adjustment, since previous academic experience has probably not prepared them for nightly homework beyond the level of rote drill. How do you convince/force your students to take their problem sets seriously?
Of course, I don't have all the answers, and certainly I don't have the only answers. You do what works for you; in fact, I'd appreciate emails or comments giving different strategies that you have proved to be effective. I can tell you three tricks I've used that have helped establish the correct tone for nightly work. Today I'll talk about extensions; the next couple of posts will discuss consultation and collaboration.
"Extensions": I can not stand excuses, either as a coach or as a teacher. In baseball, you either made the play or you didn't; sure, analyze to yourself how you can do it right next time, but don't claim that your failure was the umpire's fault or otherwise out of your control. Similarly in physics, your homework is either ready at the beginning of class, or it's not. I'm not interested in why.
That doesn't mean students never have a legitimate reason why they didn't do homework. Of course their lives don't revolve around physics every night. I'm just suggesting that it is a fool's errand to wade into the judicial role of deciding what's a reasonable excuse and what's not. It certainly seems obvious that "I went to the hospital with Grandma last night" is legit, while "The Cubs game went into extra innings and by the time I turned off the TV my mom made me go to bed" doesn't cut it. However, the student with the latter excuse will still be angry and obnoxious when you tell him you don't accept his excuse. And you're paid to teach physics, not to spend 10 minutes of class every day dealing with excuses, complaints, and appeals.
I assign problems every night, but I allow two, two-day extensions per 5-week marking period. These extensions can be taken at any time, for any reason -- no questions asked. The missed problems are due two days later, with absolutely no penalty. Folks are shocked early on when they come to me with convoluted excuses, because I cut them off and say, "Don't tell me about it, take an extension." The extensions also solve for "I did it, but I left it in the library so I don't have it right now." No problem -- take an extension. It only takes one student having to "waste" his extension this way before people start paying more attention to whether their homework is in their physics binder.
Extensions become somewhat like currency within the class. Later in the year, after the routine is established, I might set up the opportunity to earn an additional extension, perhaps through a clean-the-lab rota, or by returning a few stacks of graded work to student boxes. In the last trimester, I offer the chance to convert an extension into an "exemption," meaning the problems never have to be turned in at all. (An exemption is generally earned only for perfect fundamentals quizzes, or for a week's worth of A-level homework. See this post.)
What do I do when a studen runs out of extensions, but doesn't have his work? I bring the hammer. That's the topic of the next post.