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26 August 2009

You don't want homework to look like this --> .

I only assign about two problems per night, while math classes usually assign 10-30 problems per night. Yet, my physics assignment should take about the same amount of time to finish as a night of math homework. Not only are the physics questions more involved than their math counterparts, physics problems also require enormously more communication.

Without guidance from me, my students’ problem sets will look a lot like the picture to the right. Even with repeated written guidance, oral guidance, examples, threats, and groveling from me, it takes a long time to establish my expectations for problem presentation.

One trick that has helped tremendously is to require all homework to be done on UNLINED paper, with merely one or two problems per page. (One problem per page in AP physics; no more than two per page in general.) Notebook paper seems to constrain a response: all fractions are written on two lines, diagrams are rarely drawn; and if they are, they often fit nicely alongside the lines to the detriment of the communicative power of the diagram. Students schooled in resource conservation and basic economics put as many problems on a single page as they can fit.

A well presented problem usually includes three elements: diagrams, words, and mathematics. In fact, when I’m pressed for time, I will often grade problems cursorily by merely looking for these three elements and the answer. The blank canvas of the unlined paper, along with the mandate to fill up that canvas, seems to free up my students so they are more likely to include all three of the parts of carefully done homework.

It would seem that the cost associated with the benefit of homework on unlined paper would be the necessity for students to purchase expensive paper, along with the associated environmental cost of recycling or trashing the mounds of used homework assignments. I get around this issue by issuing biannual pleas to the school for usable unlined paper that would otherwise be dumped. Sure enough, my class’s needs have been more than met for a decade.

The library has given me their recycle pile, made up mainly of abandoned print jobs that were printed only on one side. (It’s obviously fine for homework to appear on the back of an old English essay, though students are initially hesitant not to present work on a perfectly clean sheet. What do I care about the flip side?) I make a point of keeping the recycling pile in the science department copy room neat, so I can just take it to my room for student use.

But perhaps the most awesome donations I’ve received come from the admissions and development offices. Whenever someone leaves, or whenever a telephone number changes, they must print new stationery. Their attics were full of stacks out-of-date sheets saying the equivalent of “From the desk of President Herbert Hoover.” The folks in these offices now make a point of sending old boxes of stationery to my room, where students love to use the high quality paper.

No one tries to fit lots of work into the corner of a page anymore. On the rare occasion at the beginning of the year when someone does so out of habit, I just remind him what he has to pay for really nice unlined paper.

1 comment:

  1. Carefully set physics problems are usually more time consuming as you observed. Students with good understanding of physics concepts and mathematical capability will be able to save much time.