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09 July 2011

Rules for Turning In Daily Work: CONSULTATION

Today's topic discusses consultation, or extra help, or tutorial, or whatever your school calls unstructured time when students can drop in to talk to you about physics.  The post in one sentence:  When a student's work is late, schedule a required appointment with him outside of class.

In the previous episode about extensions, I described my rather liberal policy of no-questions-asked homework extensions.  The question is, what happens when a student who is out of extensions doesn't have homework?  That's when I have to bring the hammer. 

It's important to note that I treat half-arsed homework similarly to absent homework.  The whole goal is to get every student to do every problem carefully and thoroughly.  I don't want to encourage last minute BS as a way of avoiding consequences. 

The trick that has been effective for me is *not* to emphasize a grade penalty for late or crappy work.  Sure, such work earns minimum credit, even if it's eventually done right.  But the mere threat of a bad grade is not effective amongst a certain subset of students.  The guiding principle that has worked for me:  I make it more difficult to do an assignment wrong than to do it right the first time.

A student without homework has already used up his numerous extensions.  That means it is the third or fourth time in the last five weeks that he hasn't done a short assignment.  He is aware of my policies, and has chosen to take the grade penalty.  Fair enough, say some.  Analagous is the guy who's been caught driving recklessly five times, and who pays his fines and raised insurance premium without complaint.  No, that's *not* "fair enough."  The goal is not to assess a fair penalty for reckless driving; the goal is to get this guy to stop driving recklessly.

We have another currency at our disposal other than grades: time.  Not only do I require students without homework to do the assignment correctly, I dictate the time at which they do so, and they do the work under direct supervision.

My school provides two time periods when I can require a student to show up to do supervised academic work.  The first is an afternoon study hall, which is reserved for those who need extra time to catch up with missing work.  "You're out of extensions and missing today's assignment.  So, you must attend today's afternoon study hall, because that will give you the structured time you need to catch up with your work."  Whether he's having to miss out on an hour of sports practice, or whether he just loses an hour of quality video game time, this student will have an hour of physics work forced upon him in replacement.
The other option is a mid-morning consultation period, during which classes are not in sesson.  Students usually use this time as they see fit, to finish homework, ask a teacher for help, or go to the snack bar for a break.  A student with poorly done or missing homework in my class, though, will be required to come see me during this time:  "This assignment was nowhere near correct.  I think you need some help understanding this material; please come see me during 9:30 consultation for a required academic appointment." 

Now, I'm lucky that my school's schedule provides these times for my use.  My students are well aware that teachers are encouraged to require them to attend these study times where necessary.  So, I don't get serious complatints, but I do have to be firm in not accepting excuses:  "I'm sorry that today's football practice is really important, but you have physics work missing."  "Yes, I understand that you were planning to finish your English paper during morning consultation period, but you need my help in physics, so you will attend the consultation period."  The only acceptable excuse is a prior commitment to meet with a different teacher, in which case I reschedule for the next day.
Your school probably does have a similar time of which you can make use, though you might have to be creative.  After school, before school, lunch time... whenever students and you are simultaneously uncommitted, require them to come see you.  If a student fights the requirement, engage -- this is a battle worth fighting.  Do whatever it takes to establish the procedure that missing or crappy homework automatically leads to a required meeting with you, because after mid-October, you'll hardly ever have to require these meetings.  Students will resign themselves to just doing the homework right the first time.

Importantly, when I require a student to attend either of these study periods, I try to avoid any suggestion of punishment.  A slacker will very often try to play the victim amongst his classmates (and parents), seeking sympathy and confirmation that I am a power-hungry jerk.  If I were to thump my chest, deliver a lecture on responsibility, act personally offended that a student was too lazy or immoral to complete my assignments, then that slacker would find the sympathy he seeks.  Moreover, the slacker would invariably come to these study periods with a vicious, bitter attitude, as if it were my fault that he didn't do his homework.  That's not helpful to anyone.  As often as I can, I want the slacker to actually use the extra time I've given him to do a good job on the problems. 

Nevertheless, no matter how much I explain that consultation and the afternoon study hall are merely tools to help the students keep up with a difficult course, the students tend to see these tools as punishments to be avoided.  That's okay by me... because, how do they avoid the "punishment"?  They get the homework done on time and with reasonable effort.  Which is all I want.


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