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04 July 2011

Why I make work due every day

I'm in the midst of a series of posts about course structure and rules for daily assignments.  Before you go all nuts and say "No, what you say would never work," it's important to recognize that everyone's class structure must be context specific. 

I teach 11th and 12th grade in a boys' boarding school; it's unlikely that you are in the same situation.  A commenter mentioned, quite reasonably, that he thought it *un*reasonable to assign work every night -- after all, high schoolers have lives outside of academics, which we should respect.  Assignments due every few days allow the student to execute a guiltless social life, and preempt the excuse that a given night's required events provided no possible time for homework.  Fair enough, in the right situation.

I've heard it claimed (and I even used to claim myself) that widely spaced, longer assignments help teach students to manage their time wisely, because the burden is on THEM to work ahead, and they themselves pay the price of catching up if they have procrastinated.  When I taught at a day school, I assigned sets of 5-6 problems each due about twice a week.  Virtually every problem set was, in practice, worked on only the night before it was due.  Groups of students deliberately planned social get-togethers twice weekly in conjunction with the assignment schedule.  That worked fine with those students' schedules.  However, don't think my students did much forward thinking:  I frequently heard complaints that I scheduled a problem set due the day after a ballgame, dance, or event.  The idea that they could or should work ahead since they had the assignments available a week in advance did not compute. 

The actual advantage of fewer-but-longer assignments at that particular day school involved collaboration.  These folks could and did arrange minor physics parties twice a week; I don't think they would have collaborated with each other so well on a nightly basis. 

When I arrived at the boarding school, I initially attempted the same course structure.  Thing is, my students here live on dorm, and have a nightly two-hour study period.  The facutly generally make daily assignments, with few long-term deadlines.  The students are used to looking no further than the work due the very next day.

So, I faced serious opposition to bi-weekly deadlines.  It worked like this:
* Monday night:  Nothing due Tuesday, so do no physics homework.
* Tuesday night: Nothing due Wednesday, so do no physics homework.
* Wednesday night:  Six problems due Thursday.  Spend 45 minutes working, see that there are still three problems to go.  Get work for other classes done.  Complain to department chairman that Mr. Jacobs is assigning more than the official 45-minute-per-night limit.

Aarrgh!  On one hand, it was easy to complain about those danged kids these days, don't know how to manage their time and plan ahead as of course everyone did in my day.  But it was *my* responsibility to adjust my course structure to fit my students' preconceptions.  And so I did. 

I quickly changed to nightly assignments.  Since everyone lives on dorm, collaboration is easy on a nightly basis.  Since study periods are considered sacred and are hardly ever canceled for other events, I am confident that everyone has the available time to invest in physics if that time is used wisely.  Of course I still tend to post assignments several days ahead of time, so that interested students can work ahead.  The nightly structure has served me well in terms of getting the homework done at all, and then in terms of fostering collaboration.

As you determine your daily assignment structure, try not to think in idealistic terms.  Think practically -- not what your students *should* do, but what structure will most likely actually result in carefully presented, vetted solutions to the assigned problems.  Author Terry Pratchett mentions that structuring a society's taxes is like dairy farming:  the goal is to extract the maximum amount of milk with the minimum amount of moo.  I'd say, treat homework the same way.

Some further ideas about fostering collaboration in the next post. 

1 comment:

  1. Good explanation of why daily assignments works well in your context (and why the same system might not work well in other contexts).