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25 July 2016

Justify the ones you missed for homework -- adapting to an every-other-day schedule

It's time for me to adapt to a new ecosystem.  

For the last nineteen years, my classes have met five days a week.  Thus, my assignments and course structure have been adapted to that schedule.  At boarding school, an assignment has been due every day, because students have structured study time each night; at day school, longer assignments were due twice a week, knowing that the students liked to plan to gather about twice a week to do their problem sets together.  In class, I've saved the longer laboratory exercises for my single 90 minute period each week, using the other meetings for quantitative demonstrations and shorter experimental activities.

This year, though, my class meeting schedule has changed.  My classes will meet for 40 minutes on Mondays... but then two more times in the week for 90 minutes each.  That's less actual meeting time than previously; but I'm not losing much in terms of effective teaching time.  See, 90 minutes straight is much more effective than the two separate 40-minute periods that are being replaced, simply because we don't have to stop working, clean up, and rev up again the next day.

Thus, the way we spend in-class time will hardly change at all.  I already go to great lengths to keep students moving around, focused but relaxed, doing a variety of activities with clearly articulated goals.  Generally, my class already says "aww, crap, can I just finish this real quick?" when I tell them to clean up for departure.  So teaching for 90 minutes straight will be a godsend, not an obstacle.

How I assign homework will have to change, especially in conceptual physics.  The whole theory behind an every-other-day schedule is that without the grind of having to prepare for every class every day, students can pay better attention to engaging intellectually with each night's work.  So, um, that means our faculty have been specifically instructed NOT to simply double the homework we used to assign each night.  I fully support this initiative, as problem solving is a creative process with a law of diminishing returns.  (If you can't lift weights every day in preparation for football season, you can't simply double the number of pounds you're lifting every other day.)

The way I'm thinking now is to divide a night's assignment into two parts.

* The first part is a standard nightly problem set, like I've been assigning for decades.  Remember, a "problem set" is far more similar to an English essay than to a night's worth of math problems.  Written explanations and justifications, not numerical answers, are the dominant feature.

 * The second part begins with a set of multiple choice questions to be done individually.  (The requirement for individual work can be enforced by giving five minutes at the end of class to answer; or, you could use webassign or the equivalent to randomize the questions and the order of the answers, so collaboration would be ineffective.)  I'm going to use socrative to collect student responses electronically.  

Each student will see immediately whether his answer is right or wrong to each question.  The actual assignment, due the next class day, is simply justify the ones you missed.  

Think of the incentive for the students to take these multiple choice questions seriously.  No matter what kind of or how much work you assign, in class or out of class, it is beyond useless unless the students are thoroughly engaged in discovering and understanding the correct response.  Practice doesn't make perfect -- only perfect practice makes perfect.

In this case, the opportunity to avoid doing more homework is what motivates everyone to engage carefully with each multiple choice question.  

Get it right, and it's done and dusted.  

Get it wrong, that's okay.  There's no grade penalty, no disappointed sigh from the teacher, no whipping with a wet noodle.  Every question that's wrong does require some major work to discover, understand, and then write up the correct solution, but that's work that the student knows needs to be done.  After all, he just got the answer wrong, so it's obviously important to figure out how to do it right, right?


  1. Hey Mr. Jacobs!
    I've been using 5 steps and your blog to study for my Physics 1 AP test and they have helped me so much! I noticed you often say that students should "annotate their problem sets" and that this is a great learning experience, but I don't really know how to annotate my physics problems. My teacher doesn't make us do this and couldn't give me an explanation as to how or what to annotate in problems. Could you give me some examples of annotated problems or some directions regarding how to annotate problems? Thanks so much!

  2. That sounds like fodder for a whole post. I'm happy to help... give me a few weeks.