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07 March 2018

Handing back work

It seems like such a small thing... but the manner in which you hand back routine student work makes a difference, especially in the tone of the class.

Firstly, let me kindly point out the underlying principle that, speaking in generalities, students don't care about a routine assignment once they've handed it in. 

Don't believe me?  Try an experiment.  Don't place students' work directly on their desks.  Rather, place the work easily accessible in the back of the room, or on top of a table down the hall, somewhere that requires a student to exert extra but minimal effort to get the assignment.  Do this for at least three routine assignments. By the third, I'll bet that only a couple of students bother to go get their papers, even if "going" to get the papers requires merely a walk to the back of the classroom while people are filing into the room.

For years now I've handed back student work in a slotted cabinet in the back of the room.  Each student has a numbered slot into which his papers are placed.  Only one or two students go back there on any given day, unless I make them. 

It's important that students know you're somehow looking at and evaluating their work; otherwise they won't take it seriously.  In the long term, your students really do appreciate your care in crafting, reading, and handing back routine assignments, because they will eventually recognize that your care for their assignments is an expression of your care for them personally.  Right now, though, yesterday's problem set might as well be as ancient and relevant as the OJ Simpson trial.

So why don't I force students to look at their previous work by placing it on their desks?  

In that case, I'm practically begging students to argue about points, to wonder why they only got two out of three when their friend got three out of three "and he said the same thing!"  I'm encouraging questions on the order of "well, if you really think about it, this answer could be right, can I have some points back?"  Faced with a graded paper, my students look straight at the final score, then at their classmates' final scores; then they start rationalizations that go so far beyond sour grapes as to become aged wine.

By returning papers in the back of the room, you have a grace period to tell the class briefly "hey, on last night's problem, you can't set the tension in the rope equal to mg, because the object is speeding up.  You have to write Newton's second law for both objects and combine the equations."  Everyone paid attention to that 20 second statement; everyone is now constructively considering whether they made that error or not.  Had their papers been in front of them, 3/4 of the class would have been leafing through the pages trying to mine for points, and won't have heard your statement anyway; half of the rest are considering whether the number of points they lost for that error was commensurate with their sense of justice, or whether they should summon Batman to fight for their points back.

Usually, a student who makes a couple of errors on a problem set doesn't need to have those rubbed in his face; it's far better just to mention common errors in general, but then move along.  They've been brought up in a system where 93% is an A, where anything less is on par morally with trigamy.  They get way too upset about their lack of perfection.  If they don't see their paper, even if they're purposely ignoring their paper in order to avoid confronting their imperfection, then that's a positive result.

Of course, there are times when you need a student to take a look at a routine assignment, particularly when that student's responses were nowhere close to on target.  In that case, require an extra help session of that student, and make him go get his work to show you.  This is the time to make the student redo the problem the right way... when there's no social value to the performance art inherent in "but teacher, can't I have pity points for writing F=ma?"  Redoing the problems from scratch can build confidence and bust misconceptions.

And, handing back the rare major test can be done without recourse to the back-of-the-room method.  I suggest either handing back a blank test with an indication of which problems require correction; or, discussing common issues briefly while holding on to the tests in the front of the class.

For regular assignments, though, you avoid a lot of headaches by making students take a bit of an extra effort to fetch their work.  You can focus on physics, rather than lawyerly discussions about grading.

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