Teaching Tip #5: Homework Blues?

It’s only February 2nd and already some students are behind in their reading or other assignments.  If you mention the standard Carnegie definition of a credit hour (one hour in class plus two hours outside of class for each credit) many students look at you with horror or incredulity (the ones who don’t just laugh).  What’s a dedicated professor to do?   There are a number of strategies to try, but they all come down to one basic principle: make it matter.

  • Do NOT “cover” reading assignments during a lecture.  This makes reading completely unnecessary, and time-pressed students figure this out immediately.
  • Use class time to elaborate on the assignment, give additional examples, clarify difficult points or apply material to different problems.  Try to incorporate reading assignments and other homework into the structure of the class. Students who see their work being used, or who share it with peers, are more likely to stay current.
  • Ask students to write: a summary of their assigned reading; a question they have about an assignment; the most difficult part about the homework problem; or any question of your choice, and bring this response to class before you talk about it.  Such responses give you a sense of where students are struggling, and you can target your comments accordingly.  These types of writing assignments also can form the basis for discussion, and they are a great way to infuse “writing to learn” into any classroom.  Grading is optional.  You might choose to use these assignments as part of a class participation grade, or they can be used to document attendance.  Have students fully attended the class if they haven’t done their preparation?
  • Use technology!  Ask students to respond to questions or post the types of responses described above on the Blackboard discussion board.  You will want to have a deadline for these that allows you to review their responses in a timely manner, so you can use them as part of the class.  Students can respond to each others’ posts as well.  (Structuring this type of online activity usually needs to be worked into your course syllabus prior to the semester starting in order to be most effective.)
  • If you find that you are assigning readings or other homework that you aren’t really using in class or asking students to apply in their work, consider whether that assignment is really necessary.  Perhaps changing the reading or the task will make it more effective, or maybe it’s time to come up with something new, or spend the time on something else.
  • Make sure that you allow enough time for students to complete your assignments and really master them  –  you might ask your students how long they are spending on readings or problems and adjust your assignments accordingly.  Asking for this information can also let you know whether students are using a very superficial approach to their work or really getting into it. This is an excellent clicker question by the way – students don’t have to be embarrassed about their own answer and can see what the rest of the class is doing.
  • Discuss with students why you chose particular readings or designed particular assignments, so they have some idea of the benefits you expect them to reap from doing the work.  Then, let them know how to approach assignments effectively.  For example, students do not automatically know how to read college level texts, and they benefit from instructions that help them read more deeply.  Consider a reading guide with higher level questions that ask them to consider the author’s intention, questions they expect the author to address, their reactions to the reading, identification of the main points, etc.  Questions obviously will depend on the students’ level and your teaching goals.   For problem sets or design assignments, discuss how to attack a new problem and consider asking students to keep a journal where they record their attempts.  Reviewing students’ descriptions of their attempts to complete an assignment can give you tremendous insight into where students are going wrong.
  • Sometimes students seem to think that you just won’t notice (or care) that they are not keeping up. Then they get so far behind they become the “disappearing student”. Nip this in the bud now!  Contact students in whatever way you feel comfortable and let them know that you ARE paying attention, you HAVE noticed their absence or lack of preparation and what needs to happen NOW.  You can’t turn every student around, but research on early warning systems indicates that direct, personal intervention can be effective.  Generalized statements to the class and/or assuming the student will notice the problem and turn him or herself around generally do not work!

How do you help students stay on track in your classes?

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