Last-minute homework panic . . .

Once-a-week courses tempt procrastinators

©Conrad Weisert, Information Disciplines, Inc.,
15 October 2016

Traditional academic course schedules

When I started full-time undergraduate college many of our courses met three times a week for about an hour. We had some Monday-Wednesday-Friday courses and some Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday courses.

I switched to part-time studies at another institution that catered to commuters. We still had those Monday-Wednesday-Friday courses for an hour, but they avoided Saturdays by scheduling Tuesday-Thursday courses for an hour and a half. Instructors complained that it was hard to adapt a course they had developed for three 60 minute sessions a week to two 90-minute sessions a week.

Catering to working students

As urban universities had to cater to more part-time working students some of them went all the way and scheduled evening classes once-a-week for about 150 minutes. That simplified commuting, but it complicated attendance issues and homework assignments.

In one of those old courses that met three times a week for an hour, the instructor could assign an exercise on Monday to be turned in Friday or the following Monday. Students would have several opportunities to confer with the instructor or to get help from a student-assistant or tutor. But when a week's worth of class sessions are compressed into a single long meeting, there's no such opportunity unless the student makes an extra trip to campus on a non-class day.

So, whenever I teach a once-a-week course I give the students at least two weeks to do any homework assignment. At the beginning of the course I explain carefully that this practice gives them plenty of opportunity to confer with me about anything they don't understand or need help with, and I stress the importance of starting work on each assignment during the first week they have it.

On the due date, after I've collected (paper or E-mail) all the students' assignments but before I've seen the students' work, we discuss the assignment in class and examine sample solutions.

How does that work out?

When I give out a homework assignment (always written out and posted on the web) I go over it in class, urging students to ask about anything that isn't absolutely clear.

A week later I remind students to ask about anything they're having trouble with. They can:

  1. ask now in open class discussion. Other students may find the discussion helpful.
  2. ask me privately during the mid-session break. They needn't feel embarrassed in front of other students.
  3. see me during office hours in the next few days, but still well before the due date.

A few students respond as they should. Then the days pass, and a day or two before the due-date I get a couple of panicky E-mail pleas:

Now my objective is to convey important concepts and techniques to the students, not to penalize them. I'm tempted, therefore, to extend the deadline for everyone. That means that the first opportunity to discuss solutions in class will be at least three weeks after the class session upon which the exercise was based, and students won't get their graded homework back for another week (or a few days by E-mail) after that.

Later assignments or an examination may assume that the students have mastered concepts and techniques from a homework assignment. It's tricky to juggle the schedule to be fair to everyone.

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Last modified 15 October 2016