Category Archives: Teaching & learning

Strategies for Managing Team-Based Research (co-authored with Akram Al-turk)

The scientific community celebrates individual achievements by conferring prestige and honors on scientists who win out in the competitive game of being the first to publish innovative research. Paradoxically, however, modern scientific expertise rests heavily upon work carried out by teams, rather than scholars working on their own. Tensions between the forces of competition and cooperation thus infuse every aspect of scholarly activities: grant writing, publishing, leadership in scientific organizations, and so forth. Thus, it is understandable that graduate students and junior scholars would be perplexed by how to manage such tensions.

We believe the key to successful collaborative relationships lies in preparing for them ahead of time, rather than attempting to deal with problems as they arise. In fact, some research suggests that the effectiveness of collaborative work is determined before any of the work is carried out. We have identified four structural elements that increase the likelihood of creating and sustaining collaborative relationships.

Define the Scope and Logic of the Project

At the start, the parties to a collaborative relationship should agree on a project’s scope and logic of inquiry. The researchers should ask themselves a few questions that will ensure that they are all on the same page. For example, will the project be open-ended, continuing until all possible avenues of interpretation have been explored and as many papers as possible published? Or, is the project more self-contained, with target journals or conferences identified and the project ended when a paper is accepted? Is the relevant data for the project already in hand or clearly identified, or will building a new dataset be a major thrust of the effort? Sharing “mental models” of the work to be done and how it should be carried out leads to effective teamwork.

In addition to being able to answer these questions, the types of goals a team comes up with will likely affect how well the collaboration goes. Although “write a paper together and get it published” is a common goal for academic collaborations, the success of the research project may depend on having a compelling goal. Is the research question challenging and (by academic standards) somewhat consequential? And, is the goal focused enough so that researchers are working toward a final product but open-ended enough that researchers have some level of autonomy and can be creative when the need arises? Interdisciplinary teams need to communicate with one another the reward systems of their disciplines, as some may place higher values on books than journal articles, or may value certain kinds of journals over others.

Agree about Responsibilities

Teams should also be deliberative and explicit about each researcher’s responsibilities.  External factors often dictate how well an organization (or group) does, but individual interventions, especially by team leaders, can lead to more effective team performance . Teams should decide whether one person will be identified as the “leader” of the project, ultimately responsible for taking major decisions (after consulting with the team) or whether leadership responsibilities will be rotated. In either case, a leader can increase effectiveness by ensuring that the research team comprises individuals whose skills and competencies complement each other and all contribute to the overall goal of the project, designing tasks that give everyone enough autonomy to make their contributions personally fulfilling and meaningful to the project and establishing norms of how the group will work and interact . Teams should identify each team member’s competencies, clarify what that member will do to move the project forward, and make sure everyone on the team knows the others’ roles.

Enforce Deadlines and Give/Receive Timely Feedback

Failure to meet deadlines often sinks collaborative relationships. However, failure to even set deadlines is probably a bigger headache. Without deadlines, members have no way of holding one another accountable for holding up their end of the relationship, as a member can always say that they’re not quite finished yet or they will have their part done “soon.” To receive the benefits of collaborating with people who have complementary skills, team members must be ready to comment in a timely fashion on intermediate products produced by others. First, team leaders can make sure that all researchers on the team are kept in the loop about how the project is going. Second, leaders can try to encourage everyone on the research team (and model ways) to provide good, timely feedback, e.g. by scheduling regular feedback sessions.

Use Coordination Mechanisms That Facilitate the Collaboration Process

Coordination and communication challenges can hinder the success of collaborative research. Although email and video conferencing services such as Skype have become ubiquitous, these technologies do not necessarily ensure that collaboration is successful. For example, although email and video conferencing allow researchers to communicate more easily, these kinds of tools may not be the best for task coordination, information sharing, and intra-project learning. One of the main challenges for teamwork is juggling multiple and simultaneous work tasks. Researchers, therefore, should use tools that help them manage these multiple tasks, allowing them to know what’s expected of them and see changes to the project almost instantaneously. A plethora of programs and software now allow for this. We recommend that researchers start with one that has low start-up costs—both in terms of time and money—and not be lured by fancy features, as they can be a time sink. Sometimes, investing in innovative technologies is worth the time, but teams should be deliberate about whether the investment is worth it for their project.

Summary

We have identified strategies for mitigating or eliminating collaboration problems in team-based research. At the beginning of a project, face-to-face meetings can establish the ground rules and expectations were all members of the team. Free riding, shirking, and social loafing are much harder when team members agree on responsibilities and create monitoring and enforcement mechanisms. Candid and timely feedback limits the damage that emergent problems can create, but requires strong leadership and commitment by all members to be effective. Finally, as in other collaborative efforts, state-of-the-art coordination and communication technologies facilitates effective team governance.

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Guidelines for Reducing Implicit Bias in Your Grading

Kyoto Garden

Garden in Kyoto

When asked what they most dislike about teaching, many instructors put grading at the top of the list. They find the process time consuming and stressful, topped off by demands from students that their assessments be logically justified. Who hasn’t found themselves in a situation of confronting a student who feels treated unfairly in the grading process and whose persistent questioning reveals that a grade does not stand up to scrutiny. Indeed, upon close inspection, the grading seems arbitrary and hard to defend. What to do?

Grading needs to be done well to give students the feeling that they are being treated fairly in the assessment process. Instructors need to use the same criteria of reliability and validity in designing assessments that they use in their empirical research. Just as they might be called upon by reviewers to defend the quality of data used in an article, so also must they have an answer to students’ queries about the rationale for their marks.

From my perspective, “implicit bias” constitutes a threat to the integrity of the assessment process. Instructors need to take every possible step to reduce the possibility that grades reflect less the merits of the answers than the personal characteristics of the student or the arbitrary whims and fancies of the grading process. Race, class, gender, sexual identity, social capital, and other student characteristics can affect grading if instructors haven’t created a process to limit their effects.

In addition, I believe instructors’ overconfidence in their grading abilities constitutes another form of implicit bias that hampers their ability to assign grades fairly. Keeping the process opaque and not sharing grading criteria with the students emphasizes the unequal power between students and instructors, and is another source of student cynicism about the educational process.

What steps might instructors take?

First, grade all assessments blindly. This means making sure there is no identifying information available while grading the assignment. You can do this by having students turn in blue books with the cover page turned back, by having identification numbers instead of names, by having students fold over the top of the page on which the name is written, and so forth.

Second, prepare an answer key beforehand for all answers. Some instructors call this a “rubric.” The answer key should not be simply bullet points, but rather a fully written out answer, of the kind you would expect to earn full credit on the question. You could also have a list of characteristics or features you’d expect in the question, but the sample answer – – which should be posted or handed out to the students – – should be complete and in prose form.

Preparing the answer ahead of time lets the instructor know that a question can, in fact, be graded. In addition, it prevents “bracket creep” in which an implicit and unwritten template for an answer subtly changes as the instructor reads through the answers and subtly changes the criteria for a grade. If you aren’t certain as to whether your template is too tough, you should read a sample of the answers ahead of time, before grading them, and revise your template if necessary. The rubric should not be changed, once grading is underway.

Third, write out the comments necessary to justify your mark. Don’t just write a simple one or two-word phrase, such as “good job,” or “not complete.” Write enough information next to the answers so that you can explain to students, when they come to you for advice, why you gave that particular mark.

Fourth, grade all of one question before beginning to grade the next question. For example, if your exam consists of four essay questions, you would grade all of question one first, going through all the exams, and then shuffle the exams and grade all of question two. And so on throughout the four questions, in order. This ensures that you are using the same standard throughout your grading and that your grading is not influenced by marks that you have given for previous answers.

You must ensure that a student’ s grade on a previous question is not visible to you. Otherwise, that grade is likely influence the grade you give the current question. Turn over the previous page so that you cannot see it.

Firth, take breaks while grading, and do not attempt to binge on finishing the grading in one sitting. Mistakes are much more likely if you continue grading to the point of exhaustion!

Working to ensure that your assessments are graded reliably and validly requires a bit more preparatory work on an instructor’s part, but the extra work returns huge dividends. When students realize that you are taking great care to grade their work fairly, they take a much more positive view of the assessment process. By the time they get to college, many have become quite cynical about the way instructors exercise their power in handling assessments, and they will appreciate the extra effort you take to make the process as transparent as possible.

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The Sound of Silence Can Be Deafening & the Questions You Ask Your Students Can Provoke It

A colleague recently visited my office with a problem. He said the students in his undergraduate class “didn’t want to talk.” He and I had previously talked about how to get students more engaged, and I had suggested to him that he ask questions. I probed, “what kinds of questions have you asked your students?” He replied, “Well, the first question I asked this morning was ‘what is the main point of the article I assigned for the day?’” Nobody said anything.

Instructor pointing at student

You WILL answer my question!

I pointed out that even I might be afraid to answer such a question. Such questions pose a severe challenge to the confidence of undergraduate students, because the instructor clearly knows the answer and they don’t.  The answer is a “fact” which the instructor clearly thinks the students should have already known before they came to class. When it comes to answering questions about “facts,” there are many ways to be wrong, but only one way to be right. When faced with this dilemma, students are understandably silent.

I suggested that he come up with nonthreatening questions: questions that didn’t put a student’s self-confidence and reputation at risk. Trying to begin a discussion with questions for which there is a “correct” answer makes salient the asymmetrical relationship between instructors over students. No one wants to look bad in the eyes of peers and so it is safer to say nothing and wait till somebody else answers or instructors give up and answer the questions themselves.

Is there a better way? What types of questions could you ask to begin a discussion? First, you could ask about something that everyone has seen or experienced. For example, in a class on the sociology of work, I asked students what is the best job they ever had and what were its characteristics? Everybody can answer such a question. Second, you could write a concept or principle on the board and then ask students to suggest examples. For example, you can ask for personal examples of a principle identified in the readings, rather than asking students to define the principle itself. In a class session on organizations and bureaucracy, I asked the students which aspects of the ordering process best exemplified what George Ritzer identified as the rationalization of fast food restaurants. It is critical in this process that you do not comment on the examples that are offered. Instead, simply compile the list. Third, you could ask students which previous class sessions or readings the day’s assignment reminded them of and why. Again, simply compile the list without editing it. Later in the discussion, after students have gained some confidence in participating, you can ask more difficult questions.

In addition to choosing questions for which there is no clear right or wrong answer, I follow several guidelines in getting discussions started. First, if at all possible, I use the whiteboard to keep track of student responses. Otherwise, trying to control the discussion process while at the same time keeping track of what is been said creates a high stress situation. You could also use an interactive polling system, such as Poll Everywhere.  Writing responses on the board clears your short-term memory and also gives you a few seconds to collect your thoughts while you decide on follow-up questions.

Second, I take care to make sure that if I’m writing answers on the board, I write them in the students’ own words. I rarely edit student responses and when I do, I always ask their permission. Writing the responses verbatim sends a strong signal that you are going to privilege student voices in the discussion, rather than just looking for confirmation of what you are going to tell them anyway.

Third, you should follow-up short or incomplete responses. Probe for more information by telling students that you need to make sure that you understand their meaning and thus you need a sentence or two from them. Point out that the few words you’ve written on the board might make little sense in a few minutes, when the discussion turns to assessing what’s been written in response to your original question.

When you are satisfied that you have responses that adequately cover the readings assigned for the day, then turn to editing what you’ve written on the board. This is a dangerous stage in the process, as it is here that instructors often hijack the process and begin selectively drawing from the writing on the board to give the lecture they had planned in the first place. Although the impulse to “correct” the unedited responses may be strong, don’t do it. Instead, turn to the students and ask them for suggestions for improving or simply using the list. For example, after I’ve written down the responses to my question about the characteristics of the best job students have had, I asked students if they see any pattern to the responses. The discussion naturally leads into various ways in which the dimensions of jobs can be analyzed.  In another example, after listing all the comments about ordering systems in fast food restaurants, I asked if the list reminded them of any of Ritzer’s principles and why. Note that it is okay at this point to begin probing for relevance to the day’s instructional goals, because you’ll have shown the students that you are listening to them, that their words matter, and that you take their views seriously.

The next time you find yourself stumped by why students are sitting passively in the classroom, seemingly unable or unwilling to answer your questions, take a hard look at your questioning strategy. Rather than sparking a discussion, the very questions you’re asking may be shutting down the process.

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Why Students Need Milestones & Small Wins

In my first year honors seminar, 5% of the grade is earned by making five posts on a webpage Forum. I added this to the course because I was searching for a way to keep the students engaged between class meetings. I invited students to comment on the readings, posts from other students, and anything else relevant to the course theme. I tried to reinforce their postings by commenting on those that I thought were particularly insightful. By mid-semester, I noticed that only about half the students had posted anything. I sent out an email to the entire class, reminding them of the requirement. Nothing happened.

As we approached the three-quarter mark, with about a month ago, I noticed that a few more students had posted. However, only a handful of the 24 students had come close to meeting the five post-requirement. To my amazement, many students had still not posted anything. I sent out another mass email, with an additional targeted group email to those students who hadn’t posted anything. The response was desultory.

With about two weeks to go in the semester, my disappointment deepened: three or four students had completed the requirement, about half the class had posted two or three items, and four or five students had still not posted anything. I made an announcement in class, reminding students that this requirement was sort of like “free money” in the sense that they got credit for simply making a posting, without any evaluation of its content. I then sent out another email, and this time I noticed that the number of postings began to increase.

At our penultimate class meeting, I made one last reminder of the requirement and encouraged students to set aside a few minutes to complete the requirement. I also sent personal emails to all the students who had posted nothing to that point. I was actually beginning to worry that so few students were going to complete the requirement that the grade distribution would be materially affected, as three or four points can make the difference between a B+ and an A-. (My friend Joe told me he would have stopped before going this far, as he saw my tactics as “coddling” the students.)

I watched the webpage intently over the weekend, and I noticed a few more people posting things. About one quarter of the class hit the five posting goal. But there were still many laggards.

On the evening before the last day, the posts finally began pouring in. Indeed, it was almost like watching a video game – – announcements were rolling into my email account, showing me an hourly tally. By the 5 PM deadline, most students had met the requirement. However, a few still had only one or two postings. One very surprised student discovered, after 5 PM, that he could no longer post to the webpage and emailed me. He ended up with only two postings to his credit.

What had gone wrong with my simple plan to increase out of class engagement with the course? When Melissa came to my office hours, I asked her why she hadn’t done the Forum postings until the end of the term and she nonchalantly replied, “It wasn’t high on my priority list.” She explained that with everything else she had to do, posting to the class Forum fell far down the list. Not only did she have work to do for her other classes but there are also lots of extracurricular activities to contend with, such as athletic events, concerts, and clubs. Other things were simply more important at the moment.

She could see that I was puzzled and volunteered an obvious – – to her – – solution: prevent students from waiting until the end of the term to fulfill the requirement by setting a target of one posting per month, which would result in five total postings. She told me that she was personally disappointed that students had waited, as she found the flurry of postings over the last couple of days of the class really provocative and wished that she had an opportunity to talk with the students in the class about their ideas in a more timely fashion.

As she was one of the five or six students who had also waited to turn in their term paper during the eight hour grace period on the last day, rather than the morning it was due, I asked her why she’d waited. She offered much the same explanation: she had lots of other stuff to do and had counted on the afternoon of that final day to allow her to finish up the proofreading of her paper.

Looking back, I realized that the milestones I had built into the course for completing various parts of the term paper assignment were simply not strong enough. Once again, Melissa volunteered a solution: set up stronger milestones and more closely assess compliance with the course requirements, rather than settling for “check plus” or simple peer review of outlines and drafts.

I’ll admit to being profoundly embarrassed by what I now realize was my failure to take account of the larger context in which my course was embedded. I had committed an elementary mistake inexperienced instructors often make: I thought that if something were important to me, it would also be important to the students. I had assumed I could motivate students by setting up incentives and creating a few simple milestones that allowed me to track students’ progress in meeting course goals. I had failed to account for the complex and overloaded life – as they perceive it — of today’s college students.

Students are confronted with an enormous variety of activities from which they must choose, and the priorities they follow don’t always accord with what we as instructors would prefer. The tasks we set for them are often overshadowed by much more immediate and pressing demands, including not only work for other courses but also their desire to live a richer social life now that they are on their own. Often, we are just not salient in the midst of more attractive options.

What to do? I suggest being much more mindful of the need for building frequent and graded milestones into your course that give you the opportunity to provide feedback on how well students are meeting course requirements. Management theorists talk about the power of “small wins” that give people a sense of making progress toward a goal. When people feel that they are making progress toward a goal, they feel more positive about the process and the positive emotions feed back into the amount of investment they make in the activity. Motivation increases and people began looking for the next small win in the process.

For example, when I enact milestones requiring monthly postings, I give students a periodic and highly visible reminder of the course themes. Because this particular requirement just assesses whether students have posted, rather than the content of their posting, it is also an easy win. An added advantage of requirements that involve highly visible activities is that students also gain public confirmation of their progress.

Small-stakes assignments also mean that students don’t put a lot at risk with any particular submission. Sim Sitkin described this strategy as one of “small losses.” Either way, it can be effective in motivating students to focus on completing assignments.

Term project milestones are bit more complicated, but they too provide opportunities for small wins. Students might simply get a check for turning in a proposed theme or a plan for researching the paper. Turning in outlines and drafts involves higher stakes’ assessments, and I believe instructors should provide fairly detailed written feedback for such assignments. Again, if it is to be a “milestone,” then students must not be given the impression they have passed the milestone until you, as the instructor, give them the go-ahead.

When students fail to keep up in our courses or turn assignments in late, we often accuse them of procrastination. But I’ve argued in this note that part of the problem is our failure to provide incentives powerful enough to motivate students to keep up. By building “small wins” into the milestones we set, we can rely on positive motivation, rather than draconian punitive measures, such as late penalties. If the milestones are simple and clear enough, students will do their assignments on time.

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Teaching a class? Be the 1st to arrive

When I leave my office and head for class, I’ve noticed that my step quickens noticeably. I feel excited about the class I’m about to teach and eager to share with the students what I’ve learned about the day’s topic. However, I also walk briskly because I want to arrive in the classroom before my students do. My goal is always to be the first to arrive so that I’m there to greet the students as they enter. This may seem like a minor detail in the greater scheme of all things pedagogic, but I actually have a well thought out plan for this tactic.

Workers in the Great Depression

Men arriving at work

First, arriving early gives me the opportunity to engage in small talk with individual students about the course and how things are going for them. Information gleaned from these discussions may generate a question that I bring to the general class discussion or may lead to modifications in an assignment I had planned. For example, students might point out some better contemporary examples of the principles discussed in a reading or they might have seen something in social media that’s worth mentioning to the whole class. I also find out about what’s happening in their other classes, which is information I can often work into our class discussion. Some students will be motivated to show up early because they want to hear what I’m telling other students – – they don’t want to miss anything.

Second, chatting informally with the students who have arrived early gives me a window into college life in general. Has sorority rush started yet? Is anybody in the class a candidate for election to student government? Are students excited about an upcoming appearance by our women’s soccer team in the conference tournament? Some of what I learn can be used subsequently as examples in the class discussion. For example, issue-oriented student groups are very active on my campus and their organizing tactics make for great examples in a social movement course. Generally, I get a good sense of the pulse of the campus and the rhythm of students’ daily lives.

Third, students are often willing to share things with me before class starts that they would not mention when their peers are seated around them. For example, did they find the readings for the day difficult? Why? Are they worried about meeting deadlines for the term paper? Revealing such anxieties to everybody, once the class is underway, can be a daunting experience for shy students. By contrast, as I walk around the room before class starts, engaging in small talk, I find they are more likely to open up and reveal such concerns. Speaking to students individually, or in small groups prior to the start of class, is particularly helpful for students who are nervous about speaking during a large class session.

Fourth, my students often use this time to ask me questions about how I spent the weekend, how I feel about recent political events, and so forth. Students often seem surprised that I have a life outside of the classroom, one that includes children and grandchildren. Sharing – – but not over-sharing – – some recent events in my life helps to humanize me as more than just their instructor. In my experience, this also helps in making students feel comfortable about coming to visit me during office hours.

Fifth, showing up early carries significant symbolic value. It signals to the class that you take teaching seriously and are prepared to put in whatever time it takes. When students realize that I will be in the classroom 15 minutes before the official start of class, they start showing up early as well. Often, almost all the students are seated several minutes before the “beginning” of class. Few people walk in late, where “late” is defined as not being seated at the official starting time. In contrast, were I to set a bad example by coming in just before class started, I would be encouraging my students to do the same.

Sixth, setting aside time in your daily schedule to leave your office early to head off to class will give you a bit of extra time for those unusual circumstances that sometimes disrupt your schedule. If a student visiting your office hours has an issue that needs more time or if an emergency phone call keeps you in your office for a few extra minutes, you will still arrive well in advance of the starting time. Do not treat arriving early as an option or you will end up finding the time occupied and you won’t ever get to class early. However, on rare occasions when “stuff happens,” you will still arrive on time for the start of class, given your new routine.

I strongly suggest you try out this practice at the beginning of the next term. Make it a routine practice for all your courses. Arriving 10 to 15 minutes before the published start time will make a dramatic difference in how much you know about your students, how much they know about you, and in creating a more comfortable and positive classroom atmosphere.

Write As If You Don’t Have the Data

At a conference, when you ask somebody to tell you about their current project, what do they typically say? I often get a puzzling response: instead of beginning by telling me about an idea, the person starts by describing their data. They tell me they are using survey data they have collected, or data from an archive, or data they’ve scraped from the web. As they go on at length about the nature of the data, I have to interrupt them and ask for what purpose the data will be used. Then, I’m likely to get a description of an analytic method or computer software. It’s almost as if they have devoted most of their working hours to thinking about what they can do with the data they have collected – – or will collect – – and very little time to the question of where their project fits into some larger scheme.

Control loss

Loss of control can be dangerous but exciting!

I’ve realized that this response partially explains why many graduate students have such a difficult time in writing a thesis proposal. Two kinds of problems result from a “data first” strategy.

First and most obviously, beginning with data considerations may lead to the unintended outcome of writing a theoretical framework and conceptual model, complete with hypotheses, that are totally framed around what the data permits. In the worst-case scenario, this can resemble the kinds of narratives corporate historians write when they begin with what they know about their firms in the present and then build a story to suit. Researchers may anticipate journal reviewers’ biases toward “significant” results and may simply wait to begin writing their story until they’ve conducted preliminary analyses.

In the writing workshops that I offer at conferences, I often have students tell me that they wait to write the introduction to their paper or thesis until after they’ve done the “analysis and results” section. This is certainly a safe strategy to follow if one wants to economize on doing multiple drafts of a paper, but it goes against the spirit of disciplined inquiry that we try to engender in our theory and methods classes.

Second and far more damaging from my point of view, following a data first strategy severely constrains creativity and imagination. Writing a theoretical introduction and conceptual model that is implicitly tailored to a specific research design or data set preemptively grounds any flights of fancy that might have tempted an unconstrained author. By contrast, beginning with a completely open mind in the free writing phase of preparing a proposal or paper allows an author to pursue promising ideas, regardless of whether they are “testable” with what is currently known about available data.

When I say “write as if you don’t have the data,” I’m referring to the literature review and planning phase of a project, preferably before it has been locked into a specific research design. Writing about ideas without worrying about whether they can be operationalized – – whether in field work, surveys, or simulations – – frees authors of the burden they will eventually face in writing their “methods” section. Eventually, a researcher will have to explain what compromises have been made, given the gap between the ideas they set out to explore and the reality of data limitations, but that bridge will be crossed later. Rushing over that bridge during the idea generation stage almost guarantees that the journey will be a lifeless one.

Even if someone is locked into a mentor’s or principal investigator’s research design and data set, I would recommend they still begin their literature review and conceptual modeling as if they had the luxury of a blank slate. In their initial musings and doodles, as they write interpretive summaries of what they read, they might picture a stone wall that temporarily buffers them from the data obligations that come with their positions as data supplicants. Writing without data constraints will, I believe, free their imaginations to range widely over the realm of possibilities, before they are brought to earth by practical necessities.

So, the next time someone asks you about what you are working on, don’t begin by talking about the data. Instead, tell them about the ideas that emerged as you wrote about the theories and models that you would like to explore, rather than about the compromises you will eventually be forced to make. The conversation will be a lot more interesting for both of you!

Assignments: better late than never?

A few days ago, a colleague came to me for teaching advice. On his syllabus, he had written that he did not accept late assignments. One of the students, a young woman who was struggling in the class, had turned in a paper that was woefully incomplete and he told her that it did not meet the assignment requirements. However, rather than rejecting it outright, he took account of her struggles and told her that if she turned in a finished version by the end of the week that completely met the basic requirements of the assignment, he would give her partial credit. At the end of the week, she turned the paper in again, but it was still well short of what he would accept as meeting minimal requirements.

Angry instructor

Get that assignment in on time or else!

He asked what I thought he should do. He told me that the assignment counted 15% of her grade, and thus giving her a zero on the assignment would immediately knock her down at least a grade and a half, before taking account of her other less-than-stellar work in the course. But, because he had announced that he didn’t accept late papers and then had recanted on that rule by inviting her to submit a revised version, he felt he had to give her some credit.

After suggesting that yes, it made sense to give her some credit, under the circumstances, I went on to make a more general point about putting strict rules and regulations in a syllabus. I reminded him that in my syllabi, I never say that I will not accept late assignments. I have no list of punishments or points that will be taken off if assignments are turned in late. My friend, Joe Lowman, and I have had many conversations about this & I’ve benefited greatly from his wisdom. Indeed, when it comes to such matters, I usually find myself asking, “what would Joe do?”

On the first day of class, students often ask me, what are your penalties for late assignments? I tell them I don’t expect late assignments, as all the due dates for assignments are in the syllabus they’ve just been handed. In that case, why would any assignments be late? I find this logic impeccable, but some aren’t satisfied with this answer and persist in questioning me. All I will say is that if they find themselves having difficulty, prior to an assignment being due, they need to talk with me and I will try to help them. I never speculate about what I might do with the late assignment, preferring to deal with each of them on its own merits.

I do this to avoid being put in the situation of my colleague: announcing a hard and fast rule which extenuating circumstances may well require me to break. Over my 45 years of teaching, I have heard about plenty of emergencies, some of which were devastating to the students involved. What would I do if a student told me about a family emergency which gave them no choice but to rush home? I would feel really heartless in telling a student that I was very sorry about the accident and I hoped the victims would recover, but I stood firmly by my policy.

My colleagues are typically astonished when I tell them about this policy. Typically, they raise two objections. First, won’t I get a lot of late assignments? Second, if I do accept late assignments, isn’t that unfair to the students who turn their assignments on time? My answer is “no” to both objections, as I will explain.

First, in my syllabus and on my webpage, every assignment is clearly described with its due date. I use Sakai, which sends out automated notices, reminding students of due dates. The assignment is also noted on the website’s course calendar. For larger assignments, such as term papers, I have multiple milestones that students must meet: reporting their chosen topic, submitting a one paragraph description of their theme, a preliminary listing of references, a rough draft, and so forth. These milestones give me many opportunities to intervene when students show signs of falling behind. I also take a very active role in keeping track of how students are doing, sending emails to students who miss class and asking students to come in and talk with me about assignments, if they have difficulties.

When students approach me about the possibility of a late assignment, and what I would do, the first thing I always say is, “What is interfering with your turning in an assignment on time?” I don’t say, ”Remember the penalties.” If, after working with them, it is clear that they will not get the assignment in on time, the next conversation I have with them goes something like this:

Student: “okay, when can I turn the paper in?”

Me: “when do you think you will have it finished?”

Student: “well, will I be penalized?”

Me: “you realize that the reason I ask for assignments to be turned in on time is so I have enough time to read them properly, so I can be sure that I will give each assignment its proper due. Late assignments make that more difficult. However, I will grade it as fairly as I can.”

Student: “okay, I’ll turn it in on Monday.”  [Students almost always pick a date earlier than I would have chosen, if I had picked the date!]

Cutting flowers for Rose Bowl Floats

Cooperative learning means you’re always coming up roses!

One of the consequences of this approach is that I almost never get late assignments! And, my syllabus is not cluttered up with pointless draconian rules that I have no intention of enforcing.

Second, what about the “fairness” issue? Isn’t it unfair to the conscientious students, who get their work in on time, to allow some students to turn assignments in late? I have three responses to this alleged violation of some perceived moral principle. (In what philosophical system is taking account of extenuating circumstances equivalent to a moral failure?)

(1) for students having problems getting assignments in on time, extra time almost never makes a difference in the quality of what they do. The best students in a class are not the ones asking for extensions.

(2) students who get assignments in on time can put that assignment behind them and get on with their lives. By contrast, students who are struggling to complete a late assignment will find they have to forgo other things that they would’ve enjoyed doing, with their assignment-free peers, but instead they are stuck indoors, completing an assignment. Being allowed to turn something in late is no free pass to scholastic heaven. It is a burden.

(3) my goal in assessing my student’s work is to try to figure out what they have learned in my class, and knocking off points from a student’s score because a paper was a day or two late completely muddies the meaning of a grade. I’m not teaching “discipline,” I’m teaching sociology. I want to give students every opportunity to show me what they’ve learned, and if this requires me, every few semesters, to accept a late assignment, I’m quite willing to do so.