University Teaching – homework, tests and grades?

I am about a week from beginning teaching my course at Brandeis University. The curriculum is a little different from last year, focusing on mobile software engineering and game development. This is different from last year, where we focused both on web and mobile software engineering.

The structure is that we teach during june and july, 4 days a week, and the students end up with 3 courses worth of credits. The students are both graduate and undergraduate. Given the time frame you can see that it’s an intensive boot camp-like experience. It’s a lot of work and a lot of fun.

So with my mind on teaching, curriculum, homework assignments and grading, I made note of “The Poor Quality of an Undergraduate Education“, an article about higher ed in the New York Times:

“In a typical semester, for instance, 32 percent of the students did not take a single course with more than 40 pages of reading per week, and 50 percent did not take any course requiring more than 20 pages of writing over the semester.

The average student spent only about 12 to 13 hours per week studying ā€” about half the time a full-time college student in 1960 spent studying, according to the labor economists Philip S. Babcock and Mindy S. Marks. (from The New York Times)

There are serious questions about how much homework is enough or too much. There are also serious questions about grading. I ponder these, from a newbie’s perspective – after all this is only my second year teaching at Brandeis.

I happen to think that the greatest learning happens when a student is struggling to solve a difficult problem or trying to formulate and defend a subtle opinion.

I also think that while I work hard at preparing a good lecture, that the most I can expect is to get the student excited about learning a topic, help them find perhaps the key concepts that they need to try and understand and give them excellent feedback on the work they are doing.

So we grade on homework and class participation/performance. There are no tests. However, many argue that grading itself is not a useful tool. If the student is motivated and works hard they learn, and if not they don’t. After all, in the real world you don’t have tests and you don’t get grades, right?

I kind of agree with that. For me, grading is not about the final grade, when all is said and done. It is about the daily ‘marks’ on homework and other deliverables – they act as a motivator and a focuser of student effort to spend time on things that seem to lead to the greatest learning.

(remember, I’m a newbie šŸ™‚ )


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