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I teach a course consisting of about 50 assignments. These include readings, many short writing assignments, and group projects. Additionally, students complete 2 large projects as the mid-term and final, entirely covering all of the material.

I noticed many students skipped lots of homework. Some skipped 6 weeks of work completely. I assumed the workload was too high, but I surveyed those who did the work and nobody reported spending more than 2-3 hours per week. Some students had determined that each assignment had such a low value, they did not bother to complete the work. These students all did very poorly on the final.

My supervisor will not be happy to find that I am failing 25% of the students. For future terms, how can I motivate students to complete everything?

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You are getting good responses, but this question might be more permanently useful if you gave more info about the course. I would like to know how many weeks for 50 assignments and how they are graded (ungraded, completion only, careful grading?) and what proportion of the final grade each (or all) represents. –  Adrienne Jun 15 at 22:35
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One thing to note - while those who did the work might have spent 2-3 hours per week, it's likely that those who didn't are weaker students who would have had to spend much longer to get the same results –  sapi Jun 16 at 5:21
    
Distribution: homework (40%), mid-term (25%), final (35%) (per department requirements). Grading is very detailed, with rubrics provided, but ~30% of the small assignments are complete/in-complete. –  Village Jun 16 at 5:44
    
Thank you @Village. –  Adrienne Jun 16 at 14:00
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If someone is foolish enough to blow off something that's 40% of the grade, making it impossible to pass even with excellent exam scores, I don't see any reasonable way to put the blame on anyone except the students; especially since the distribution is department wide meaning they can't claim to've thought it was only worth a small fraction of the total. –  Dan Neely Jun 16 at 15:18

11 Answers 11

Some students had determined that each assignment had such a low value, they did not bother to complete the work. These students all did very poorly on the final.

One important way to combat this attitude is to show the actual statistics from the course you just completed.

"Here is the distribution of homework completion across last semester's course. And here is the distribution of final course grades. Notice that every student who completed less than XXX% of the homework failed the course."

Repeat this exercise after every midterm, showing similar statistics for the current class. "See, here is the distribution of homework completion so far, and here is the distribution of midterm grades. Notice that every student who completed less than XXX% of the homework failed the midterm, which is completely consistent with last semester."

In other words: "I am not bluffing."

If you want to be even more direct, you can announce in your syllabus that anyone not completing XXX% of the homework automatically fails the course, regardless of their performance on the final exam. Be sure to read this sentence out loud in class on the first day.

Of course, you also need some carrots to go with the stick. The homework should not only be useful, but also interesting. The students should have access to any resources they need to master the homework material, including rapid and useful feedback. The homework should be realistically tuned to the skill and maturity levels of the students, and you should carefully discuss your expectations with instructors of any prerequisite courses.

My supervisor will not be happy to find that I am failing 25% of the students.

I assume you mentioned the abysmal homework completion rate to your supervisor as soon as you noticed it, which was relatively early in the semester. Right? So how did your supervisor respond?

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An additional technique that some of my professors use is to offer an incentive for completing all of the homework. Like if you complete all of the homework you get an extra point overall in the course –  inquisitiveIdiot Jun 16 at 13:00
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Correlation may not be causation, but it will certainly give them a good scare to share those statistics! –  Paul Jun 16 at 18:09
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I like the idea, but you should make absolutely sure, that the students cannot deduce who failed and who didn't. I am assuming that (like in Germany) the grades of the individual students are not public. Then there might be students who want to portrait themselves as "you don't see me do or discuss any of the homework, but that is because I really don't need to". If you then show a statistic that shows that everybody below a certain percentage of homework assignments failed the other students might deduce that this one person must be lying. –  example Jun 16 at 21:26
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I would suggest not to give too much information. Eg. create categories (eg. in steps of 25% of all the homework handed in) such that every category still contains students that passed the test and then only give a number like "90% of the students that did 75% or more of the homework passed, while only 20% of the students with less than 25% of the homework got a passing grade". –  example Jun 16 at 21:28
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Naah. I suggest giving absolutely complete (but anonymous, of course) information and assuming the students are smart enough to understand what it implies. And telling them that they are smart enough. –  JeffE Jun 17 at 1:19

I typically make homework 40% of the course grade and divide the remaining points among midterm, final, and class participation. Then, on the first day, I tell students that they cannot pass the course without doing at least most of the homework.

I do not assign grades to reading assignments; instead, I make an assignment that can be assessed, but that cannot readily be completed without having done the assigned reading.

In a 16-week semester, I might have ten graded assignments, but each one will have multiple parts, so the students do perhaps 50 things, but they perceive that they have ten assignments, each worth perhaps four course points. I also require students to attempt every part of an assignment in order to receive any credit. In other words, half-done means not graded.

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Could you explain the rationale for requiring every part to be attempted? I would think getting full understanding of three out of four parts to be better than half-heartedly completing four out of four. –  aeismail Jun 15 at 18:44
    
I grade using a satisfactory/unsatisfactory "scale" and allow students with a grade of "unsatisfactory" to resubmit their work (one time only) for re-grading. Thus, the student who makes the half-hearted attempt gets to do it over again right, and I get to grade that student's work twice. I explain this bargain at the beginning of the semester, telling students that the way they earn that second chance is to make a reasonable effort on the first pass. I also tell them that the only way they can fail to get those 40 points is to skip homework or make a halfway attempt. –  Bob Brown Jun 15 at 21:13
    
I've decided to change my grading policy. The student who makes an honest attempt (as determined by me) on all parts of an assignment may revise and resubmit. If there are parts missing, or parts with a half-hearted attempt, I'll grade what was turned in and that will be the final grade for that assignment. –  Bob Brown Aug 4 at 20:30

Taking

Some students had determined that each assignment had such a low value, they did not bother to complete the work.

serious, it's tempting to suggest that you assign exactly the same work for exactly the same fraction of the course credit, but packaged into a smaller number of assignments so that each assignment looks more important to them.

But there are two issues:

  • Frequent feedback is often alleged to be good for student learning, and your many small assignments support that while fewer large assignments do not.

  • I'm also with the others: students who can't figure out that they have to do a large fraction of these assignments to pass are unlikely to be very successful no matter what you do for them.

So, perhaps you should just check progress at some early point in the course and lets the slackers know that they are on the road to poor grades if they don't shape up.

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I agree with this the most so far. Comparing the large assignment from one class to the tiny assignments from another, the large one will always win out as more important. –  Izkata Jun 16 at 15:02

Sure, it is for their own good to do it. But frankly, college students are too immature to realize it, and even the ones who do realize it have to fight with very strong procrastination motivators. You can't expect them to deliver this kind of stuff based on internal motivation only, they don't have it.

If it is your goal to get them to pass, you have to give them external motivation here. The usual method is to make homework obligatory.

The idea behind it is simple. Anybody who gets less than 80% of the possible points on homework assignments is not allowed to take the final. If you want to be mild, or the homework is very tough, set a lower target in percent. If you want to include very interesting but very hard problems in the homework, mark them as "optional" and don't make them count towards the required points.

This also has the advantage (from a grader's perspective) that students who cannot muster the dilligence to achieve 80% correctness when working in a relaxed environment with little time pressure and with the help of their friends, their textbooks and the Internet, will not be present at the real written exam where they are only going to waste your time. But it also makes them learn for the homework, spaced over the semester, so the students who have the intelligence to beat the exam but procrastinate until the last two days to learn without deadlines are actually learning well and get their grade based on solid knowledge, instead of passing on bulimia learning or plainly failing.

You can alternatively declare a number of homework sheets which needs to be turned in. E.g. if there are 12 homework assignments for the semester, you can say that they need to turn in at least 10 to be allowed to take the exam. But this is more problematic - what do you do with students who turn in an empty sheet? The percentage system works, I have seen it employed by many departments at two different universities. I have been exposed to it on both sides, as a student and as a teaching assistant/grader. It is well accepted by students and staff alike, it is perceived as fair, and it works.

You will probably have some problems championing it, both from students and faculty, but once you get it established, everybody benefits.

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In the US, you can't generally restrict people from taking a final exam based on not submitting assignments. –  aeismail Jun 15 at 18:41
    
@aeismail interesting, I didn't know this. I wonder why not? –  rumtscho Jun 15 at 18:47
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In the US, exams are part of a course, rather than a separate "event." The final exam period is also much shorter—the longest I know of is about ten days. And also courses typically have multiple exams. So it's just an evolution thing more than anything else. –  aeismail Jun 15 at 19:26
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In the US, you can't generally restrict people from taking a final exam based on not submitting assignments — Maybe not directly. But you can certainly announce in advance that a certain minimum homework average is required for a passing grade, and then quietly inform anyone with less than that average that there is no point taking the final exam. –  JeffE Jun 15 at 22:20
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I think there's no rule in the U.S. that mandates that a course grade is purely additive. More complicated algorithms can achieve various effects, perhaps preventing students' negligence of any part of the course (for their own good). –  paul garrett Jun 16 at 13:02

Whether it's appropriate or inappropriate to fail 25% of your students depends on context. If this is a community college algebra course, then a 75% pass rate is insanely high, and would probably indicate that your standards are not high enough.

In general, it's not your job to motivate your students, nor is it your job to convince them to take a less immature attitude toward their own education. The fact that you assigned the homework put them on notice that you considered it necessary for them to do it in order to learn the material.

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it's not your job to motivate your students — I disagree. It is every teacher's job to motivate their students. –  JeffE Jun 15 at 22:13

I tell the students that two exam questions will come from the homework: one exactly as it was on the homework, and one with only small changes. Doing all the homework is like getting one question on the midterm/final for free.

In class, I mention that usually the one that ends up on the exam with no changes is whichever one the fewest people turned in. Not always, but usually.

Added bonus: it seems to cut down on cheating, probably because if all you do is copy someone else's program, then you don't remember it well enough to reproduce it on the exam.

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Make them worth more! You can do this by shifting more points onto them, or, maybe, by having less than 50 of them for what is presumably a 14 or 15 week semester.

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It seems the problem is not "the homework is not worth enough", since Village said he is failing a quarter of the class for not completing it. Apparently the homework is a significant component of the course grade. –  ff524 Jun 15 at 13:50
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I disagree. I think that the implication that "[t]hese students all did very poorly on the final" and failed due to low grades on the final. If they'd done the homework, they'd have been better prepared. –  Bill Barth Jun 15 at 14:26
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I see, on re-reading the question I agree :) –  ff524 Jun 15 at 15:07
    
There are a couple of downside to lumping the same working into fewer assignments (temping though that is). Principally it gives the students less frequent and less fine-grained feedback. It may also lead to fewer but more exhausting and demoralizing grading sessions. –  dmckee Jun 15 at 21:09

I'm not an educator, but I have some experience on the matter of a course not engaging students enough to motivate them (I was one of those students).

I know I shouldn't place all the blame on the course material nor the instructor, but I cannot help but feel that if I failed sooner, I wouldn't have had to "suffer" as long as I did, hanging on to a diminishing sense of hope.

In my highschool, assignments were mandatory, you'd get punishment for not handing homework on time in addition to 0 marks, for disrespecting your teacher. However, the "freedom" I experienced immediately after entering university was too much for me to handle, and not handing in assignments was merely the first thing "to do" on my list of rebelliousness.

Different people handle situations differently, so I don't think having a blanket set of rules is good enough to handle all situations. I believe that each student should be treated according to their needs, but obviously that's a huge amount of resource needed, and is definitely not feasible... So I think there should at least be some sort of way to help groups of students with similar struggles, e.g. bored of class because they know it already, not knowing how to prioritise their work and ending up not finishing anything...etc.

Lastly regarding OP's question, my best advice right now is for the instructor to set aside some time to talk to their student's 1-to-1, at least once in a semester, before or after midterms (I'd say before is better, so they become more motivated for midterms). Student's who want to learn, will learn, but sometimes they just want to know that someone cares... a short chat (10min?) will let them feel that you care (whether you do or not... is another matter lol) And if that person didn't need a "pep talk", you can use it to learn from your students; yes, teachers should learn from their students as well, sometimes they have the brilliant ideas you could use.

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First, I think it's important to note a difference between external motivation (carrot + stick) and intrinsic motivation (pride in the work + knowledge that it will help). External motivation can increase completion rates in your class, but has been shown to decrease intrinsic motivation so it may have negative aftereffects. Thus, I would try to avoid solutions such as competitions (which have also been shown to actually have a negative effect for girls)

I'm a strong advocate of fostering pride in the work itself. This can be done with 1 on 1 chats as mentioned by Populous, and if there is time, then I would recommend that in addition to the below advice.

As mentioned in dmckee's answer. Frequency of feedback can be an important factor in education, including motivation. When assignments are returned with comments and in a timely manner the students feel that the instructor or grader cares about their work. This support can foster intrinsic motivation. Conversely, when assignments are returned with no comments, returned late, or never returned at all, students can be strongly demotivated.

I know this both from personal teaching (and student) experience and literature on intrinsic motivation.

Also I'd like to make a few comments on jeffE's answer but don't have the reputation:

Statistics may be motivating for the students that understand them in some situations. However, often the simple statistics won't show what you'd like; the highest scoring students may have low homework completion rates because they already know the material and find the homework boring. I know, I personally didn't do a single homework assignment in Geometry, Algebra II, or Pre-Calc, but was the school winner for most of the math competitions in my High School. This is especially true in classes that aren't tracked where there can be a very large variation of abilities. Looking at the test grades vs. homework completion of an inner city public school Algebra 1 class shows a negative correlation. Trying to explain the confounding variables to a class that's not proficient in statistics is a futile exercise, and if they've made it to the point where they are proficient in statistics then odds are they've already learned to be self motivated.

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The best way to motivate students in this regard is to create some form of competition.

Post the grades of the top 5 or 10 students after each assignment. If they choose, you don't have to publish their names but only their numbers.

Update the statistics after each assignment deadline and offer bonus points for finishing in certain positions (e.g. 1st places gets a bonus 10 points etc).

The atmosphere in the class will change quickly.

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That may only encourage the top students, that are most likely already doing the homework (or they don't need it whatsoever). –  Davidmh Jun 15 at 17:17
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I disagree with creating an intentionally competitive atmosphere. This is not good for learning, and the weaker students might even give up, and feel bad about themselves. –  MHH Jun 15 at 18:53
    
Besides the philosophical objections, in the US it would be illegal to post grades with names or even student ID numbers. You could use randomly assigned tokens, but if nobody knows who the top students are, it sort of eliminates the competitive incentive. –  Nate Eldredge Jun 16 at 20:20

First of all, I'm disappointed that you used the word "fail," which is a reflexive verb, rather than "flunk," which is the correct word to use.

You didn't state what level (college, elementary, etc) you're teaching. For very young kids, I would simply send notes home saying something like "Your child didn't complete last nite/week's assignment. Please make sure he completes it by XX date." For high school and above, my view is that they can dang well sink or swim on their own. If they don't understand that the point of each assignment is to learn something (not to get a grade on it), then they're lost to the world. It shouldn't be your job to babysit them.

If you have concerns about your supervisor's opinion of your teaching methods, the appropriate thing to do is talk with him a month or so into the term, not after the finals.

And finally, a personal viewpoint, but bolstered with a lot of reports from teachers and observations from other parents: groups projects are crap. They've always been crap, and always will be crap. They invariably end up with a few strong players whose efforts are not properly rewarded because the overall project's quality suffers from the slackers or incompetents in the group. School is not military training camp (where it might be justifiable to grade the group on getting everyone safely thru the course).

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How is any of this an answer to the original question? The only relevant paragraph is #2, which basically says, "don't worry about your question." –  Beska Jun 16 at 12:38
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In case they make anyone feel insecure, it's also worth noting that the comments about "fail" vs. "flunk" are a personal opinion, rather than a widely accepted rule. The OED lists this use of "fail" as dating back to 1884 with the comment that it's "colloquial" (while "flunk" is marked as "college slang"). –  Anonymous Mathematician Jun 16 at 12:56
    
@AnonymousMathematician thanks for the correction. –  Carl Witthoft Jun 16 at 13:09
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As long as we're in grammar fascist mode, you don't mean "reflexive verb" (people don't fail themselves) but rather "intransitive". (But I agree with Anonymous Mathematician that the transitive usage is well established, and "flunk" is unsuitable for formal writing.) –  Nate Eldredge Jun 16 at 20:16

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