This other question is about assigning videos as homework and this one is about what to do when students do not do their homework. However, there is another question to ask which is similar, but I think different, from these two.

If you have a class of 70 students and you assign some homework on which you will base the following class, and 40% of the students do not do the homework, that subsequent class becomes quite unmanageable. If you proceed as scheduled, the 40% will be lost, they cannot contribute, and eventually become distracting for the rest of the class.

If you do not run the class as scheduled, the students who did the homework the first time will see there is little benefit of doing the home and little cost of not doing it. For this reason, in the past, I have been quite strict. Students who did not do the homework get kicked out and marked absent (too many absences and they automatically fail the module). The problem with this approach is that kicking 40% out leaves me with a very high failure rate and in the end I just end up taking time which would otherwise be free for me to do as I wish and I must dedicate that time to these students who failed (for whatever reason).

So, I find myself in a difficult situation. Kicking students out hurts them but hurts me too. The problem is that I value my time much more than they value theirs so it ends up hurting me more than them. If I don't kick them out, my schedule gets destroyed.

How can one find balance in the classroom when a large percentage of students do not do the homework? Is there a way other than simply removing large chunks and failing them? Is thee a more enlightened way?

Important Note: In my modules grades are pass/fail - I do not have the option to simply lower their grade.

  • I must say you're not alone and I feel your pain. I have professor friends who told me the very same thing. They told the students the final exam problems would be from those homeworks. Still, more than half don't do them.
    – Nobody
    Commented Jul 22, 2013 at 4:12
  • Are there possibilities to make certain tasks mandatory in the class? If so then the pass/fail will be directly affected by doing/not doing the tasks. Commented Jul 22, 2013 at 7:32
  • @PeterJansson The 'stick' I have available to me is simply to mark them absent with the understanding that too many absences means an automatic fail. The threshold is quite low so marking them absent just a few times will fail them.
    – earthling
    Commented Jul 22, 2013 at 8:46

6 Answers 6


If 40% of the students aren't doing their homework, and you rely upon students doing homework for your pedagogy style to work, then something is seriously wrong.

You have two options:

(1) Make homework dramatically more appealing.

  • Put much more effort into the homework--make it fun! E.g. calculate strain on an iPhone screen instead of a aluminum sheet; don't have someone read a novel but rather ask key questions about it such as to list all the times some character/historical figure expressed defiance against the state.
  • Institute quizzes that are drawn directly from the homework. Do them practically every day. Staring at a blank sheet of paper and not knowing what to do is a lot more uncomfortable than hearing you babble about something incomprehensible.
  • Change the grading scheme so homework is most of the grade (if you're allowed).

(2) Make homework dramatically less necessary. (Note: usually not an option for mathematics.)

  • Do the key problems on the board in class instead of assigning them as homework. (Assign a similar problem as homework, possibly after you've done it in class.) Not possible for literature review, of course.
  • Rely upon in-class participation instead (if you have the personality to make it work, and the homework is of the right type).
  • Don't make the learning environment one which requires the students to do the homework in order to understand most of the next lecture. Lecture on the important points, review at the end of one lecture and the beginning of the next, and go on. They might not develop their skills at doing problems, but at least they'll have some hope of following for a while. Probably won't work with literature, but almost everything else can be quite successful.
  • 2
    @earthling A friend of mine read this answer. He pretty much agree with you. Point(2) is not an option for him(he is a math professor). The 2nd and 3rd bullet of point(1) are helpful. But, he had to teach much less than he wanted to. The end result was that the strong students learned less. It's a trade off between the whole class learn more vs. strong students learn more. He asked me to tell you here(he doesn't have reps to write comment.
    – Nobody
    Commented Jul 23, 2013 at 2:25
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    Don't make the learning environment one which requires the students to do the homework in order to understand — I cant imagine any worthwhile class that this suggestion wouldn't make worthless.
    – JeffE
    Commented Jul 23, 2013 at 6:15
  • 3
    @JeffE - It's very subject-dependent. I can't imagine a math class where you could understand without doing a fair bit of homework. On the other hand, I've been in several biology classes where homework helped a little but wasn't essential: the lectures were masterfully delivered in a memorable way and contained all the important factual material.
    – Rex Kerr
    Commented Jul 23, 2013 at 13:54
  • 5
    @RexKerr: You seem to assume it's impossible to reach the upper reasonable limit on inflexible time demands on the students. I don't teach at a university, but the test I applied here is just, "what if everyone said that?". Students are left with free time for a reason, and that reason is not for essential course workload. If every class is a few hours over expectation then (to over-simplify) the chess club dies. All I'm saying is to check whether the class is advertised accurately. If it says "3 hours a week" and it is 3 hours a week, no foul. Commented Apr 16, 2014 at 7:21
  • 3
    ... if it says 1 and is 3 then we don't get to act surprised if the majority of students don't make the time, regardless of how interesting the material is, because we chose to pull a bait-and-switch ;-) Advertise it as 3, more of our students will be prepared to do the essential work. Or advertise it as 1 and make the extra 2 hours optional. Or if there's no mechanism to advertise time (all classes are assumed roughly the same), then stick to the university's idea of a reasonable workload per class. Commented Apr 16, 2014 at 7:29

Well, you've stumbled upon a key and age-old pedagogical issue, and one that doesn't have an easy answer. I would urge you to find an "80%" solution (meaning, don't try to solve the problem completely), and then work to within the parameters of that solution. Kicking out 40% of the class isn't tenable for your long-term job security, I assure you. Assuming your question is in regard to a collegiate class, then you do have the option to fall back onto

this is your education that you're paying for, so it's up to you to take it seriously, which means doing the work.

As a first-order solution, you can make sure that not doing the homework will affect their grades significantly so that they do fail, and then let them know this on the syllabus, on the first day of class, and regularly. Students who do not do the work will feel the pain when they receive their final grade. You also have proof (no completed work) when parents and administrators come with questions.

What this solution doesn't solve is the group that

eventually become distracting for the rest of the class.

This is possibly the hardest part of the puzzle. I have four suggestions:

  1. Re-organize your class so that those students cannot be distracting. If large-class participation is the issue, then start forming smaller groups, and give the participating members the ability to police the disruptions (e.g., have each group grade individual members' participation).

  2. If possible, find a way to weed out those students before they arrive in your class--you may be able to do this via a more strict prerequisite requirement (e.g., certain classes, or certain grades within previous classes).

  3. Make the homework more manageable. On the one hand, this seems to be giving in to the problem, but if they're not doing the work and have a reason other than "I don't want to," then there may be a way to give different assignments that they will attempt.

  4. Find out what classes they've had previous to yours, and ask the instructors of those classes whether they had the same issues. You can get a lot of good information about certain groups of students by talking these sorts of issues over with other faculty. If you do find a faculty member who successfully dealt with those students, ask for suggestions, or, even better, ask if you can observe a couple of classes to get a feel for the types of strategies that teacher uses.

  • Thanks for the ideas. A number of issues exist in implementation. First, the students never pay their own tuition - parents do. You'd think the students would care about wasting family money but the 'trouble' students don't seem to care. Pre-req's are not a workable solution as this area is not under faculty control in this program. Other teachers seem to have the same problem and just give less homework. I have to think about your point (1). I'm not sure how to implement that. Anything suggested reading on that point?
    – earthling
    Commented Jul 22, 2013 at 8:52
  • @earthling Interesting. If the parents pay the tuition, you may have some leverage to contact the parents about their children. This may be illegal if the students are above a certain age (i.e., you have to deal directly with adults and can't discuss grades, etc. with parents of adults), but this may be a good place to start if you can. Then again, that's more of a high school solution, not a college one. As for the other teachers: do they give less homework because they've given up, or because they have solutions that work? Commented Jul 22, 2013 at 9:38
  • @earthling As to ideas for point (1), I don't know enough about your class to suggest reading. You might start with a Google search for "pedagogy small group discussions" or "pedagogy turning lectures into small groups.", and seeing if you can find results that fit your class. Commented Jul 22, 2013 at 9:49
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    @earthling they have given up. That's too bad, but not surprising. It sounds like you're at an institution where learning isn't a particularly valued outcome, at least for the classes/students you're teaching. That said, you can buck the trend, but it will take fortitude and the willingness to make changes to your classroom that may mean longer hours planning and even more frustration. There are ways to combat institutional apathy, though, and asking these types of questions is a good start. Commented Jul 23, 2013 at 4:33
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    +1 for "Kicking out 40% of the class isn't tenable for your long-term job security, I assure you."
    – Nicholas
    Commented Jul 23, 2013 at 9:07

Your approach of kicking out the students who didn't do the home work is rather draconian, and while seductive as a zero-tolerance policy, is likely to cause more harm to you than good.

Is there a (strong) positive correlation between student completion of homework and final grade for the overall module/unit/paper? If so, I suggest that you appeal to the students' self-interest by showing a plot of this correlation to your students at the beginning of your course, and throughout the course.

Regarding what to do during class, I would make frequent reference to the homework along the lines of, e.g.

  • "If you attempted the homework exercise, you would know why this line of the derivation follows from the previous line so I'm not going to go into it here. This sort of thing often comes up in exams.",
  • "The homework exercise was the first part of a past exam question relating to this topic. We're going to explore the topic in more detail now",
  • "The homework exercise asked you to think about why this next piece of argument might be flawed."

What I am advocating is a policy where you strongly advise students to complete the homework, so that they are in a better position to understand the material and which appeals to the student's desire to pass the exam/test.

Completing the homework is not a necessary prerequisite to understanding the material of the present lecture, but would be very very useful to the students indeed when it comes time to revise for the course.

  • 1
    Is there a (strong) positive correlation between student completion of homework and final grade for the overall module/unit/paper? - The module is pass/fail. Yes, the students who do the homework pass and most of the students who do not, end up failing. Those who fail sometimes drop and move to another school which they view as more lenient.
    – earthling
    Commented Jul 24, 2013 at 2:32

Here's one idea you could try: Have the students go to the front of the entire class, and either solve a problem on the board, or else explain something from the homework assignment.

Your goal would be to create an activity where anyone who completed the homework should have no problem completing the task, but those who did not do the homework stand a good chance of struggling mightily.

Make it an in-class game of sorts by pulling names out of a hat.

If students come unprepared, at least they will be more nervous and less casual about it. Perhaps that might increase your participation rate.

You might also do something like this: any student who doesn't turn in an assignment gets their name written down on five more index cards, which are subsequently added to the hat, thereby sharply increasing the likelihood that they will get picked in future classes. Make sure the students are well aware of that practice.

  • a small alteration to the algorithm: start doing this stand-up tasks after the first assignment, and only use names that have missed/failed assignments. This is sharper :) Commented Jun 27, 2015 at 17:31

I doubt that many will agree with me, but this is what I would do if I could:

(1) If someone can't participate in a class because they haven't done the homework, just ignore them and continue the lesson. If they get lost, just tell them that would have been learned if you had done the homework, and move on.

(2) Don't kick people out of class if they haven't done their homework. (But do kick them out, of course, if they become disruptive because they keep asking about things they should know already.)

(3) Calculate their grade however you will. But allow an "alternate grading" that emphasizes midterms, finals, and other tests; on the grounds that if they get a good grade there they obviously know the material; even if they hardly show up and/or never do homework. Those who choose this alternative should also face a short oral exam to ensure they really understand the subject matter and haven't just memorized the details without being able to show how they got there.


I sympathise with your predicament, but disagree with your methods. One thing that strikes me as strange about this question is that you appear to be sufficiently in control of the class to be able to remove 40% of this cohort from the classroom, but you worry that you are insufficiently in control to prevent these same people from disturbing the class if they are present. I would have thought that if you are sufficiently authoritative to do the former, then it should be possible to allow people to stay, but prevent them from disturbing others. In fact, I would have thought that this would be substantially less effort than going to the trouble of physically removing almost half of the class.

The reason to raise this incongruity is that (at a tertiary academic level) it is generally a good idea to present the students with resources to learn, and let them decide whether or not they benefit from these resources. It is best to grade students on merit rather than effort, and a student who is able to master the material should not fail the course simply because they have declined to learn it in the manner you have specified. University students are adults, and they should be expected to make use of the provided resources in whatever way that allows them to learn the subject, with knowledge being the final test.

Removing students from the class means that they are denied one of the resources for learning the material, on the basis of having eschewed another resource (the homework). Moreover, the fact that a student can fail the course via these "absences" means that a student who is able to learn the material through self-study --without doing the homework-- will nonetheless fail, even if they have mastered the subject matter. With the greatest of sympathy, this strikes me as a case where the instructor is testing compliance rather than knowledge.

It might be worth exploring whether there are ways that you can allow students to remain in your class without letting them disturb the class for others. This might mean imposing a moratorium on asking questions if you haven't done the homework, but even then, that is less of a loss than being required to leave (and then marked absent and possibly failing). This approach would have the benefit of allowing students to learn from the resources that they determine to be worthwhile to them, and to be directly exposed to how difficult it is to follow your class when they have not done the homework.

  • Thanks for your insights. The challenge is when you design the in-class time to be based on the pre-reading and large groups of students refuse to do the reading, they cannot participate in a meaningful way. They end up chit-chatting with their friends which builds to a low roar making it impractical to have a proper discussion with the students who did the reading. It is nice to think that "there is a way" but I do not know the way (hence, my question). They don't ask questions because they know too little, having refused doing the reading. These are always the weakest students.
    – earthling
    Commented Apr 28, 2018 at 13:37
  • Okay, that is a better explanation of the problem, and you have obviously made a bona fide effort to explore other options. If I think of a further suggestion to contemplate, I'll add it here.
    – Ben
    Commented Apr 28, 2018 at 23:30

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