I assign my undergraduate students assignments from a workbook as homework. The homework amounts to about 30-minutes per day.

It is impractical for me to collect these workbooks at each lesson, or even weekly, as any days when I am checking the work are days when the students don't have their workbooks in hand. Furthermore, I cannot constantly collect, carry, and redistribute hundreds of workbooks each week.

As such, I've limited my collections of these to twice per term. The results, however, have not been good. A great many students save many weeks of work until the last minute, only to discover then that the task is far more difficult than they anticipated.

How can I motivate my students to complete work daily when it is impractical for me to frequently assess it?

  • 18
    Try visibly rolling a 20-sided die at the start of every class. If it comes up 20, collect and grade the workbooks. Alternatively, put numbers on each workbook, and then only collect and grade the workbooks that match today's die roll.
    – JeffE
    Commented Aug 21, 2013 at 16:47
  • 11
    Are these undergrads freshmen? Many colleges treat non-freshman undergrads as adults and let them learn from their own mistakes instead of hand holding them...
    – atk
    Commented Aug 21, 2013 at 17:29
  • @JeffE: I had a professor do that, but the die had far fewer sides. I'd be afraid 1:20 odds wouldn't provide enough motivation. Of course, 1:6 odds might instill more motivation, but the instructor would have to do more grading, too. It's a tough nut to crack.
    – J.R.
    Commented Aug 21, 2013 at 22:36
  • @J.R.You could always use a six-sided die and then use "professors's discretion" to decide not to collect them if six happens to come up more often than you'd like to grade. Commented Aug 22, 2013 at 4:26

7 Answers 7


The other answers are excellent. Without knowing your field or the nature of the workbook assignments, I'll give the following answer:

I have become a big fan of automated online homework systems (although I know some students hate them). If you happen to be in a field where these systems exist (e.g., Physics, Math, Chemistry--WebAssign, MyMathLab, etc.), consider this for a future semester.

The reason I bring up these systems is that (1) they provide a forcing function for the students to do the work, (2) the grading is automatic and immediate, (3) the better systems provide guidance on problem solving, and (4) the math-related problems can be randomized so students can't copy of another student's work (as easily...).

Ideas for your current system:

  1. Do a cursory check of the books every week. By cursory, I mean "check that there is writing on the required pages," and give a check or not. This doesn't preclude them from not putting in much work, but at least they will see that you've got eyes on them each week.

  2. Give them a daily 1-question quiz that is straight from the homework (if it is the kind of work that has "correct answers").

  3. Reassess why it matters that they do the work, and lay it out to them plainly. Do the students who procrastinate on the homework really do more poorly with the material? If the answer isn't an emphatic "yes," then why do you care? If the answer is "yes," then lay this out to them on the first day of class: "I assign the workbook material because it helps you get a better grade in the class. It's up to you to do the work, and your grade will almost certainly reflect the amount of work you put into the workbooks. I don't collect it because I expect you to do it on your own, and it's your grade that matters." In the end, your job is to give them the tools to learn the material, and their job is to use those tools. At the collegiate level, you can expect them to take their education seriously. I.e., "You can lead a horse to water..."

  • 7
    Assuming adulthood (point 3) only works in isolation if you're willing (and known to be willing) to actually fail people who do poorly despite your warning, even if that ends up being half the class. That's harder than it sounds.
    – JeffE
    Commented Aug 21, 2013 at 16:46
  • 2
    @JeffE it may be hard, but a teacher owes it to their students to let them learn from their mistakes. A teacher who passes students that don't deserve it sets those students up for greater failure, later - even if half the class.
    – atk
    Commented Aug 22, 2013 at 3:08
  • 3
    @TobiasKienzler I should add--these tools are not so good for classes where answers don't boil down to a number, or for classes where the result is less important than the method used. Obviously, that weeds out many classes, but if there are "workbook" problems, there may be an automated solution. Commented Aug 22, 2013 at 13:55
  • 4
    I'd go further than saying some students hate automated online homework systems - in my experience as a TA (physics) talking with students, these systems are almost universally despised. They offer no chance for partial credit and little to no guidance as to what a student might be doing wrong when their answer is incorrect. Of course, I understand why they're necessary for large classes.
    – David Z
    Commented Aug 23, 2013 at 3:53
  • 1
    @DavidZ Absolutely agreed - and who can hold that against students, when like in Chris' first example π is not treated as the correct answer, since "the correct answer is π/1" m-/ And indeed the most important part of good exercises is not the end-result (which in really good exercises is even provided) but the way to get there. And I have yet to encounter an automated system that manages to actually teach a student instead of such a silly black&white system with too little tolerance. But yes, it may be a necessary evil in large classes, though that suggests a different problem altogether Commented Aug 23, 2013 at 7:11

Intrinsic motivation is always a better motor than threats and coercion. They are, after all, adults. So, try to make them understand that doing this is important for their progress, and thus completion of the course. Also, be open to suggestions from them on how to make it less cumbersome (for example, by skipping a week if they are really hard-worked at that particular time).

You can, however, combine this with extrinsic motivation forces, in order to help them see very concretely how the benefits of doing the homework regularly. For example, collect 5 of them at random every week. Another idea would be to tell them in advance that 50% of the final exam will be on problems taken from the workbook: they will understand very easily that, if they have done the homework correctly, it will really help them secure a good grade.

  • 1
    The emphasis on intrinsic/extrinsic motivation reminds me of the goals behind much of the recent team based learning teaching orientation. The extrinsic motivation comes from interactions with the group, not only from the teacher.
    – Andy W
    Commented Aug 21, 2013 at 17:06
  • Intrinsic motivation will be a much different matter in a required math class than in an elective creative writing class. I completely agree that its better, but there are students who will, in almost no circumstances, choose to be intrinsically motivated in e.g. a compulsory math course. Commented Aug 21, 2013 at 17:51
  • 1
    Also, the 50% of the final exam will work fine as long as it is OK if they do the entire workbook in the week before the final. Those who do may even do better on those problems as they will recall difficult details better. However, if they really need the knowledge from the workbook to understand material during the semester, many of them won't have learned any of the workbook material until just before the final which can be problematic. Commented Aug 21, 2013 at 17:54
  • @JohnRobertson then introduce half-term exam, or something like that… also, they might believe that doing the work at the last minute is better, but we know it ain't so.
    – F'x
    Commented Aug 21, 2013 at 19:21
  • While I'd like to recommend the on the test one, I've seen that lead to either people brute-force memorizing all the solutions, without doing the questions, or, at the other end of thespectrum, just not doing them anyway. On the other hand, it got me to do a lot of questions when I was an undergrad, so it might work.
    – Canageek
    Commented Aug 21, 2013 at 19:46

Some ideas:

  • [reward] Give some exam bonus to volunteers who will correct the homework on the board
  • [threat] Randomly pick a student to correct the homework on the board and give him/her malus if he/she has not done it
  • [threat ++] Make an exam (each week first, then each two weeks or randomly) in class on the given exercises, collect and evaluate the work

I usually give short quizzes based on the homework assignments. You do not need to include the exact homework questions there (though you can do it too) but they should satisfy the condition that whoever can do the current homework problems should be expected to pass them and whoever who can not should be expected to fail. I find this system more encouraging and revealing than grading a random subset. For completely routine things (like basic arithmetic, trigonometry, etc.) various automatic online systems are really good. You need to be very careful with how you set up the questions there and it can take a full day for one course but you can do it just once and never think about it again until the time to print out the student scores comes. Just don't forget to make those scores a noticeable portion of the grade. The other advantage here is that you may (but aren't obliged to) allow the students several attempts before they fail an online test, so they can really learn in the process, not just be evaluated.


I had a prof who marked us on completion. He taught 3rd year quantum physics for chemistry and would give out a page of reasonably easy questions that he marked, then several pages of really hard questions he wouldn't, but if you brought him each sheet completed he added 1 to your total grade. So whereas before you were out of 100, now you are out of 101. (Roughly, his marking system was out of more then 100 I think).

You could also complete previous years worksheets for the same thing, or textbook questions, anything like that. One page of questions (not answers) was one mark, or one of his old worksheets was one mark (Since the solutions were online).

This sounds like a lot, but someone worked it out that the first one you did added 0.4% to your final grade or something like that, but each one you did after that added less and less. The class perfectionist misunderstood the system and did 40 pages of textbook questions, and managed to raise her final mark by something like 4%. I just did all the old worksheet questions and got a percent or two, which really isn't much, but damn, did having done all those worksheets really help on the final.


Ask the students to photocopy or photograph their completed work from the workbook each week and email them to you as PDFs/JPEGs. (You may want a dedicated email to receive such files.)

Even if you don't grade the electronic copies, you can make submission a portion of the homework grade, e.g. 10-20%, depending on what your rules are about later changes.

  • As a slight variation to this keen idea, depending on what LMS is used, students may be be able to submit the scanned work to the LMS. A potential advantage to that approach is that it becomes easier to see who submitted something, and who didn't.
    – J.R.
    Commented Aug 21, 2013 at 22:38
  • @J.R. Your idea is solid, except if you are doing this, then that means your LMS is lame.
    – emory
    Commented Aug 22, 2013 at 17:29
  • @emory - I'm sorry, I'm missing your meaning here. I don't understand how students submitting electronic copies of an assignment to an LMS makes said LMS "lame."
    – J.R.
    Commented Aug 22, 2013 at 17:52
  • @J.R. I thought you were asking students to do their workbook exercises, scan them, and then submit the scanned copy to the LMS. If the LMS was cool, the students would just do the workbook exercises in the LMS itself - making things easier for everyone. The LMS could grade many of the questions itself providing students instant feedback. The LMS could populate the teacher's gradebook. If your LMS does not support these features, then your suggestion is pretty good: it is your LMS - not you - that is lame.
    – emory
    Commented Aug 22, 2013 at 18:10
  • @emory - Sure, but that might depend on the nature of the assignments, and not just the capabilities of the LMS. Not every assignment can be graded automatically (like proofs, e.g.); not every exercise can be easily imported into an LMS (such as those with many mathmatical symbols and equations); lastly, for some assignments, scanning may indeed be the best way to upload (as when students have to do large-scale diagramming). Exactly how the problems and solutions get loaded into the LMS is immaterial; I was merely suggesting using the LMS as the main collection mechanism, as opposed to email.
    – J.R.
    Commented Aug 22, 2013 at 19:26

Although there are other answers here which get to this point, I would look at making required things required. If you need the students to do it every week, then make them do it by tying their grade to submitting it every week.

The problem is that you don't have time to assess their work every week. I think everyone here can appreciate that. However, you need to at least partially solve that issue. One key for that is the proper use of technology. Either a Virtual Learning Environment, email, or other online homework systems.

If you cannot assess all of the students, then a random assessment might get what you need. After all, as a teacher, you should be providing feedback to your students. So, have them submit their work electronically (yes, this requires a change from a paper workbook approach) and each week randomly select a few for assessment. If you see some are stars, skip their assessments for several weeks. If you see some are struggling then assess them more often. The students don't know who will be assessed but their grade might not be based on the assessment of the homework, just that they attempted it for that, you can simply scan a list of submissions. Again, you could do this with email if you have no other solution.

Ideally, the students would be intrinsically motivated and you would not have to do any prodding but in my experience some students do need a little prodding to get them to overcome the inertia of laziness. For that, submission might be enough. However, in the end, you will need to assess some. You should assess as much as you can but you have to balance this with your other needs. There's a lot more to teaching that assessment but assessment is a pretty important aspect of what we do.

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