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I have a serious problem with HW usually submitted by students. A considerable fraction of the students are not neat with their HWs. By neat I mean respecting the guide lines I provided them to follow, such as:

  • A4-size paper, do not use detached papers from a notebook
  • Use only pencil, so you don't scratch
  • Be organized, not sloppy
  • Write clearly, so it is readable.

Things like that.

Unfortunately most of the students insist on not following these rules, or they will do it for some time, then they will start being sloppy again.

Am I the only one facing this issue? If not, how can one solve it?

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    I'm not sure exactly what you're asking. You can solve it by reducing the score if it's not neat, drastically if necessary. If it's your class you can do whatever you want in terms of deciding how the assignments are graded. I've seen people go as extreme as "Homework that is not typed gets zero credit." – BrenBarn Jan 12 '14 at 3:33
  • Can you sort your HW indications into "must absolutely" and "better if you do"? If so, take the time to explain your "must absolutely" list (which should be reasonable) and shred the HW that do not cut it, right as they hand it in (you may want to get them to hand it in one by one and tear it up right there). For other indications, a few points is OK. Harsh but hey!, life can be tough. – A.G. Jan 12 '14 at 5:50
  • @earthling Thanks, fixed that. Now the question is more general. – Moa Jan 12 '14 at 6:16
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    One thing I want to note is that the first two of your guidelines are objective, and it would make sense to start docking points for those if you want to motivate your students to comply. However, "be organized" and "write clearly" are a lot more subjective, and if you want to dock points for those, you may want to say "if I can't follow/read what you're trying to say, you won't get credit for it". That way, you place a minimum barrier instead of trying to have students guess what you mean by "sloppy". – waiwai933 Jan 12 '14 at 6:22
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    You haven't mentioned the level of these students: it's not unreasonable to ask students to turn in things electronically if the subject warrants it. That takes care of some of your problems. – Suresh Jan 12 '14 at 7:23

10 Answers 10

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It could simply be students doing the minimum in order to get by. The solution is to raise the minimum. To do that, start denying points for non-compliance.

As Suresh wrote in his comment, electronic submission might be appropriate. In my classes I require that whatever students submit be word-processed written in a specific font. If the students do not follow the instructions then I treat them as if they never submitted at all. As you can imagine, seeing this one time in class gets everyone to pay attention.

Basically, eliminate hand-writing if you can. Some students simply have very poor penmanship so it's best to structure things so they can use a computer. Ideally, save the paper and submit electronically.

If you cannot eliminate hand writing them make it clear that if you cannot read (or understand) what they wrote then their score will reflect that. I have issues with some students writing in English (not their first language) and I make it very clear that I'm not here to judge their English but if I cannot understand their intention without guessing, I will simply mark it as gibberish.

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    If it's problem-set based AND students are reasonably advanced (say juniors or higher), then asking them to use something like LaTeX (or even writelatex.com) is not so bad. – Suresh Jan 12 '14 at 19:27
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    It is a mathematical course where the solution of the problems is full of equations. It will be time consuming to do it with LaTeX. – Moa Jan 13 '14 at 5:51
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    Sounds perfect for LaTeX! Of course it'll be time-consuming at first, but what worthwhile habit isn't? – JeffE Jan 13 '14 at 7:12
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    @JeffE For a report, yes. But for weekly answers to exercises, it may not be worth the time to write it in LaTeX — I'd think even experts write complicated equations more quickly with pencil and paper, than with LaTeX. – gerrit Jan 13 '14 at 12:05
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    I find that writing in latex is an excellent proof debugger :). Somehow, the cold hard page doesn't lie. – Suresh Jan 14 '14 at 22:21
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In my opinion you should lower your standards a bit, but make harsh deductions if they are not followed

  • No pen is a bit strict, you could exchange it for no scratch marks. If they do a rough draft and then write a final copy in pen, that should be fine. Most mathematicians do not write in pencil.
  • A4 paper is a bit strict if you are teaching a class in the USA (since it isn't the standard size), in many countries it would be reasonable though.
  • legible writing - all solutions that cannot be read will receive a zero, please type your solutions if you have poor penmanship
  • I'd like to add removing points for a lack of staple. loose second pages get lost easily.
  • I totally agree. I accept HW written in pens if it is scratch free. I have never seen a HW written in pen without a scratch. Always one can find a scratched mistake somewhere. – Moa Jan 12 '14 at 16:34
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    Most mathematicians do not write in pencil. Says who? I use pencils exclusively. – Jonathan Landrum Jan 15 '14 at 21:23
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    I don't mean most as in the vast majority, but as in its more than half. I've been very careful looking at scratch work in 30 or so professors office hours over the years. Certainly some use pencil, but most used some sort of pen in their mathematical scratch work. – WetlabStudent Jan 15 '14 at 23:51
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    A4 is the standard paper size in every country except the US and Canada. I'm sure that, if the OP were in the US or Canada, they would have specified letter, rather than A4. – David Richerby Oct 11 '14 at 12:07
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If you can use a system of assessment criteria/rubrics for setting the grade of your class, you can include neatness (with a description of what is entailed) in your criteria. In academia as well as workplace, being able to follow instructions is valued highly. you can therefore build in these aspects in the assessment by pointing at the fact that clarity and other aspects is t strive for. If students realize the sloppiness affects their grade, I am sure most will take more care.

I am currently working on revising the grading criteria for bachelor's theses in my department. I have created a "Instruction for authors" that details the form and format of the thesis and text. In my case, I am considering making following these "instructions" a prerequisite to get the thesis graded. Our system allows students to revise their work and resubmit so another aspect is to build in that failing to follow the instructions will also lower the grade by one step (on an A-F scale).

Since grading systems and ways to handle examination varies widely, you will need to see if any of these ideas can be transferred but the main point is to make sure students understand that breaking the neatness rules set up have negative effects. And, that there is a logical reason for why neatness is a valid grading criteria regardless of the topic of the course.

  • "details the form and format of the thesis and text" - why not just provide a standard latex class? Saves everyone unnecessary work and is the standard process later anyhow. And it leaves more time to focus on the important parts that a tool can't do such as writing style and structure. – Voo Feb 7 '15 at 23:09
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As others have said, reasonable deductions should solve your problem. Be aware though that being a big stickler will make people less likely to take your classes. I did not hear about A4 paper before this post. I understand the uniformity, but from the other side of the desk its just one more thing to worry about. I am not saying your policies are right or wrong (whatever that may mean), but that aggressive application will drive away students who are not trapped into taking your classes, by simple rational choice.

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    In much of the world, it's very hard to find any paper which isn't in a metric size, and the vast majority of that will be A4. That said, A4 refill pads are often, in my experience, not true A4, but they're close enough. – TRiG Jan 16 '14 at 0:13
  • @TRiG, yeah it might be a cultural thing. Additionally, students' decisions are based on relative amounts of requirements, which is culturally determined both within the school and the department. – anon Jan 16 '14 at 17:26
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    All I'm saying is that a request for specifically A4 paper would not be considered unduly onerous in much of the world. It certainly wouldn't be here in Ireland. – TRiG Jan 16 '14 at 17:32
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Make their choices easy by giving details and examples

For all the required materials, show the students where they can buy, what specification they should look for (2B pencil, 0.5mm mechanical pencil, etc.), and how much.

For organization and legible writing, provide a few examples on what you consider as organized and legible. Annotate with your comments if necessary. You can then attach a learner's contract at the end, let the students sign to attest that they can produce work with comparable legibility and clear assignment of section titles, etc. This should be done once, at the beginning of the course.

This contract and printed example are necessary. The examples allow the students to judge their work more objectively, the contract instills a sense of seriousness and responsibility.

Distribute an assignment coversheet with checklist on it

Now that the groundwork is laid, give each of them a homework cover page whenever you give an assignment. The page should at least list:

  • A place for student to write down their name
  • Course code/title
  • Assignment title
  • Due date/time
  • A checklist of your requirements for student to check

The checklist can contain your objective or measurable criteria. After each criteria, attached a box that, if checked, would indicate the criterion is fulfilled.

The students will have to check all these by themselves, and then staple the front page to the assignment before handing it in. In terms of how to deal with unchecked items, it's all up to you, as long as the consequences are clearly printed on this cover sheet. It can range from "If any of these item is unchecked, your work will not be higher than a B-" to attaching corresponding points to be taken away for each violation, then you can let them pick which to forfeit.


Have you had someone checked the box without being organized?

Yes and no. I specify that all the assignments need to be typed so I never had the problem of self-claimed organization that actually looks messy. My checklist consists of mostly clearly yes-or-no's: "1-inch margin," "mentioned sample size in the Methods," "did not report p-value as zero," etc.

But your question did prompt me to think about a method we use when hiring interviewers. When we hire interviewers, we sometimes give them a sheet with numbers (0-9), some common phrases (such as "Not application," "N/A,") and words likely causing confusion (-y vs. -g, double t, etc.) printed on them. Then, we ask the candidate to copy the numbers and words by hand. Those forms are life savers whenever we're confused by their hand writing on the data collection sheet. We have used them in a pinch when entering data, and we have used them to advise data collectors who show deteriorating handwriting quality.

So, I guess you may modify your standard a bit. Instead of showing them some pre-existing copies of assignment, give them a couple pages of sentences and formulas and ask them to neatly copy them. Afterwards, if you're happy with the quality, they may proceed to sign the contract. Keep both writing sample and the signed contract together.

Would this prevent students from blindly checking the box? Not entirely. But at least now you have a good sample and a bad sample from the same student on the file, and it'd be easier to point out what went wrong.

  • So let me get this correctly. I will include on the front page an item like, for example, be organized (after defining what being organized mean of course). And they are to look at their own work and if it is organized they will check that box if it is not then they will not. Have you had someone checked the box without being organized? – Moa Jan 14 '14 at 2:07
  • @Moa, I have addressed your comment in my revised answer. – Penguin_Knight Jan 14 '14 at 18:04
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I suggest you to write three-four examples yourself, scan and upload to your webpage, to show how is it supposed to be done.

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Many answers suggest to lower grades for unneatness. I do not like this solution becaause at least once, you will still have to grade unneat homework. Another solution is to fix the deadline earlier than you really need, and simply refuse to take any homework that does not match your guide lines. This can only work for guidelines that can be judge in a glimpse. Also, as mentioned in other answers, such harsh behavior needs you to be crystal clear about what you want, and to explain why you want it that way.

This methods warrants you the students will care about your guidelines, and avoids you dealing with the kind of stuff you do not want to deal with.

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As @earthling stated above, requiring word-processing (possibly also electronic submission) will eliminate the majority of the problems.This requirement gives you standard paper size, no scratches, and legible printing.
Enforcing this is relatively stright-forward, if a little harsh. Automatically deduct a set portion of the available credit for any assignment that is not typed. Make this very clear on the first day of class and follow up with the promised consequences!

Unfortunately, being required to type homework will not automatically improve students' ability to write in an organized manner, nor will it improve grammar and sentence structure. Strongly encourage students to utilize the writing lab/tutoring center for assistance with organization and clarity. This will probably work better when homework consists of several larger assignments rather than multiple smaller assignments. Knowing that a significant chunk of their score rests on a single assignment may motivate students to seek help. Also point out (assuming it is true at your univeristy!) that students who seek feedback on writing almost always score higher than those who do not.

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    It is a mathematical course. Solutions to problem are full of mathematical manipulations. Doing it with LaTeX will be time consuming – Moa Jan 13 '14 at 5:53
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    @Moa While my classes were housed in the cs department, they were essentially applied math courses. They all required homework to be typed. A few specifically required them to be done in LaTeX. – Steve P. Jan 13 '14 at 13:55
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    If they are Junior and Senior level students then there isn't any reason to not expect them to turn in homeworks that are typed in LaTeX. It is a good habit for students to learn. I was a little frustrated with the first professor to make me use LaTeX, but I am very glad that he did, and now as a grad student I choose to do all of my homework in LaTeX even when it isn't required. – cc7768 Jan 13 '14 at 14:25
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In some countries, it is not acceptable to lower grades for things like neatness; however, you could go for a cause and effect scenario: "if you do not follow the guidelines, your paper will be returned to you to be resubmitted according to the guidelines." If this causes their paper to be late, assuming late submissions get a grade-deduction penalty, then hopefully the students will learn to follow the instructions to avoid having to redo their work and to avoid receiving a lateness penalty. Also, you won't have to mark the sloppy version!

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There are many reasons for students not to follow guidelines. One of them is that often each professor has his own guidelines, and one HW perfect for one will be unacceptable for another (and vice-versa). Prof. X wants Times 11 on A4, Prof. Y will read nothing but Helvetica 12 on Legal, etc (increase the figures for older profs). Your guidelines should be sensible and minimal, otherwise they will just be an exercise in obedience (which students detects easily and despise).

Departmental or faculty guidelines may help here.

  • I think OP is not having a problem with A4 vs Legal, but rather with students submitting the math equivalent of this. – Amadan Jan 16 '14 at 2:02

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