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I have been wondering a while why many universities in the US have graded homework in the STEM field. I completely understand the grading for mid-term exames or final exams. In those exams you have to prove that you have actually learned something in class and that you can work on topics related to that.
However, this does not quite apply for exercises. In my imagination exercises are for revising and practicing content and methods of the lectures. They are also useful to find topics which you might think you have understood, but really you haven't. In my mind this learning environment should be free from pressure to "perform" and "produce results", but instead should be open and honest so that the learning process can be most effective. By grading exercises you create pressure that the students should not learn something (and sometimes fail), but that they should already know all that stuff.

So why is it that homework is often graded in US universities? Or is it not? I simply often get the impression that it is, but don't know for sure.

EDIT
Maybe I was too vague in my question, but I am interested why US universities often have graded feedback. I fully acknowledge the usefulness of regular feedback during studying. So I am interested in the reasons why this feedback counts towards the final grade.

Now there are some great answers, each giving different reasons. I feel it will be tough to select an answer, because if would look like I chose it to be the correct reason. Thus I will simply take the highest ranked answer in a couple of days, to mark this topic as solved and thank all contributors.

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    "By grading exercises you create pressure that the students should not learn something (and sometimes fail), but that they should already know all that stuff." What? Apr 15 at 15:40
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    It gets circular. If you don't grade work, students don't do it, and won't learn the material Apr 16 at 17:58
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    As someone who is teaching in an Asian university, the expectation for graded homework (even from the students side) is not unique to the US.
    – Greg
    Apr 16 at 19:23
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    @AzorAhai-him- In the process of learning something new it is normal to not fully understand right away and make mistakes. Punishing this by giving low grades in the early learning process does not sound motivating and might give incentives to cheat, instead of honestly trying some new skill, making mistakes and getting constructive feedback. Like learning to ride a bike. Getting yelled at every time you fall might make you choose different means of transport. Giving constructive advice on how to keep balance might make you learn riding a bike faster.
    – laolux
    Apr 16 at 21:50
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    @Barmar … not sure homework is a miniature exam: the distinction is well put in terms of formative and summarize tasks, as per the link of DanRomik’s answer. Apr 16 at 23:18

12 Answers 12

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Exercises are graded because if they were not graded, many students would not do them.

You are quite correct however in perceiving that this is bad. It creates an unhealthy confusion between formative and summative assessments, and is generally bad for learning as compared to an ideal situation in which students have a stress-free period dedicated exclusively to learning and getting feedback, followed by exams meant to test their knowledge and assign them a grade.

However, such is the culture in the US. Students are generally stressed and chronically overworked, and the ideal conditions that I described above as being most conducive to learning simply do not exist. Moreover, in an environment in which all or most instructors grade homework, any instructor who decides to deviate from this social norm and not grade her students' homework will know that that would cause her students to focus their time and energy on the coursework for their other classes, which would mean they would end up not learning the material for her own class at the level that she wants them to learn it. So instructors are essentially forced to comply with this norm whether they think it's a good idea or not.

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    Stressed and chronically overworked? Really? My experience comparing the amount of knowledge necessary in US and Czech Republic the amounts (for undergrad) in the US are significantly smaller. There might be more busywork, but I'd say a lot less stress. Plus you can easily avoid a lot of the busywork if you actually learn the topic.
    – DRF
    Apr 15 at 15:58
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    @DRF yes, really. These are my observations, and they apply to STEM students in a particular R1 university in the US, so YMMV. Also I didn’t say anything about the amount of knowledge required, only the amount of stress (which could also relate to students partying a lot, or having to hold a job to support themselves, or being immature and having poor study habits, or other things).
    – Dan Romik
    Apr 15 at 16:26
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    @DRF the amount you have to learn is really sort of immaterial to this issue. If you create a sufficiently horrible environment, it's very easy for students to both be constantly stressed and learn very little Apr 15 at 16:47
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    In grad school in STEM at a top tier university I went to the school med clinic for headaches. The immediate diagnosis was that I'm teaching 400-level pchem so I must be stressed and that causes my migraines. I could not convince them that I was having the time of my life and it was only several months later I was diagnosed with sinus issues. As you said, YMMV.
    – doneal24
    Apr 15 at 17:20
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    @DRF my experience is that students are stressed trying for example to juggle off-campus work to earn some $$ (or some other time commitments) with academic requirements. Regrettably, studying for some very often has lower priority than earning money to pay tuition or sustain a certain lifestyle, but that doesn't remove the stress Apr 15 at 18:01
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So why is it that homework is often graded in US universities? Or is it not? I simply often get the impression that it is, but don't know for sure.

Dan Romik's answer Exercises are graded because if they were not graded, many students would not do them. covers the largest reason.

One reason not covered in his answer is that not all material can be easily covered in traditional exams. Examples include:

  • Field or lab methods that might be graded by reports or homework assignments.
  • Computer programming would be easier to grade as a homework project rather than an exam.
  • Long worked problems such as some math problems that cannot be easily completed during an exam format.
  • Fine arts projects such paintings.
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    It's also worth nothing that homework can be worth very little (5% out of 100%), and may also just be a completion grade, i.e. if all problems are attempted then full marks are awarded.
    – LeviX
    Apr 15 at 18:56
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Dan Romik's answer that if homework wasn't graded, many students wouldn't do it is at least partly correct (although I can't help wondering whether overall comprehension would increase if homework wasn't graded in any class, allowing students more flexibility to focus their study where it could do the most good. One student's vital lesson is another student's busywork), it misses one very important distinction.

Homework and tests measure two very different skillsets. Timed tests are good at measuring how well a student understands the basic concepts but frankly terrible at judging how well a student can combine/use/apply those concepts in novel ways. Homework allows students to apply effectively unlimited time and resources to any given problem, which is terrible for testing comprehension of basic concepts (they could simply look up the answer) but can be an excellent way of testing whether, given appropriate time and resources, a student can apply their learning to more difficult problems.

If you think about it, graduate school embraces this dichotomy as well, no matter the country. One may consider the thesis somewhat equivalent to a very large, involved homework assignment and the thesis defense equivalent to the final exam. Now consider two students: one student writes an absolutely groundbreaking thesis but through stress, tiredness, or for some other reason completely flubs his defense, while the second student writes an extremely mediocre thesis but absolutely nails the defense. Which of these students would you consider more worthy of the degree?

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    Thank you for recognizing the pedagogical benefits of graded homework assignments. It's not just that education in the US is easier, or that the students need their hands held all the time (even if both of those things have some truth to them). I have been given homework assignments with individual problems that require hours upon hours of collaboration to solve; such difficult exercises can approximate the reality of research, and could never be given on an exam due to the obvious time constraints. Apr 17 at 2:39
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I was a math professor in the US most of my career. I didn't grade homework in lower-level courses like Calc 1, 2, 3, or Differential Equations or Linear Algebra. My syllabus listed selected problems from each section, and the students were encouraged to ask me or the TA for help if they got stuck. If they wanted to learn the material, they did the homework, and most students figured that out quickly.

For upper division courses, ones with proofs, then I collected and graded homework. This was because learning to write good proofs takes practice and lots of feedback. This had nothing to do with pressure and performance, but just that the student was attempting a proof and I was critiquing it. If I gave 8 out of 10 marks for the homework, then the student knew about how well he was doing.

So short answer to your question: Feedback.

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    Did you record the grades? I feel like that's the main issue -- the same assignments either way, but either "this is part of your grade" or "I will give you feedback if you ask". Apr 16 at 0:05
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    @OwenReynolds Yeah, they were recorded. The top answer is also true. Personally, I think we should quit grading all homework and let the kids grow up. But as it stands, we feel an obligation to protect them from their own immaturity.
    – B. Goddard
    Apr 16 at 2:45
  • Sorry, I was not specific enough in my question. I wanted to know why graded feedback. But interesting to know that calc 1 does not contain proofs in homework. That's what I started with on day 1 of my university career.
    – laolux
    Apr 17 at 4:35
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    @laolux We might have a different idea about what "graded" means. To me the grade IS the feedback. There are some proofs in Calc 1, but they're often hidden and it's not the main focus of the course.
    – B. Goddard
    Apr 17 at 11:52
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    @B.Goddard Good point, haven't thought about that. To me graded means getting points which will affect your final grade. To you it probably means giving a score for feedback, regardless of whether it will affect the final grade of the class or not.
    – laolux
    Apr 17 at 12:06
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As discussed, the main reasons are: if it wasn't graded, no one would do it and some valuable exercises work better logistically as a graded assignment than an exam.

One additional reason: if homework (and other such activities) are not graded, then it follows logically that the grade depends entirely on exams. Many other countries have a culture of high-stakes exams, so this is not a problem. In the US, however, high-stakes exams are increasingly viewed as stressful, discriminatory, and arbitrary, and so are becoming increasingly rare. Rather, students generally like being able to earn points through homework, participation, projects, or other "offline" activities. Instructors who fight this system and insist on high-stakes exams will not make themselves popular....and since "forcing" students to complete homework generally results in better outcomes anyway, this is a battle that few choose to fight.

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    Could you elaborate why high-stakes exams are considered as discriminatory - and in particular why they are considered as more discriminatory than the alternatives that you mention? Apr 16 at 8:32
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    @JochenGlueck, In the US, family assets are strongly correlated with race and ethnicity. Having a lot of assets, a student is freed from many concerns that poorer students need to face. Those concerns can impact the freedom and time available to study. Spreading the grading out over many tasks and a longer time permits those students to maintain contact. It isn't always possible for some to schedule an exam prep period and this is not uniform over the population. Diversity in the US is a great thing, but for those at the bottom of the economic scale life can be very hard.
    – Buffy
    Apr 16 at 13:41
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    What Buffy said. In particular, my former department once had a situation where we had too many undergrads, so we considered drastically increasing the difficulty of the introductory classes (primarily through exams). This plan was nixed when someone pointed out (based on historical data) that almost all of our females and racial minorities would not survive this kind of cut. (Note, I am merely reporting what happened, not offering a personal opinion on whether this was a reasonable decision).
    – cag51
    Apr 16 at 17:56
  • Thanks for your reponses, @Buffy and cag51. Apr 16 at 21:15
  • As an addendum to the issues raised by Buffy and cag51, it can also be a major impediment to disabled students. To take an extreme example, the late Dr. Stephen Hawking was at one point limited to communicating at a rate of one word per minute. This means that, during a two hours exam with three essay questions, each essay could not exceed forty words. That limitation would obviously impact his grade. While he would likely be able to access extra time, given the depth of his disability, many other students whose issues are not as visible are not afforded similar concern.
    – rprospero
    May 30 at 11:39
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This is not specific to the US context and I am primarily an instructor in a different context where too homework is often graded.

The basic principle is that students get credit (=marks towards the final grade) for all the work that they do as part of the course.

One view is that the final grade is not only a measure of competence in the subject matter but also a measure of skill acquired through practice (via homework). In this sense, we can think of homework as a "laboratory component" for a "theory" course and thus it deserves some credit.

Another point of view is that students tend to only work on things that earn them credit. It is a separate and more philosophical question to be debated elsewhere whether this is something they should be conditioned to do!

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    That sounds like "getting an A for effort". I get your last point, but will refrain from debating that here.
    – laolux
    Apr 15 at 7:17
  • @laolux To avoid “getting an A for the effort”, it’s a simple matter to give limited overall weight to the graded assignments. Apr 15 at 12:32
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    @laolux "A for effort" means you get a good grade even if you don't get the correct answers. Where did you get that impression?
    – Barmar
    Apr 15 at 14:08
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    To be clear, the phrase "A for effort" is based on a system where students are awarded two grades, one for their actual attainment (and this is the one that counts) and another for their effort. In my secondary school (UK equivalent of US high school) we had such a system, for example. The idiomatic meaning of "A for effort" is that someone put in a lot of effort but didn't achieve much; not that they also were awarded a qualification despite their lack of achievement.
    – kaya3
    Apr 16 at 16:06
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    @laolux They're still talking about grading the homework. You have to get the answers right to get a good score on it.
    – Barmar
    Apr 16 at 22:10
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Also, there are many, many students who just can't perform well in the environment of a test, no matter their level of familiarity of the material. And if class time is taken up with lectures instead of working through problems, then without homework that is required to be done, that familiarity will be poor for most. Combine that with the extreme consequences for failure in American education and anything that would increase the chances for student failure with no benefit is passively malicious.

A good professor in the US should be trying to help students succeed if they can and giving them other places to turn competence into grade points is part of that. It does mean that those with disabilities that cause them to forget assignments end up with poor grades though.

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I'm crafting a short answer based on a comment from the OP, which I feel might be at the root of the cultural disconnect they're experiencing. OP wrote:

Bonus point: when teaching students who were not forced to attend or hand in homework, only the rather motivated ones show up :-)

In the U.S., to my understanding, a rather larger proportion of the university/department operating budget comes from direct tuition payments from the students themselves. Therefore there's increased institutional pressure at all levels to keep every student engaged, succeeding, and continue tuition payments in the next semester.

Generally this gets referred to as "retention", as in: "our top focus is retention", etc., and similar things I hear regularly from our administrators. A lot of ink gets spilled at my college about "forming communities" being a "high impact practice". I've even had it recommended to me that I make a personal phone call to any student who was absent on any particular day, to make a personal connection with them, communicate that they're valued, assist with any difficulties, etc.

So if regular graded homework motivates more students to show up regularly (with which the OP seems to agree), then at U.S. institutions that's considered to be a best practice, because it helps with the goal of retention.

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  • Tuition is important because the students or their parents feel they are buying “a product”, which is university credits rather than university education. Moreover, the institution gets tuition hence the incentive to keep the customer happy. Thus, to deny customers their expected product, you need to have a legitimate reason and continuous monitoring of student progress does provide pretty unequivocal reason to deny this “product”. I’m not sure - in the very grand scheme of things - lots of marked assignments is academically healthy, but the reverse is not for students and the institution. Apr 17 at 3:04
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    Some pundit did quip that "education is the only commodity that people want to get the least possible for what they pay"... :) Apr 17 at 3:22
  • @paulgarrett would you have a quote to that? Apr 19 at 23:13
  • @ZeroTheHero, sadly, I've forgotten. Probably could be determined by Google. :) Apr 19 at 23:33
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There are many good reasons discussed in the other answers already. That said, there is also a bad reason which nonetheless is a reason that sometimes enters into the decision-making.

Lecturers are partly judged by how well their students achieve, particularly failure rates, since if a student can't continue their course then the university doesn't get their tuition fees next year; and it's easier to award high marks on mediocre homework than it is to award high marks on mediocre exam answers. If you give students enough easy marks on the homework then they can scrape a pass despite doing very badly on the exam.

It may sound cynical, but it does happen in reality.

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    In most places, especially good places, seats in a university class are a scarce resource, so if one student fails, another is there to take their place. Moreover, who is suggesting that marks are "easy" in either case?
    – Buffy
    Apr 16 at 16:51
  • @Buffy The point is not that homework is easier than an exam, but that if a lecturer wants to give easy marks, it's easier to get away with doing so for homework than for an exam. They can choose to give some marks just for completing the homework whether or not the work is correct; and in the worst case, a lecturer can turn a blind eye to students copying answers from each other. Of course this is only likely to happen in places where the financial incentive for the university induces managers to apply pressure on lecturers to pass more students, and that typically isn't "good places".
    – kaya3
    Apr 16 at 18:36
  • Regarding the idea that "seats in a university class are a scarce resource", many universities spend money on advertising to attract more students, and some (particularly for-profit universities in the US) pay "finders fees" to contractors who go out and enrol as many students as they can find. If they were running out of seats, they could expand their capacity and make more money.
    – kaya3
    Apr 16 at 18:38
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    More usually, the cost of delivering a third-year course to a cohort of 100 is not so much less than the cost of delivering a first-year course to a cohort of 120, because you have the same lecturer delivering the same number of lectures in the same lecture hall. But if you don't fail those 20 students over two years then the university gets quite a lot more income.
    – kaya3
    Apr 16 at 18:41
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I think one reason why it is not graded in Europe (at least why it is not graded in Sweden, where I am based) is that it takes lots of time to do grading. Someone needs to get paid for it, and the universities simply do not think it is worth the money to hire TAs to do grading of this sort.

In the US, the education is not free, so one can simply require master's students to do TA work, in order to get a scholarship. This option, I believe, is not even possible in Sweden, as work requires you to be employed, pay taxes, get all benefits (possibility parental leave, sick leave, etc).

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    I wouldn't say that this holds universally in Europe. Maybe it is just terminology, but when I was studying in Germany, all my exercises were corrected, the result of that just did not impact the final grade. Instead we had to usually obtain 50% of the points to qualify for the exam. As a result, there were lots of TA jobs around and the university had no problem paying for it, nor finding willing master's students to do the job.
    – mlk
    Apr 15 at 7:21
  • @mlk anecdotal datapoint, but I think German universities are too independent to compare to each other. I had graded exercises like you described in only one class, all others were optional. We still had an abundance of classes to discuss the solutions to the exercises on a voluntary basis. Poorer departments like math had fewer and larger classes, but usually no mandatory homework. And yes, it was good pay for the master's students. Bonus point: when teaching students who were not forced to attend or hand in homework, only the rather motivated ones show up :-)
    – laolux
    Apr 15 at 7:47
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    In the US, masters level TAs are pretty rare, actually.
    – Buffy
    Apr 15 at 15:54
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    I studied Engineering Physics (bachelor + masters) at a Swedish university and had graded weekly assignments in plenty of courses. It was more common in certain topics and at the higher levels. Grading is typically done by PhD students, who are employed with full benefits, but are required to spend 20% of their time on "department duties". The grading may cost a little extra, but if it makes teaching more effective, it may be worth it.
    – jkej
    Apr 16 at 21:10
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    @laolux "only the rather motivated ones show up" - or the ones that prefer lectures. I had generally a quite high average but I much more prefer reading materials. So after the 2nd year, I skipped many classes (we only had 1-2 with mandatory attendance. We always knew those are the boring ones...). My grades did not suffer in exchange but I had much more time for doing research.
    – aqua
    Apr 17 at 12:38
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My take on this isn't universal, I know, and I can't speak for others, but can explain how and why I "grade" homework - and a lot of homework. Caveat: My scale was always modest. More than about 30 students in a section of a course was unusual. I've gone as high as about 50, but that is probably the limit without help. I'll also note that for some huge classes (Harvard's CS50) the actual student/staff ratio is about 20/1, so even that is reasonable.

But there are two issues here that might be confused. Dan Romik alludes to this. There is the question of feedback on student work, which I consider absolutely essential to student learning. There is the separate issue of assigning points or such toward a final assessment (grade). So, even if I don't "grade" (assign points to) the homework, I still need to read it and comment when necessary - feedback.

There are a few reasons why I need to give feedback, especially, perhaps, in STEM courses. First, I'm not perfect. Second, the students aren't perfect. I may say something that gives the wrong impression and if it is missed by a student and not corrected, then they might get false "insights" that lead them to error. Learning requires practice and feedback. Practice without feedback can lead you to crankery. If the only assessment of a student's learning is at a final exam, then it is too late for them to make corrections in their learning.

It is also important to me that the students know where they are in terms of their final grade in a course. On any given day they should, ideally, know what their grade would be if the course ended that day. This has led me to adopt cumulative grading where each task has a number of points assigned (including tests) and students can know what percentage of the available points they have already "earned". If a course has 1000 points available for tasks, and 900 is the break for an A, then the student knows how far they are from that mark and how many opportunities there still are to achieve it.

For me, but maybe not for you, exams were a relatively small part of the overall grade, certainly less than 20%.

I also gave students the opportunity to re-do homework for which their earned point total didn't satisfy them. They couldn't get full marks for second tries, but could increase totals.

One advantage of this scheme is that I almost never got complaints about my grading. And my feedback on papers also gave some hints on how they can improve, even for a given assignment.

Oddly enough, I was perceived by students as being one of the "harder" or more strict professors. I had high expectations, but tried to enable all the students to achieve them. I was willing (and told students this) that they could all fail or they could all get full marks, depending on how they applied themselves. I had few failures. And luckily, I had a dean that would back me up.


Note that different students have different expectations for a course. If they are satisfied with a B grade then once they have achieved the required number of points for that, then additional points matter little. You can treat this as a feature or a bug, but being a few points short of the next grade can actually be a goad.


Also see: https://cseducators.stackexchange.com/q/4513/1293 and https://academia.stackexchange.com/a/112251/75368


I once had a math professor (much hated) that used a different plan in math courses. Instead of grading homework he would have "pop quizzes" at the start of nearly every class. We would spend the first ten minutes or so solving some problem from a recent lecture. These were graded. This was pretty much all "stick" and no "carrot", but at least we couldn't slack and our grade was spread over a large number of small assessments.

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    I feel very strongly - and contrary to you - that the bulk of the assessment should be on exams, or at least on work that students will certainly do on their own. In particular, as I believe that what matters is what the students know at the end of the class, I favour marking schemes with significant weight on the final exam. My final contain “bonus marks” so students can tell me what they know rather than I looking for what they don’t know. Apr 16 at 15:57
  • Sorry, I was not specific enough in my question. I am interested in why feedback is graded and counts towards the final grade. It sounds a bit like you count the feedback towards the final grade to prevent students from slacking off.
    – laolux
    Apr 17 at 4:39
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In some cases multiple submissions are allowed with the final score for a specific problem being the last one submitted. This is a useful form of feedback and encourages the students to work on each homework problem until they fully understand how to get the correct answer.

It is especially easy to implement this when homework is submitted online and graded immediately by computer. I doubt America is the only place where this is the case.

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  • If the staff/student ratio is reasonable, papers can be examined/graded/commented without issue. If the ratio is unreasonable, then something is very wrong. Machine grading also reduces the sophistication you can assign for student tasks if the autogravder is limited.
    – Buffy
    Apr 15 at 15:52
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    But can't the same thing happen without grading? Students can work on it, come in to office hours, and so on, until they understand it. The important part of this answer seems to be how grading encourages them to do homework, which is in another answer. Apr 15 at 19:07
  • @OwenReynolds Nothing stops a student from seeking help, but I have found that providing immediate feedback while the student has the problem fresh in their mind is beneficial. We all know the power of one-on-one tutoring, but working independently is also powerful. I am more interested in results than theory. My own experience is that incorporating this kind of feedback results in a greater success rate.
    – Supa Nova
    Apr 15 at 19:53
  • @Buffy is this question about what the ideal student to faculty ratio is, or is about why some teachers choose certain methods to get the results they're looking for?
    – Supa Nova
    Apr 15 at 19:55

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