The Value of Homework, Tests, and Projects

 

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I have only been teaching for a few years, but in that time I’ve had the chance to develop my personal thoughts and theories on the benefit and value of the various graded assignment students are given. The goal of the student in a class is to 1) learn new knowledge, and 2) demonstrate their mastery of the material. The latter is typically done by getting good grades. The former…well that’s the hard part, and not always well represented by grades.

Graded assignments also have two purposes: 1) help the student to learn the material and practice the skills, and 2) provide a method to judge each student’s mastery. So at the same time we’re trying to teach the student, we have to judge their skills. Not an ideal situation.

To me, homeworks and projects are for the first purpose, to give the students practice and teach the material. I encourage students working together on homework and projects as most people tend to learn better and faster with help from their peers. There’s also something to be said for comradery and making new friends to help people get through a tough class. On the other hand, homework and projects are not very good for judging individual mastery of the material. This is partially due to the potential for group work, and the wide variety of resources available to a student. Some fraternities and sororities have repositories of old solutions, which can be abused to get good grades but at the expense of knowledge.

There in enters the timed quiz and exam. Since they are given under a proscribed situation, usually in class with the instructor present, they ensure no collaboration (unless the student is very sneaky). But quizzes and exams are not any good for helping the student to learn the material. They then to be high pressure situations and students mostly just want to come out the room only lightly scythed. And the studying before hand is often times hurried and done just for the exam. Thus the transition from short to long term memory doesn’t happen, and not much is learned. Again, not an ideal situation. However the various regulator associations involved in education tend to prefer tests for judging a student’s ability and understanding as tests are individual efforts.

So what’s the solution? I honesty don’t know. Both the teacher and student are between a rock and a hard place. The best solution I’ve found is to make the final grade 50% based on homework and projects, and 50% on tests. In a perfect world everyone would be honest and only interested in learning, and not in the grade, but we live in the real world.

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