A Practical Introduction to College Teaching

All sections of this handbook, which has been prepared by Ian Johnston of Malaspina University-College, Nanaimo, BC, Canada, are in the public domain and may be used by anyone, in whole or in part, without permission and without charge, provided the source is acknowledged.

For comments, questions, suggestions for improvements, and so on, please contact Ian Johnston.

[Table of Contents]

Section 3: Assignments

Introductory Comment

Nowhere is the issue of the difference between the instructor's and the student's perception of college classes more obvious and important than with the assignments, the work a student is required to carry out in order to achieve a satisfactory grade.  For most instructors, the assignments are a necessary evil, time-consuming and sometimes depressing elements (all that dreary marking!), which take away from more exciting things, like lecturing and reading.  For many students, however, the assignments are the course, the single most important shaping elements which determine what they do and do not do in and for that class.  

Of course, we all hope that students will derive a great deal of benefit from things not immediately associated with marks, but the truth is that the majority of them will attend seriously only to activities which contribute directly to their final grade and will ignore other things.  In most cases the amount of work they do for any particular assignment will be determined by its contribution to that final grade.  Assignments, thus, in addition to being essential for our assessment of students' success or lack of it, are the instructor's most important way of encouraging or forcing the students to engage in activities which will help them learn (this point is particularly important to remember: assignments determine what the students spend time on in the course and what they ignore).  And assignments provide in many cases the only reliable indication of what the students are or are not learning.  An instructor who is not regularly receiving written material from students (or some other form of reliable feedback) is probably not in very close touch with what they are, in fact, learning.

Assignments, we should note, involve more than simply the exercise itself.  They also include the various activities the students have to do in order to prepare to complete the work (such preparation can sometimes be more valuable than the result) and any follow-up exercises designed to correct or reinforce the learning (like reviewing the mistakes, revising an essay, rewriting a test, and so on).  The latter are among the most vital learning opportunities the students experience.

The Nature of the Assignment

In some courses, the major assignments are easy enough to figure out.  A class in, say, conversational French or public speaking or acting or typing will naturally feature assignments requiring students to demonstrate that particular skill.  To attempt to evaluate the student in some other manner would seem quite inappropriate.  In courses whose major purpose is to improve a student's essay-writing or report-writing skills, the major assignments will obviously demand essays and reports.  In other courses, however, the instructor may have to think more carefully about how what she is requiring the students to do for marks may or may not be immediately relevant to what she wants the students to learn.

In thinking about the most appropriate assignments, then, an instructor might do well to ponder two questions: "What is the most useful thing the students should be doing to learn the important material in this course?" and "What skills or knowledge should they be able to demonstrate in order to indicate they are ready to move onto the rest of the course or the next level of the subject area?"  In other words, the nature of the assignments should be directly linked to the major priorities of the course.  This seems obvious enough, but unless an instructor thinks about these questions, she may well be encouraging the students to focus their energies in activities which are not especially useful for learning what is most important.

Attendance and Participation

For instance, if an instructor is going to require attendance at lectures (as an assignment), she needs to consider very carefully whether that is appropriate  for the aims of the course.  Why must students attend lectures?  What are they going to learn there that they cannot learn working on their own?  Is that time-consuming activity so important to their learning that a significant mark should be assigned to it?  

In many cases, of course, the answer to that question is yes: the student has to be there for demonstrations of or practice in something essential.  But much of the time the need for him to be there may be less clear.  If, for example, the lectures consist very largely of reviewing material handled in the text book, and if the student is perfectly capable of learning from the text book, what essential benefit is he gaining by coming to lectures if he has better things to do?  If a student already writes very well, why does he have to come to lectures on essay writing?  Shouldn't the decision whether to come or not be up to him?  

If these questions cannot be answered in a way which indicates that what a student learns will be significantly reduced by missing lectures, then why make attendance an assigned responsibility?  In some courses, it may be the case that attendance is not something essential for some part of the course but it is for others (e.g., in science classes, where a student might not have to attend lectures but is required to attend all labs and field trips).

The same points are relevant to something like participation.  In some cases, like seminar instruction, participation is a key requirement.  In a general class room set up, what does participation mean exactly and why is it so important?  How will the students' learning be affected for the worse by removing this requirement?  Remember, too, that if an instructor is going to require something like participation, then he has to be prepared to clarify what that is, devote some time to teaching what it involves, and devise a fair scheme of allocating marks for it.  And, of course, he has to make sure that the environment he sets up encourages participation, rather than inhibiting it (by the style and nature of his questions, for example, or his tendency to dominate all discussions).

In making things like attendance and participation key assignments in the course, we should be careful about over-valuing our own lectures.  Yes, we would like all our students to find our lectures amusing, insightful, richly rewarding learning experiences, essential appointments on their weekly timetable, but if (from their point of view) no essential activity is going on in the class which they cannot carry out on their own and if most of the time the students are listening to the instructor talk to them (especially about material in the text book), then it might be wiser to let the students decide whether they wish to attend or not.  After all, one of the important things we are hoping the students will learn better is to manage their time properly.  Letting them decide whether to attend class or not might well be an important responsibility they need to learn to determine for themselves.  I would suggest that a new instructor not make attendance and participation mandatory unless he can offer persuasive pedagogical reasons (What essential features of the course will the student fail to learn by staying away now and then?).

Written Assignments

Where essays, reports, quizzes, and tests are concerned, the instructor should think about some of the following questions: Is the student's learning in this course better served by numerous small assignments or by one or two major assignments?  Should I be administering five or six multiple-choice quizzes during the semester, or should there be a major assignment carrying much of the load? Or should I use both?  Would it be better to have them prepare and submit weekly reading notes rather than a formal essay or two?  Do I need in-class tests, or would the purposes of the course be better served by a take-home test?  How are the activities the students have to undertake to complete this assignment successfully relevant to the major priorities of the course?  And so on.  In other words, as mentioned before, don't simply hand out assignments because you have to have some marks to allocate at the end of the semester; link the number and nature of the assignments to the major priorities of the course.

Parenthetically, one might observe here that many departments and institutions have policies in place about continuous evaluation, the relative importance of final examinations, the number and style of assignments for particular courses, and so on.  An instructor will obviously need to incorporate such policies into his own assignments.

Assignments to Avoid

While on the subject of linking the style and frequency of assignments to the major objectives of the course, the following warning may be in order: do not build into the course assignments which are useful to you as an instructor or to your department but which have little educational value for the student.  I have in mind here the occasional situations where instructors will require students to carry out routine but generally boring tasks which are part of an instructor's or a department's projects (e.g., demanding students spend one or two hours a week feeding fish in a faculty entrepreneurial project or carrying out regular janitorial duties after department-sponsored theatre productions, and so on).  The assignment should play a vital role in what a student needs to learn and not serve merely to produce unpaid student labour for necessary but mundane tasks.  If you need them to do the work, then at least get them to volunteer, pay them for it, and remove the element of academic compulsion.  You should be able to justify every assignment as an essential part of what the student needs to learn.

In the same way, a instructor should not set up assignments mainly to serve his own research interests or academic specialty, unless those interests are an important core of the announced curriculum.  For example, a course on, say, Freudian Approaches to Shakespeare, will naturally have assignments exclusively based on this interpretative approach to the texts.  But in a course called An Introduction to Shakespeare such a limited range of assignment topics would be out of place.

An instructor who wishes to require his students to take part in his own research projects as part of their assignments or to participate as captive subjects in certain forms of enquiry should check very carefully with his department about the advisability of what he is proposing.  This area is fraught with potential difficulties (pedagogical, ethical, and legal).  In many institutions there are specific rules about such practices.  This advice is obviously important, too, in cases where an instructor wishes to set students assignments which are primarily meant to assist him in projects he undertakes for his own profit (e.g., a private contract, setting up shop as a private counselor, writing a book).  Do not use assignments to obtain the unpaid services of students, unless the project is directly and obviously linked to their own learning for the course, and even then make sure you seek advice about what you are proposing. 

Parenthetically, I should mention here, too, that while instructors are obviously free to use college facilities (photocopying, computers, phones, mail, meeting rooms, and so on) for the research or teaching or community projects they undertake as part of their duties, they should not use such facilities for any private work undertaken for reasons which have nothing to do with college instruction, whether for profit or not (e.g., private consulting, marketing surveys, tai chi classes, recreational outings for tourists, church group activities, and so on), unless they have received permission from the appropriate college administrators.  Most institutions have clear policies about such matters (permitting the use of college facilities for a percentage of the profit, for example, or for a fee). 

Some Options

The following paragraph offer a few observations about the most common form of assignments.  Instructors, as mentioned above, need to think about linking the style and frequency of the assignments to the aims of the course.

Multiple-choice Testing  

Multiple-choice tests are a particularly useful way of encouraging certain kinds of learning, especially in cases where a major goal of the course is to introduce students to the basic concepts and working vocabulary of a course (e.g., in first-year psychology or biology).  Such assignments are easy to administer, take relatively little time to mark, and can be adjusted to fit any time frame (e.g., quick fifteen-minute quizzes or three-hour tests).  The instructor can also use them repeatedly without too much additional marking load.  They are really helpful in courses where the students need frequent incentives to read and retain basic information.  They also enable the instructor to get the students focusing on some areas rather than others and give her a continuing sense of just how much of that information the students are retaining and of areas where many students are having trouble.

In announcing a multiple-choice test, the instructor might want to indicate particular areas the test will cover (i.e., areas which are especially  important for the students to know), perhaps even indicating what some of the questions will be.  Such information will channel the student's study time into those sections of major importance.  In this way, a short quiz can be a powerful incentive for the students to concentrate on particular things rather than others, and thus the test becomes, not simply a check on the student's knowledge, but also a shaping factor directing his study habits.

It's important to remember the concept of fairness in multiple-choice testing and not seek to trick the students by giving a disproportionate emphasis in the quiz to things which were barely touched on in the course or of only marginal importance in the reading.  The particular questions in the quiz should match the relative importance of different parts of the material, especially if the instructor has given advance notice of what is important and what is not.  Students get seriously irked when they feel the instructor has tried to catch them out with some sudden shift in emphasis.

The effectiveness of a multiple-choice test will depend, too, on the speed with which the instructor gets the marked tests back to the students and on the follow-up (a review of the correct answers with a discussion, particularly of a question which stumped many students, and perhaps a make-up test for those who did not succeed).  Remember the purpose here: the test is designed, first and foremost, to encourage students to learn the material and to reinforce such learning, not simply to test whether they have learned it.  So in planning the assignment, the instructor might want to think about what to do with those students who did very badly in the test.  

Essays and Reports

Essay assignments and technical reports are primarily a formal test of the student's ability to analyze material, construct arguments, and provide a more or less literate response in an acceptable format.  They test a complex set of skills and are appropriate only where those skills are essential to the major priorities of the course (which may include preparing students for the major assignments they will face if they continue with more advanced courses in the subject area).  If an instructor is interested only in the way students have grasped a certain content and is not all that concerned about their writing skills (not enough to pay much attention to it in the marking), then she might want to re-think assigning an essay.  

If the essay or report assignment also includes a research component, then the details of the assignment should clarify just what that component involves.  Are the students expected to base their work on research material they gather?  If so, how much research material is required?  How are they supposed to document their references? Here again, the instructions will have to mirror the purpose of the assignment.  In many first-year courses, instructors are particularly interested in teaching students to organize their own thoughts without incorporating research material.  In such cases, students need to be told to forget about secondary sources.  In some assignments, the important point is learning how to incorporate a variety of secondary sources into an argument and provide a List of Works Cited, without much emphasis on how up-to-date or reliable that research material might be.  In still other assignments, usually major papers in upper-division courses, the student is expected to use a great many recent and reliable secondary sources and to provide references in a very particular style.  Your students will need to be told just what you expect from them in this respect.  Make sure (once again) such instructions are given in writing as part of the assignment.  Do not assume that they already know the specific details of what you require.

The effectiveness of an essay or report as a learning experience (that is, its contribution to what the students learn in the course) depends a great deal on two time-consuming factors: the assistance the instructor provides in setting up the assignment and guiding the students in certain directions rather than others, and, more importantly, the follow-up work the instructor is willing to undertake in response to the students' efforts (that includes the marking, individual consultation, and classroom discussions).  An essay assignment which does not include significant attention to these factors, especially the latter, may end up having limited use, other than giving the instructor some basis for assigning a grade.

An instructor who assigns an essay or report and who is going to assess the student's success in the course in large part by the grade on the writing has a responsibility for helping the student learn how to write the essay or report and, in the marking, for informing the student how the essay might be improved.  Do not assume that teaching writing is someone else's responsibility.  If you require an essay, then you have to be prepared to assist students with the exercise.  I say this in the full knowledge that most instructors outside English departments routinely assign essays and reports and assess students on the basis of those assignments and firmly refuse to accept any responsibility for helping students with their writing (either by devoting class time to reviewing structure, grammar, or logic, or by making errors in basic style a significant element in the marking, or by marking the essay in any great detail, with cross references to something that might help students understand their basic grammatical mistakes).  This attitude of instructors outside English departments is the single most important reason why students do not work harder to improve their writing generally (but that's taking me into another subject.  If you wish to explore this topic in more detail, use the following link: Marking Essays).

In thinking about the style of marking, the instructor should reflect on the following question: How is a student who is really keen to learn how to write the assignment better going to understand what she has done wrong on the basis of the various comments or notations you provide?  If an instructor merely circles or corrects the basic grammatical mistakes (e.g., by frequent editorial corrections or suggested revisions of sentences) without any cross-reference to a grammatical guide, then how is the student supposed to understand how to avoid particular mistakes in the future (particularly the errors she keeps repeating)?  If your marking style is not helping her with that problem, then all your efforts may be of limited assistance in encouraging her to learn how to do the task better.  If you provide no comments or corrections at all other than a final grade, then the student will learn very little from the exercise (at least about writing better).

Some ways you can guide students in advance of the due date are as follows (the more inexperienced the students, the more important such advice is):

1. Review in class what the essay is supposed to do and how certain basic mistakes in structuring the essay can be avoided (particularly important if you have very specific requirements for this assignment).

2. Ask the students to provide an outline first (some marks for the assignment will be given here); review the outlines and hand them back with any relevant advice (a very useful way of averting some major disasters); to assist in this process you might want to assign some of the marks for the assignment to the outline.

3. Ask the students to hand in a rough preliminary draft (which is reviewed and returned with comments to the student).

However much or little time and effort an instructor devotes to the issue of how to write the essay or technical report, she should make sure the students have access to an example of what she is requiring in the assignment (particularly if the students are unfamiliar with the format).  If there are complex formatting requirements (e.g., a table of contents, an index, certain requirements for the treatment of diagrams or graphs, a particular style of references, abstracts, and so on), the students should be able to look at a successful example of what is required (something in the text book or posted online), in effect, a model upon which they can base their own work.  

Obviously, such an example is not required with a class which is thoroughly familiar with a specific style of assignment (e.g., an upper-division class of English majors should all know what is meant by MLA format, so indicating that that is the required format should be sufficient).  But students will really resent being penalized for things they were not informed about clearly or given a chance to learn in advance.  Hence, the more specific the instructor's requirements, the more important it is for him to outline those well in advance (with detailed examples).

Let me observe here that some students will simply ignore or treat very carelessly the most explicit instructions about formatting, structure, and content (especially in the first two years).  An instructor should not treat such a response casually.  Hand the work back to the student, and demand strict adherence to the instructions (i.e., refuse to mark the work until it has been done properly).  Remember that if you accept such sloppy work in which the student has clearly ignored basic instructions, you are merely reinforcing the student's perception that written instructions don't matter.

Rewriting Essays and Reports

Given that essay and report writing is a complex and difficult skill which most students take a long time to master, an instructor assigning one might like to think about giving students the opportunity to revise and resubmit a marked essay, in effect, to have a second chance.  This exercise is immensely valuable for all sorts of reasons, even in more advanced courses, and the students will probably learn more from a chance to rewrite a marked essay than they will from doing a second essay from scratch or from any post-mortem discussions an instructor offers without the chance to revise.  Where a major priority of the course is learning to write a formal essay or technical report (including appropriate formats for references and bibliographies), the assignment to rewrite an essay can be the single most valuable element in the curriculum.

A word of caution here.  Where the option or requirement to rewrite an essay or technical report is present, some students will often present rather sloppy, even incomplete, first drafts, especially if they know there is no penalty for doing so (since they have the chance of re-doing the essay).  An instructor can cope with this by refusing to accept incomplete first drafts or by distributing the marks for the assignment in a certain way: the mark for the assignment will be the average of the marks on the first and second drafts.  I tend to be very generous with first-year students, allowing the mark on the second draft to replace the mark on the first, but with more experienced students I make the mark the average of the first and second drafts.  And I refuse to accept incomplete or late work as a satisfactory first draft. Students must hand a complete first draft in on time in order to have the option of rewriting a marked version.

Offering an option to rewrite an essay or report has one additional benefit: the students will be particularly attentive and focused when they get the first marked draft back.  They will be strongly motivated to learn how to do the job better, once they have a marked example of their own to react to and a chance to improve it.  Hence, the classes which review the marked assignments and point out common errors will be particularly useful learning sessions, far more effective than earlier lectures about how to write the assignment, before the students have actually made the attempt (many students will assume they know how to do the assignment already or may seriously underestimate your marking standards).  Thus, any instructor teaching a course in which improving students' writing abilities has a high priority should seriously consider this option.  Yes, it's time consuming (all that marking), but its value is beyond dispute.

As an English and Liberal Studies instructor and a teacher of Technical Writing, I am completely sold on the educational value of the option to rewrite essays and reports, particularly as a way of improving the student's ability to construct persuasive arguments (I much prefer fewer essay assignments with the option to rewrite marked first drafts than more essay assignments).  However, I accompany this option with certain provisions: only students who hand a complete first draft in on time get the option to rewrite, and the re-written version must be handed back within two weeks of getting the marked first draft back.  Do not create a scenario where in the last week of the semester you get inundated with a pile of rewritten essays or reports from many weeks before.

As with all assignments, the educational value of an essay is significantly diminished if the student has to wait a long time before getting the marked copy back (by which time much of what he was wrestling with in the assignment will have faded from his mind).  The instructor should thus make the often considerable effort to get the essays and reports marked immediately and back to the student within a matter of days rather than weeks.

One final contribution to the educational value of an essay or report assignment is giving the students a chance to see a very successful example (or two) from the class.  Students generally get very little chance to inspect each other's work and yet are often intensely interested in it.  So you might want to ask a student who has written a very good essay or report if you can distribute it to the class either in print form or in a newsgroup (with or without the student's name).  Acquainting students with the best result(s) will help them to understand why they received the mark they did and what they might strive for in the next assignment.  The practice can also serve as a mark of commendation for excellent work (something we don't celebrate sufficiently).  However, it is very important to obtain the permission of the student-author first.

In-class Essays and Essay Examinations  

In class essays are among the most unsatisfactory assignments simply because students tend to fare very badly at them.  They have trouble writing against the clock and, like many of us, have become so accustomed to using computers to prepare written assignments that they work very slowly and carelessly (and often illegibly) if they have to write things out by hand.  Where possible, an instructor should allow students to work with computers in such assignments (recognizing, of course, that computers can make cheating a great deal easier, especially if one permits students to use their own laptops).

Two major values such assignments have are that they act as a check against plagiarism and cheating in out-of-class work and that they serve as practice for writing such essay tests (which may be important in future years).  Many departments require some such in-class work to provide a reliable sample of student's writing and stipulate that the student must pass the in-class assignment or examination in order to pass the course (even though the mark assigned may be relatively small).  That might be a requirement you wish to build into your Course Outline, especially if a major part of the student's grade is determined by the marks on out-of-class essays.

Given the enormous increase in plagiarism and cheating, particularly in courses which require essays and term papers, such a provision in the assignments is unfortunately necessary, unless the course involves regular written contributions from students, so that the instructor has a clear sense of each student's basic writing competence (as with regular reading or seminar notes, for example).  However, the instructor should probably not assign a major value to the marks for such in-class writing (unless he doesn't care about the students' writing style).

Instructors can, if they wish, make the in-class assignment somewhat more useful by providing the students the essay questions (or a range of questions) in advance, so that students can spend time preparing to write the essay(s).  The instructor might also invite them to bring a one-page outline to the examination.  This practice can be a helpful way of keeping students focused during the last two or three weeks of the semester.  If they know, for example, that the examination will require them to write short essays on the material they study in the last two weeks, they are more likely to attend to this part of the curriculum, than if they know that there is no examination or that the final test will focus on other material.

To repeat a point made more than once earlier, let me urge you to organize all such in-class "tests" with a clear purpose in mind.  What is this test designed to encourage the student to learn?  Do not set the tests up merely as necessary exercises which will enable you to obtain a mark for the students.  And, where possible, use the upcoming test to focus the students' attention on matters of particular importance rather than on less important curricular matters.

Reading (or Seminar) Notes 

By Reading Notes I mean short relatively informal written responses to some assigned reading.  These are particularly useful in courses where a major concern is reading and discussing essays, fictional writing, philosophical, social, or political issues, and so on.  Such notes, written in advance of the class and handed in for marking, are a really helpful way of making sure that students read the material and do some thinking in advance about what they might contribute to the discussion.  Here again, the instructor can provide useful initial guidance and focus for the students by, for example, providing a question about the reading which the reading notes are to address or by inviting the students themselves to frame a question based on the reading and to explore in the reading note why that question might be important.

Reading notes prepared in advance of the class are and important where it's essential that students have read some material and are coming to class prepared to discuss their responses (e.g., in seminars).  Hence, instructors hoping to foster useful discussions in class about particular readings are well advised to consider incorporating such assignments into their curriculum.  Without such notes, you can count on some of your students coming to class without having read the material (especially if they know they can escape participating in the discussion).

As well as providing an incentive to prepare well for a discussion class, reading notes have the added benefits of giving the students some practice in writing without the stringent demands of an essay and of informing the instructor about the students' response to the material and about their basic writing style.  If you want to use this form of assignment, however, make sure the reading notes are printed (rather than handwritten) or are handed in at the start of the class.  Otherwise many students will compose them during the class, and the purpose of the assignment will be rather defeated.  You should also provide students a sample or two.

Such notes are valuable for all sorts of reasons, but they can significantly increase an instructor's marking load, especially since, for them to be most effective, they should be handed back as soon as possible.

Field trip Assignments  

Field trips are an important part of many courses (e.g., visits to sites of interest, to theatre productions or music recitals, to museums or art galleries, factories, hatcheries, and so on).  The effectiveness of these excursions is increased significantly if there is some written assignment attached to them (e.g., a field-trip report, a review of a production, and so on) together with a follow-up discussion (such an assignment will also help to focus the students' attention during the field trip).  Here again, an example provided in advance is very helpful to student (especially those unfamiliar with such an assignment).

The education value of such excursions is dramatically reduced unless it is incorporated in some way into the class room activities or assignments.

Cooperative Assignments  

Cooperative assignments are those in which two or more students have to work together on some project.  Such assignments are extremely common in some subject areas, and classes which routinely feature them tend to have a much higher morale and group energy than those which do not (since the work forces students to get to know each other and to learn together).  

Hence, instructors in courses where students are largely strangers might like to consider making some of the assignments cooperative tasks in order to provide their students with a few of the advantages of cooperative learning.  Here are some suggestions:

as mentioned before, a newsgroup chat room can be a useful way of promoting conversations, helping the students get to know each other, creating opportunities for cooperative help on assignments, and encouraging some students reluctant to speak up in class;

assignments requiring some research (e.g., a correlation study, library research project) can often be allocated to students in pairs (or larger groups) so that the students not only have to learn to work together but also have to resolve cooperatively any difficulties they have mastering the material or certain skills necessary to complete the project;

sometimes it's useful to assign pairs of students to work together preparing different approaches to the same question (e.g., preparing different positions on the same-sex marriage dispute or on NAFTA, and so on).  The students can share their research material, clarify their arguments in conversations together, and then prepare their papers separately.

Obviously there are many more possibilities here, lots of room for the instructor to come up with some creative options.  The more you can get students working together, the richer you make their learning experience, especially in courses where there is normally little chance for such cooperative learning.  And the more the students in your class know each other, the better the overall learning environment will be (for them and the instructor).

Marks and Grades

Students are, understandably enough, extremely concerned with their marks and will measure their success in the course more by the marks they receive than by anything else.  While they are used to having a variety of marking styles in their courses and recognize some instructors as hard markers and others as easier markers, they are quickly upset by any sense that the marking in a particular course is not fair, that is, that some students are apparently marked by a different standard from others or that parts of the course which require a great deal of work are not rewarded sufficiently in comparison with other assignments.  Instructors should thus strive to apply the same standards to all the class, even when they know there may be some special circumstances, and to allocate the marks with some sense of the amount of work each assignment will require.

Marking Standard

A particularly difficult matter for new instructors is the matter of standards.  Just how tough or how easy should one be in assigning grades to papers, tests, and so on?  This question is particularly difficult in some cases (e.g., in courses where the marks are based on written work like essays and reports) because there is such a wide variety among instructors in the same department, even among those teaching the same courses (in my own institution a recent study over a three-year period revealed that in the different sections of the same first-year English course, the range of grades went from one instructor whose marks were mostly in the A range to an instructor who never assigned an A).  This variety persists even when there are very clearly stipulated criteria for each grade level.

In reflecting on this question, an instructor might like to consider some of the following points:

There is no inherent virtue in being a hard marker.  Given that the students in your classes are competing with students from other classes for entry into certain programs, bursaries, and so on, deliberately setting an abnormally harsh standard is unfair, no matter what an individual instructor thinks ought to be the case.  To some extent, then, the standards one adopts have to take into account the general practice in your department or institution.  So there's an important value in informing oneself of that standard in advance (perhaps by participating in a marking session with members of your department or reviewing some marked papers or enquiring what the average grade usually is for a particular course).  Such normal practice does not have to determine one's own standard, but it should act as an important guide.

Adopting a very easy-going attitude to grades can be equally unfair (if not more so).  There may be all sorts of reasons why one wishes to be very generous with grades: one wants to encourage students and allow them to gain confidence, one wants to reward hard work, improvement, and a constructive attitude, one has ideological objections to pasting grade labels on students, one finds the distinctions between grades too artificial and difficult, and so on.  However, inflating grades can be unfair to one's own students (for all their pleasure at getting a good mark) and to the institution generally.  And it can make the work of your colleagues all the more difficult.

It's important to remember that grades are not simply an indication of success or lack of success in a course.  They are also strong indications to the student about her chances of success should she continue to the next level in the subject.  An A grade, for example, is not merely telling the student she has done very well in your course; it is also actively encouraging her to think that if she continues in that subject area she has every reason to believe she will be very successful.  A B grade is, once again, informing the student she has done well, but is also telling her she can expect to succeed at the next level.  A C grade is, in effect, something of a warning: the work in this course has been satisfactory, but the student can expect some difficulty in more advanced courses in this discipline and should be careful about selecting them.  And so on.

Given these obvious points, a good working principle might be to assign grades with the following question in mind: Based on this work, do I want to urge the student to think of further work in this subject area at a higher level, or indicate that she could manage at that level (without direct encouragement), or warn her that she can expect problems?  If I were teaching a course at the next level of this subject area, based on the work she has done, how would I respond to this student's desire to enroll?  Would I be eager, cautiously encouraging, or horrified? 

These questions are useful to consider because they remind the instructor that the grade for an assignment or a course can have ramifications later; it is not simply a one-time private event between the instructor and the student.  To give a student who is obviously unprepared for higher-level work a high grade because that student has worked very hard and improved a good deal is misinforming the student of what to expect and passing on certain problems to another instructor.

Grade Appeals

Almost all instructors routinely have to deal with students unhappy about the grade on an assignment (particularly on an essay or essay-style test or exam).  The main reason for this discontent, far more pronounced these days than in earlier decades, is that students are under a great deal of pressure to meet certain GPA (grade point average) requirements in order to qualify for upper-division, postgraduate, or professional programs.  It is now no longer enough simply to pass a course (with, say, a C or C+).  What matters is pushing the GPA or the marks in the required courses up over a designated line (and this line tends to move higher year by year).  Hence, the student's concern may involve a great deal more than just this one assignment, a factor that often contributes to the urgency of the appeal, which may seem disproportionate to the instructor who is looking only at that assignment.  If one imagines oneself in the student's place, it's easy enough to appreciate the need for some established process.

Obviously, the instructor must be prepared to listen to the student's concern and to respond by explaining precisely why the assignment received the mark it did.  In some cases, it might be appropriate to tell the student you are willing to look the material over again, just to make sure (after all, we can be mistaken in our marking, especially given the amount of it in some courses).  However, it is extremely unwise to set about negotiating a new mark with the student, creating the impression that you are changing the mark merely because the student is not happy with the original grade or that your grades are not firm but mushy and open to discussion. If you do that, you can expect a host of similar appeals and a good deal of grumbling.  Students will quickly lose respect for an instructor who is apparently not confident about the grades he assigns.

Informal and Formal Appeals

If, after consultation, the student is still not happy with the instructor's explanation, there should be some formal departmental or institutional process in place which will deal with the issue (stipulated in the college calendar). However, it's often wise to seek an informal resolution before the student initiates a formal appeal (which can be time-consuming and require the student to pay a fee).   For instance, the instructor might ask the student if he would like another instructor of the same course to mark the paper (or perhaps two instructors).  The department may already have an informal procedure like that.  Whether it does or not, you will have to secure the agreement of the student to initiate such an informal arbitration and explain what the result will meanobviously the terms of the appeal must be agreed upon: For example, will the grade determined by the other marker(s) replace the original mark under all circumstances or will the student have the choice of marks, and so on?

If you want to try an informal procedure like this, it's probably unwise to give the student the choice of external marker.  The instructor chooses the additional marker(s) and keeps their identity secret.  In some cases, the student might insist upon some input (e.g., there have been cases where a student has urgently requested that the assignment be graded by a female instructor) and, where that seems reasonable, it can be part of the process.  At this stage, the student has not forfeited his right to a formal appeal—you are still trying to avoid that stage with a mutually acceptable informal procedure.

Having such an informal process available is very helpful, because it gives the student a reasonable, quick, and fair alternative to consider without having to initiate anything formal and because it provides the instructor with an appropriate process for dealing with students whose discontent is not resolved by the first stage of the proceedings.  However, one has to be prepared to abide by the results (although in my experience relatively few students ever want their appeal to go beyond that first consultation with the instructorthey seem generally quite reluctant to have some anonymous outside readers).  An informal appeal like this is often useful, too, should the student eventually decide to initiate the formal process, since it indicates the willingness of all parties to reach an agreement amicably (the formal process will probably include a survey of the consultations which have taken place).

As mentioned earlier, if an instructor is going to set up an informal appeal process like this, it's a good idea to mention it in the Course Outline, so that students are aware from the start that there is a way of challenging the marking of an assignment and that there is no opprobrium attached to doing so (although many students continue to believe that there is).  Such a proviso gives the instructor a useful response to a student who has not appealed a mark but who chooses to complain later ("Well, if you were unhappy with the grade, why didn't you appeal it?").  Once again, however, you might want to put a time limit on such informal appeals—they must be initiated within, say, two weeks of getting the marked assignment back.  That will help to prevent a situation in which, at the very end of the semester, the student wishes to appeal all the assignments in an effort to get the overall grade a notch higher.

While on this subject, I should stress that an instructor should never get involved in commenting on the grading of a student's paper by another instructor, unless such an exercise is part of a formal appeal process.  It's fair enough to look at the paper, comment on the style, and encourage the student to talk the matter over with the relevant instructor.  Or you might want to inform the student about the appeal process.  But do not ever assess another instructor's grading in the presence of a student who has appealed to you that she has been treated unfairly.

Plagiarism and Cheating

Plagiarism and cheating are endemic in post-secondary courses, especially now that the internet provides such an easily accessible treasure trove of term papers, essays, reports, and so on.  No instructor can afford not to be vigilant if he wants his students to be graded on their own work.  Hence the need to lay out firmly in the Course Outline the penalties for plagiarism (and to provide a detailed explanation of what plagiarism is for classes in which students may be unfamiliar with the details).  It might help to mention that punishment for plagiarism can be applied retroactively.  That is, a student may be successful at evading detection, but the paper may be inspected later if the instructor has reason to suspect it was plagiarized.  And a student caught plagiarizing may also put courses he has already successfully completed in jeopardy.

There's little one can do to avoid these problems other than the obvious ones of invigilating in-class tests and examinations carefully (sitting or standing at the back of the class is a particularly useful strategy to consider, rather than, say, sitting down marking papers at the desk in the front).  Surprise in-class quizzes are, of course, helpful, as are in-class essays.  And applying stiff penalties when necessary can scare some students off.

One check on plagiarism (mentioned above) is to have at least one supervised in-class assignment (perhaps a final exam) which students have to pass in order to pass the course (even though the assignment itself may not contribute all that much to the final mark).  Such a check is fairly common in courses which rely a great deal on out-of-class essay or report assignments to determine the final grade.

One way to reduce the ease of plagiarism with out-of-class essays is to choose topics more carefully.  Asking students, for example, to write a short paper on a topic of their own choosing dealing with, say, Hamlet or abortion or the war in Iraq is inviting trouble—there is just so much material out there.  The more specific you make the topic, the harder it will be for students to plagiarize.  For example, in a literature course, you might ask for a detailed interpretative analysis of one relatively short passage in the novel or a comparison between two parts of the text or of two different texts (useful comparative essays are, for obvious reasons, harder to locate on the internet).  In a philosophy or social science course, you might want to request an interpretative analysis of an argument or a comparative analysis of two arguments (without identifying the authors).  The more one can narrow down the subject matter of the essay or term paper, the harder it will be for the student to find material to plagiarize.  Nothing one does in this way, of course, is a guarantee (after all, there are services which will write an original essay for a fee, and search engines are extremely thorough), but putting some thought into the nature of the topics may be of some help.

Many students who plagiarize do so carelessly and very stupidly, so that the cheating is relatively easy to spot, especially if one already has a fairly good sense of the student's basic writing style.  The major indications are a vocabulary and style significantly more sophisticated and correct than in the student's previous work and a command of concepts and facts (undocumented) which the student is highly unlikely to have on his own.  Still, one should never assume that work has been plagiarized, unless there's a really significant gap between what you sense from the student's own work and the style of the submitted work (after all, some students are extremely good writers and can produce excellent essays and reports).  If you have no previous knowledge of the student's writing, then be all the more careful of jumping to conclusions about plagiarism (keep a copy of the assignment and compare it with later work the student does).

Confirming plagiarism is sometimes very easy.  Typing a sentence of the suspect prose (especially a sentence with a proper name in it) into a search engine may produce a quick result (e.g., if the student has used Coles or Monarch Notes online).  And some institutions have more sophisticated programs for inspecting a much wider range of sites in more detail.  So the instructor should certainly try these methods to confirm suspected cases.  If the evidence turns up, then the student should be confronted with it and punished forthwith.  The punishment, of course, might vary depending on the extent of the plagiarism and the level of the course.  If you are in doubt, then it's important to consult other instructors and your department chair.  

The difficult cases occur when the instructor is virtually certain a student has plagiarized but cannot turn up the hard evidence.  Obviously, in this situation the instructor cannot accuse or penalize the student and will have to mark the paper as the genuine article.  She might want, however, to have a private word with the student, a delicate conversation in which the subject of references is brought up: "This work is exceptionally good.  I'm wondering if you got any unacknowledged help here, something you may have left out of the references and bibliography."  It's really important that the instructor avoids the impression of any direct accusation of plagiarism, while at the same time giving the student an opportunity to indicate whether he has crossed the line (especially in first-year courses where the student may not have a full understanding of the details of plagiarism).  If the student affirms that the work is entirely his own, then the instructor should obviously drop the subject.  And she should never try to badger the student into a "confession."  If the student affirms it is his own work, then the instructor should congratulate him on the quality of his essay and accept it as genuine.

However the instructor deals with such cases of suspected plagiarism which cannot be confirmed, she should keep a copy of the paper for review later (if necessary).  In some cases, a student's plagiarism is not caught until the third or fourth attempt, at which point the earlier work is scrutinized even more rigorously than before.

Incomplete Grades and Withdrawals

Many institutions have, in addition to the usual range of letter grades, the options of an Incomplete (I) grade or a Withdrawal (W). The former grade (I) is sometimes appropriate when a student has failed to hand in all the work and requires some time beyond the end of the semester to hand in what she has failed to complete.  If the I grade converts to an F after a certain period, awarding an I can also be a gentle (if rather timid) way to fail a student who has no chance of  completing all the work satisfactorily.  The latter grade (W) is appropriate when the student wishes to abandon the course and suffer no penalty on her transcript.  In many institutions the student can freely withdraw up to a certain date, after which a W grade can only be awarded with the instructor's or the dean's permission.

The use of I grades varies widely.  Some instructors make them generally available to students; others award them only in special circumstances (e.g., when a student has suffered a serious illness during the semester); and others never use them.  Institutions differ also in what happens to an I grade if the student fails to hand in the missing work.  Obviously, when an instructor offers the student an I grade, he should make sure the student understands exactly what conditions are attached (e.g., Is the I permanent? Does it affect the GPA? Does it convert to an F after a certain period?).

Incidentally, instructors should be very careful about assigning a meaningful grade at the end of the semester on the basis of a student's promise to complete the missing work (a situation which can arise when the student has to have a final mark immediately rather than a few weeks later).  An instructor who gives a grade before the student hands the missing work in can, in many cases, assume that the work will never be done, no matter how sincere the student's promises.

Awarding a W grade to a student after the deadline has passed (where such a deadline exists) is a matter up to the discretion of the instructor (and also in some institutions the department chair or the dean as well).  As an instructor, you should be familiar with the procedures here and, where you have discretion, award the mark in a manner you think is fair.  A W grade, you should note, may be very important to a student, since it removes a failing or very low grade from the transcript.  Hence, many ambitious students will withdraw of their own volition at the deadline for voluntary withdrawals—even if there are weeks left in the semester, they would rather not complete the course than risk getting a low mark.  For that reason, it is important for students to have some clear sense from the instructor of how they are faring in the course before such a withdrawal date.  If the instructor has a certain power to allocate W grades at her own discretion at the end of the semester, a number of students will make energetic requests for a grade of W.

In most cases I am aware of, instructors and administrators have awarded W grades late in the semester only under special circumstances, usually when a student has had medical difficulties during the semester, has tried to persevere, but has no reasonable chance of completing the work given a few extra weeks.  However, I understand there are some institutions where a W grade is awarded much more generously, so that many students can, in effect, leave a course very near the end of the semester if the mark they are going to receive is unsatisfactory (and thus protect their GPA from the devastating effects of an F).  A new instructor would do well to find out from a departmental colleague what the policies and practices are in her institution.

No Shows

Sometimes an instructor's class list will indicate names of students who are officially enrolled in the course but who never appear (or disappear after the first couple of classes).  You should make every effort to clarify the status of these students (within a few weeks of the start of the semester) and to get their names removed from the class list if they are not truly members of the class. Otherwise, if they are still on the class list at the end of the semester, you may be forced to give a failing grade to students you have never seen, something which may come to haunt them later on.  Some students are unaware that there are appropriate withdrawal procedures and that failing to follow such procedures may permanently tarnish their transcript.  Or they may be under the mistaken impression that they are no longer an official part of your class.  Some no-show students, of course, will not wish to be removed from the class list, since their student loans may require them to be registered in three or more courses.


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