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Teaching Time Savers: Style Points

By Michael E. Orrison

When I began as an assistant professor, I had a pretty good sense of how much time it would take for me to prepare for each class. After a few conversations with my new colleagues, I even had a good sense of how much time I should devote to tasks like office hours and committee work. Somewhere in the middle of grading my first exam, though, it became painfully clear that I had underestimated the amount of time I would need to grade exams!

It was (and still is) important to me that my students felt my exams were fair, both in how they were written and in how they were graded. I tried to create exams that gave students ample opportunity to demonstrate their mastery of the course material, and I genuinely looked forward to reading their responses. By the end of that first semester, however, I felt certain that I was spending too much time and energy simply trying to navigate each exam. For example, I was having a hard time deciding what was or was not scratch work.

The next semester, as an experiment in my multivariable calculus course, I reserved five of the 100 points on the first exam for what I called Style Points. I told the students that I expected almost everyone to receive all five points. I also told them that if I had to reread a solution several times to find a train of thought, or if a solution was illegible, ambiguous, or incoherent, it would affect their Style Points, and that they should therefore give some thought to how they presented their work.

The result was dramatic. Without much work on my part, most solutions on the exam seemed to have a beginning, middle, and end. In fact, most solutions actually seemed to flow (more or less) with direction and purpose. This helped me give more honest and focused feedback. In addition, the mere presence of Style Points led to lively and worthwhile discussions about the importance of good writing, regardless of one s field of study. As a bonus, I was also saving about two minutes per exam. With sixty or so students in my two sections of the class, the savings quickly added up.

I now use Style Points for all of my classes, but I occasionally vary the setup. For example, in my advanced courses, my students can no longer gain Style Points they can only lose them. I should point out, however, that it has been several semesters since any of my advanced students has actually lost any Style Points. This used to surprise me. Then I remembered that, after sharing the idea of Style Points at a department meeting a few years ago, many of my colleagues decided to make Style Points a part of their exams too. Most of my advanced students have therefore already been thinking about their mathematical writing style for several semesters. This, of course, gives me even more time to enjoy reading what they write in my course!

Time spent: about 5 minutes in one class period to explain how Style Points can be gained (or lost) on your exams.

Time saved: about 2 minutes, on average, for every exam you grade.