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Teaching Time Savers:Is Homework Grading on Your Nerves?

By Lisette de Pillis and Michael E. Orrison


You have probably heard it said that we learn mathematics best when we do mathematics, or that mathematics is not a spectator sport. For most of our students, this means that their mathematics courses will involve a fair amount of homework. This homework is often used to evaluate individual student progress, but it can also be used, for example, as a catalyst for discussion, to emphasize a point made in class, and to identify common misunderstandings throughout the class as a whole. There is, however, the matter of grading homework.

In spite of the importance of providing meaningful and worthwhile feedback to students regarding their homework, we have a feeling that, for many of us, it would be a struggle to imagine ?grading homework? in our ?ten things I like most about my job? lists. A few years ago, however, it occurred to us that grading homework was probably farther down on our lists than it needed to be, not because of what our students were trying to communicate, but because of how they were trying to communicate it. .

How many of us have felt that we (or our graders) spend too much time trying to navigate puzzle-like homework with sentences that wind their way through a maze of scratch work, or dealing with answers that seem to have magically appeared at the end (if you are lucky) of a solution? Do you spend so much time deciphering handwriting that you begin to empathize with the folks at the NSA? .

Since we wanted our students to communicate clearly and effectively to us in their homework, we felt that, as instructors, we were obligated to clearly and effectively communicate our expectations. We needed to go beyond saying ?make it neat? and ?box your answers? to a point where we were sharing specific advice (or instructions) together with a template. In particular, we wanted to impress upon our students the idea that ?how you present your work should enhance the ideas you are trying to communicate, not impede them.? .

With that in mind, in the summer of 2004, we developed a website that described what we felt were the most important structural elements for presenting homework in our classes, both introductory and advanced, regardless of course content. That website, which can now be found at, is currently being used by the majority of our colleagues in our department. .

From reading solutions, to providing comments, to alphabetizing and returning homework, the website has helped us to streamline the homework grading process, for our benefit and for that of our students. And while we hardly expect ?grading homework? to find itself in that top ten list any time soon, it is nice to know that there are simple things that we can do to make it less onerous. It is also nice to know that even small investments toward fine-tuning the communication skills of our students can lead to huge payoffs for everyone involved! .

Time spent: 5 minutes to link directly to our page, or 60 minutes to construct your own page from scratch, including an example image. .

Time saved: 15 to 30 seconds per homework assignment. .

Examples: On this page, the ?easy to read homework format? we suggest that students use; on the next page, our general hints on writing up mathematics homework.