Homework Paper Failed

I am late for a mathematics exam. For some inexplicable reason, I have not attended class all term, and have no grasp of the material whatsoever. I run through a building that is a conglomeration of educational spaces from my past: primary school, high school, the hospital where I studied for my PhD. When I enter lifts, they go sideways instead of up and down; when I pause to find a bathroom, all of the stalls are unsuitable in some way: hideously dirty, or door-less.

Midway through my race through the corridors, I realise it is not an exam at all, but the opening night of a play, and not only have I not memorised my lines, but I cannot find the script. Then I find the script, but the font is too small to make out and I can’t find my reading glasses.

Soon after, I realise I’m in the wrong building altogether, but I cannot find the bus stop, or I run through a strange train station, down maze-like flights or stairs that never quite end up at the platform, or through streets of a foreign town that I visit often and know well but that does not correspond to any town in real life.

Of course, I am not alone. Not only are anxiety dreams common, but many of the scenes I describe are experienced by most people in some form or another. In modern Western life, we all seem to share the same petty fears – not the stuff of actual nightmares, but low-stakes, bothersome scenarios that play out again and again as we sleep. We don’t wake in so much as a cold, heart-pounding sweat, as a sense of mild relief.

The being-late-for-an-exam-I-did-not-revise-for variety is by far my most frequent anxiety dream. I once assumed that when I had completed my studies, I’d stop having dreams about exams. No such luck: If anything, they are more frequent, nearly thirty years since I turned in my last test paper.

Now that I teach undergraduates myself on a regular basis, I am amused to have had my first ever late-exam dream from the other side. It’s the same chimeric building as ever, with the same wonky lifts, but now I can’t load the timetable on my smart phone to check the room where I’m meant to be invigilating, and when I ask passing students where my class is being held, they shrug or give vague directions that don’t ever pan out.

Some research suggests that anxiety dreams might play a useful role. In 2014, scientists based at the Sorbonne in Paris studied a large group of students taking a medical school entrance exam, harvesting their dreams the night before and relating them to their results afterwards. About two-thirds of the respondents dreamed about the exam, with nearly 80% of these dreams being negative in some way – usually involving the dreamer being late, or not remembering the right answers. Yet those who dreamed of the exam were more likely to perform better. Therefore, the authors hypothesised that such dreams provide some sort of “cognitive gain’. (Alternatively, I think it’s possible that the more you study, the more you are likely to dream about the material – so maybe these midnight fretters were simply better prepared.)

#HackAHairDryer: another attempt to make science appeal to women falls flat | Jenny Rohn

I have returned to work today after a fortnight of holiday. I was anxious on the first few days home, still agonising over some annoyances and disappointments that had hit me during the end of term. It took more than a week for these frustrations to drain from my system, to stop playing out in imaginary arguments as I lay stiff and sleepless in bed, or to echo around my brain in another guise through the familiar corridors and stairwells of my dreams.

But now I am relaxed and ready to return, resigned to the setbacks and resolved to make 2016 the year that I finally get to grips with running a research programme in the midst of a full-time teaching load.

I need the means to hire a few more people in the lab, and a replacement source of funding to cover running costs that will end next year – and that means putting in as many grants as is humanly possible. Me, along with every other scientist in the UK.

When I think about all of my looming academic commitments, against the backdrop of a long daily commute, a busy home life with a husband and toddler, and frequent public engagement exercises in my free time, even my real life starts to feel like an anxiety dream.

The only way to make it all work is to get better at saying ‘no’, in such cases when such a refusal is both just and justifiable. No-saying is a key academic skill, and a skill that I am still learning: when one’s position is uncertain, the gut reflex is to accommodate as much as possible.

But such helpfulness is often a false economy, because raw output (research papers and grants) count far more than the collection of departmental tasks euphemistically described as “enabling”. One has to do some work in this area – and it can be fulfilling – but at a certain point you have to draw the line. I should, perhaps, take as my role model a particular male colleague who manages to deflect requests so smoothly and charmingly that you almost aren’t aware that he’s dodged them until the dust settles.

In the meantime I will continue to avoid sideways lifts and dirty toilets, and remember that I always wake up in the end.

Jenny Rohn runs a cell biology lab at University College London, and is the Athena Swan lead for UCL’s Division of Medicine.

A few days ago, a colleague came to me for teaching advice. On his syllabus, he had written that he did not accept late assignments. One of the students, a young woman who was struggling in the class, had turned in a paper that was woefully incomplete and he told her that it did not meet the assignment requirements. However, rather than rejecting it outright, he took account of her struggles and told her that if she turned in a finished version by the end of the week that completely met the basic requirements of the assignment, he would give her partial credit. At the end of the week, she turned the paper in again, but it was still well short of what he would accept as meeting minimal requirements.

Get that assignment in on time or else!

He asked what I thought he should do. He told me that the assignment counted 15% of her grade, and thus giving her a zero on the assignment would immediately knock her down at least a grade and a half, before taking account of her other less-than-stellar work in the course. But, because he had announced that he didn’t accept late papers and then had recanted on that rule by inviting her to submit a revised version, he felt he had to give her some credit.

After suggesting that yes, it made sense to give her some credit, under the circumstances, I went on to make a more general point about putting strict rules and regulations in a syllabus. I reminded him that in my syllabi, I never say that I will not accept late assignments. I have no list of punishments or points that will be taken off if assignments are turned in late. My friend, Joe Lowman, and I have had many conversations about this & I’ve benefited greatly from his wisdom. Indeed, when it comes to such matters, I usually find myself asking, “what would Joe do?”

On the first day of class, students often ask me, what are your penalties for late assignments? I tell them I don’t expect late assignments, as all the due dates for assignments are in the syllabus they’ve just been handed. In that case, why would any assignments be late? I find this logic impeccable, but some aren’t satisfied with this answer and persist in questioning me. All I will say is that if they find themselves having difficulty, prior to an assignment being due, they need to talk with me and I will try to help them. I never speculate about what I might do with the late assignment, preferring to deal with each of them on its own merits.

I do this to avoid being put in the situation of my colleague: announcing a hard and fast rule which extenuating circumstances may well require me to break. Over my 45 years of teaching, I have heard about plenty of emergencies, some of which were devastating to the students involved. What would I do if a student told me about a family emergency which gave them no choice but to rush home? I would feel really heartless in telling a student that I was very sorry about the accident and I hoped the victims would recover, but I stood firmly by my policy.

My colleagues are typically astonished when I tell them about this policy. Typically, they raise two objections. First, won’t I get a lot of late assignments? Second, if I do accept late assignments, isn’t that unfair to the students who turn their assignments on time? My answer is “no” to both objections, as I will explain.

First, in my syllabus and on my webpage, every assignment is clearly described with its due date. I use Sakai, which sends out automated notices, reminding students of due dates. The assignment is also noted on the website’s course calendar. For larger assignments, such as term papers, I have multiple milestones that students must meet: reporting their chosen topic, submitting a one paragraph description of their theme, a preliminary listing of references, a rough draft, and so forth. These milestones give me many opportunities to intervene when students show signs of falling behind. I also take a very active role in keeping track of how students are doing, sending emails to students who miss class and asking students to come in and talk with me about assignments, if they have difficulties.

When students approach me about the possibility of a late assignment, and what I would do, the first thing I always say is, “What is interfering with your turning in an assignment on time?” I don’t say, ”Remember the penalties.” If, after working with them, it is clear that they will not get the assignment in on time, the next conversation I have with them goes something like this:

Student: “okay, when can I turn the paper in?”

Me: “when do you think you will have it finished?”

Student: “well, will I be penalized?”

Me: “you realize that the reason I ask for assignments to be turned in on time is so I have enough time to read them properly, so I can be sure that I will give each assignment its proper due. Late assignments make that more difficult. However, I will grade it as fairly as I can.”

Student: “okay, I’ll turn it in on Monday.”  [Students almost always pick a date earlier than I would have chosen, if I had picked the date!]

Cooperative learning means you’re always coming up roses!

One of the consequences of this approach is that I almost never get late assignments! And, my syllabus is not cluttered up with pointless draconian rules that I have no intention of enforcing.

Second, what about the “fairness” issue? Isn’t it unfair to the conscientious students, who get their work in on time, to allow some students to turn assignments in late? I have three responses to this alleged violation of some perceived moral principle. (In what philosophical system is taking account of extenuating circumstances equivalent to a moral failure?)

(1) for students having problems getting assignments in on time, extra time almost never makes a difference in the quality of what they do. The best students in a class are not the ones asking for extensions.

(2) students who get assignments in on time can put that assignment behind them and get on with their lives. By contrast, students who are struggling to complete a late assignment will find they have to forgo other things that they would’ve enjoyed doing, with their assignment-free peers, but instead they are stuck indoors, completing an assignment. Being allowed to turn something in late is no free pass to scholastic heaven. It is a burden.

(3) my goal in assessing my student’s work is to try to figure out what they have learned in my class, and knocking off points from a student’s score because a paper was a day or two late completely muddies the meaning of a grade. I’m not teaching “discipline,” I’m teaching sociology. I want to give students every opportunity to show me what they’ve learned, and if this requires me, every few semesters, to accept a late assignment, I’m quite willing to do so.

Interested in learning more about what to do about late assignments?See this post.

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This entry was posted in Teaching & learning and tagged Alfie Kohn, assignments, classroom behavior, learning, punishment, rewards, teaching on by Howard Aldrich.

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