I will be teaching two sections of a math course entitled Functions and Calculus at a community college this summer. While not new to the classroom, my experience with teaching at the college level is limited to several semesters as the instructor of record while in graduate school in Virginia, and I have never taught at a community college. In preparation for the course, it occurred to me that this experience would provide me with an opportunity to implement a particular policy that I have not yet had the chance to try, because in the past I have had to deal with coordinating lesson plans, policies, grading schemes, and syllabi with other instructors. For this course, I have free reign to construct and conduct the course in any way that suits me (within reason), and thus it provides the perfect opportunity to test out an idea related to encouraging student responsibility and autonomy.
My plan is to have the students grade their own homework and to report those grades to me. After each class, I will post the homework problems, and in a separate file, the worked out solutions. The students are to do the homework without looking at the solutions, and then use the solutions to grade their own work. They will then report how well they did and I will enter the reported grades in the gradebook. Students will be able to ask questions about the homework at the beginning of each class, so that I can give them feedback on problems they found challenging
Of course, it is a violation of the honor code to cheat on the homework, and the course contract and syllabus will say as much. On the first day of class, I will explain the homework policy, and then ask each student, one by one, to make eye contact with me and tell me that they will not cheat on the homework. This will serve as a verbal contract between student and teacher. In the rest of this post I will attempt to discuss the thinking behind this experiment before too many eyebrows are raised.
For one thing, as a person asking another person to give me his or her word, I have no a priori reason to believe that any particular student won’t mean what they say. While it is the teacher’s responsibility to conduct the class and to educate the students to the best of their ability, I have always been uneasy with the role of authority figure. I don’t particularly feel it is my role to act as some kind of police officer out to catch criminals, chasing them down and enforcing honesty. The fact is, a teacher owes his students a well-conducted course; as someone with (hopefully) more expertise than the students, I am beholden to do my best in explaining and delivering the material. What the students do with that material, on the other hand, is up to them. They are paying for the credits, and putting in the time and the effort that they think will get them by. Those decisions are for the individual to make; in the end, self-motivation is a key factor for an effective education.
My experience with grading in the past has consisted of hours spent determining an appropriate grade, and marking up papers with various explanations about why they received the grade they received. These papers, when handed back, are promptly folded up and filed away, if not discarded immediately. Thus it has 1) been a waste of my time (I already know how to do these problems), and more importantly, 2) the students have failed to learn anything from the mistakes they have made in solving the problems. The idea is to encourage the students to look over their own work and decide for themselves if they are satisfied, and to encourage them to uncover their mistakes so that they can learn from them.
I have had several people respond with the following objection: “But the students will just cheat!” To that my response is, yes, some probably will. However, homework accounts for 12% of the overall grade for the course, with the remainder consisting of six tests and a comprehensive final exam. If a student aces every test without needing to do the homework (and they honestly report a 0 for every homework assignment), they will receive an 88% for the course – very likely an A. On the other hand, if a student falsely reports perfect scores on the homework and fails the tests, they will almost certainly fail the course. So the policy really doesn’t have that much to do with the final grade a student will receive for the course.
Rather, the policy is more about validating student autonomy by trusting their word and allowing them to take their education into their own hands. To me, trustworthiness and personal integrity are not contingent upon classroom policy. I think it is much more natural to assume that students want to be trusted, encouraged, and given autonomy than it is to assume a role of Honor Code Detective, immediately assuming the worst of the class and trying to enforce policies designed to protect them from themselves. I will check back in at the end of the course in order to discuss how it went. Wish me luck.
Matt Oremland recently earned his PhD. in Mathematics from Virginia Tech, where he completed a dissertation on techniques for analysis and optimization of agent-based models. He will begin his post-doctoral work as a member of the Mathematical Biosciences Institute at The Ohio State University beginning in the Fall of 2014. His most recent publication is in the Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, and the next will appear in the forthcoming issue of the Journal of Economic Interaction and Coordination. He would be more prolific but for the unfortunate proximity of his record collection to the place where he sits when he is supposed to be working.