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Is my professor's practice wrong?

  1. Oct 2, 2015 #1
    In my first year in undergrad ,Calculus 1 was done by three different professors all three of whom followed the same practice:
    We were delivered a problem set every week and we were to upload our solutions online(on Blackboard) for grading.Students that had delivered over half of the problem sets got +1 on their end of term grade(we use a grading system of 0 to 10).The grading of the problem sets was done voluntarily by 2nd year students that had a perfect grade on the subject the previous year.The grades we got on the problem sets didn't matter,they were just there for grading's sake.
    Today,this was brought to the attention of another professor in the university,who acted very surprised and said that this is disrespecting the institution and implied it could be illegal.
    From your experience,is this a very unusual practice?
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 2, 2015 #2
    My experience is that faculty can and do use lots of different grading policies. If it is described in their syllabus, it is likely OK and has been seen by the department. Changing from what is described in the syllabus is the most likely reason for student complaints to catch the attention of others in the school or department or to succeed on grade appeals.
  4. Oct 2, 2015 #3


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    If I understand correctly, you turned in problem sets, which were graded and returned to you so you could get some feedback on how you were doing with the material. For your course grade, it only mattered that you turned in over half of the assignments, regardless of how well you did on them.

    It doesn't sound very unusual to me. The professors probably had two goals in mind: (1) get you to do the homework and (2) give you some feedback before the tests. I'm not sure how it disrespects the institution or could be illegal.
  5. Oct 2, 2015 #4


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    The purpose of homework is study, practice, learning. If a student does too little of the assigned homework, then he learns poorly. The teacher wants to know how students are progressing, in a detailed, written manner, meaning the teacher or professor needs to evaluate this ongoing assignment/homework work.
  6. Oct 2, 2015 #5


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    Doesn't it help you to know whether you solved the problems correctly, and/or the quality of the methods that you used? (which is presumably what the grades on the problem sets are supposed to indicate)
  7. Oct 2, 2015 #6


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    I think it's unusual practice. I think marks for participation have no place in tertiary education, I agree that it is disrespecting your institution. It may be illegal in some places, and I'd guess engineering degree accreditation bodies wouldn't be too thrilled with Universities potentially passing students that would otherwise have failed had they not received an extra grade for 'doing their best'.
    What's next? Go up an additional grade for turning up to lectures?
    At my university, doing assignments in some (often high failure rate) classes is incentivised by being made compulsory.
    Last edited: Oct 2, 2015
  8. Oct 2, 2015 #7


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    Basing part of a course grade on homework assignments is very common, indeed probably universal or very nearly so, in US universities. In the courses that I've taught, I've usually given homework a weight of about 15%.
  9. Oct 3, 2015 #8
    I should point out at that you only got the bonus grade if your grade was already 5 or greater,so it doesn't help you pass.
    I understand that we shouldn't be rewarded for participation and I agree.But the professor I mentioned seemed opposed to the fact that there were students grading the problem sets and compared it to him letting his mother deliver his lectures.
    He's a string theorist with a PhD from Cambridge so I feel he either has to be correct or just very snobby.
  10. Oct 3, 2015 #9


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  11. Oct 3, 2015 #10
    Well there do exist courses that are mandatory presence for lectures, this basically means you fail if you don't show up (maybe 1 or 2 passes).
    It's not a grade for doing their best. It's to stimulate making problem sets.
    You can't expect a student to solve everything perfectly if you want any kind of quality. I experienced this with intro to QFT. We had 5 hours of lectures every other week, 5 days total.
    We received a problem set and had to turn those in before the next lecture.
    You have to notice that we had to go VERY fast (too fast in my opinion) during the lectures to cover all material in a reasonable way.

    Do you expect a lot of students to get high grades at the first 2 problem sets? No we did not.
    The contrast with the final 2 sets was immense, most of us got a 4 or 5 of 5.
    This is an excellent example of the learning process that (presumably) works best in STEM.

    I'll give my experience with this kind of stuff below. Also check the topic on "flipped class rooms" from a while back

    I had some courses were we were supposed to digest part of the material in a week.
    Then explain it to the others. Why? You learn a lot trying to put together a (short 10-15 min) exposition on things like Galilei invariance of Newtons equations or talking about the existence of solutions for Newtons equation.

    I agree it would be better if we'd gotten a (few) short lesson(s) on didactics.
    Since I started for an extra degree that will qualify me for teaching in High School I've become convinced this would tremendously help for those courses.
    Last edited: Oct 3, 2015
  12. Oct 3, 2015 #11
    Wow, I don't understand at all why this should be illegal, or be a disrespect to the institution. This kind of method seems pretty common, and I think it is a very good educational tool.

    In my classes, I give out optional homework. When they hand in such a homework and it is good quality, then they can get bonus points. There is no penalty (other than not getting the bonus points). I have never heard anything negative about this system.
  13. Oct 3, 2015 #12
    Most students would do well to work with their profs. Students should spend time and effort wrestling with and learning the physics and math needed to do the physics rather than wasting time and effort on mental gymnastics arguing that the professor's policies are not right or are not fair.
  14. Oct 3, 2015 #13
    I am not arguing with anyone.I was perplexed with the other prof's extreme attitude towards it and wanted to know if this was a practice below the average standards of universities around the world,which I think should concern any engaged student.
    From the replies here I've gathered it's indeed not anything to be concerned about.
  15. Oct 3, 2015 #14
    I guess this is about what you value more. If you value competition, then you will want courses to be competitive so you can show you're the best. If you just want to learn the material, then you will appreciate initiatives like your professor's more. There is nothing inherently wrong with both attitudes, both can lead you to be productive and good scientists.
  16. Oct 3, 2015 #15


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    The only thing I can see here is that the certification or accreditation of the university, of the department, or of the class ( are those the correct terms ). ( The degree earned may not have the same value, or the class may not be transferable to another institution.) Not saying anything about this particular case either way to cause concern here, but perhaps that is what the questioning professor had in mind, rightly or wrongly. Certainly not illegal in the criminal sense - no policeman will come busting down doors. The governing bodies related to the degree would have the final say.
  17. Oct 3, 2015 #16


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    Well, you raised a couple of issues. First, without a clear understanding of local LAWS, which of course requires you to specify which set of soverign laws you and your University are subject to (and without a legal degree/license), no opinion of the legality can (obviously!) be made. I can envision some situation where federal funds were used and such practice fell under some sort of fraud law or regulation, but I'd think any obvious violation would have been caught before it was committed, its been seen by plenty of eyes. I am not aware of any statute or regulation which could remotely cover this (in my country, the USA).
    The second issue is having 3 different teachers of your course. You have my sympathy. IMHO, such a lousy teaching process indicates your University is mediocre at best. While it is true that Calc 1 is mostly about the synthesis of (what should be) material you previously learned (or were well exposed to), and while there are benefits to being exposed to three different POVs in working through problems, Calc 1 is probably best taught by one prof who actually enjoys the material and can discuss connections between stuff you had last month, and today's lecture material, for instance. The third issue is whether it is appropriate to give credit for the submission of a blank piece of paper (or digital replica). Or do I misunderstand? At the least, some indication that you attempted the problems should be included, imho. Given that a problem set could have 1 or 100 problems on it, and that it could require competence in 3rd grade arithmetic or Sophomore level physics, it would be quite difficult (I'd say virtually impossible ) to FAIRLY determine the credit which should be awarded for each problem set (or each problem), especially with 3 (or more!) different profs are creating the sets. So the structure of the class (3 different profs) creates a profound issue with the grading of homework. Some professors have the attitude that they are resources which you can tap if needed, others (more traditionally) believe they are fonts of knowledge which you must drink. So, there just isn't any single answer to the question of whether homework is important or not. I have two comments w.r.t. Calc1: for technical majors being able to solve calc1 problems is very important. There is nothing in a normal calc 1 course which shouldn't be thoroughly learned, so that solving problems is automatic. Most kids, in order to do this, require a lot of PRACTICE. This means problem sets. This means not requiring the class to do them is a disservice. The difference is that while knowing what happened in 1963 isn't really something you need to have internalized (cramming and regurgitation on the midterm or final are adequate, and it doesn't matter if you've forgotten it 2 months later), not having a solid background in calculus will have impacts for most of your technical course-work (not to mention career, to a lesser extent). So, to answer your questions: unusual? probably. bad for STEM majors? probably. Bad for liberal arts majors? who cares?! (haha) illegal? unlikely. The two problems are: 1. the student doesn't understand what s/he needs to acquire from the course (Freshmen are clueless), so the "Professors as resources" approach is (imho) inadequate for all but the most exceptionally driven student. 2. Rather than grades being a reflection of overall differential calculus competence based on a large data set acquired over the entire semester/term , the course grade is based on just a few relatively short intense tests. It would be interesting to compare the amount of material that the students retained after a year with this approach compared to a more "classic" approach.
  18. Oct 3, 2015 #17
    By three professors I mean we are split into three groups.The whole semester is done by the same professor.Each student attends one professor's classes.
    The problem sets are graded by the 2nd year students precisely in order to know if the student put effort into it.Blank papers obviously don't get you a bonus grade.
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