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What's the point of assignments?

  1. Apr 2, 2013 #1
    Okay I know it is meant as a practice for us. And I do realize that, but the college has strict deadlines and weightage for the assignments. Whats the point of that?

    I plan to study something and I realize that oh! I have to do this assignment so unwillingly I have to study that subject instead of what I planned.

    They make me study what they want and not what I wish to do. I suppose most colleges give a lot of homework, so what is the point?
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  3. Apr 2, 2013 #2


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    Colleges teach at a rate the is equivalent to 3 years of highschool for every year of college so you should expect a lot more assignments. I know when I went to school we would have skipped the assignments if it wasn't factored into the grade. This is student nature, to cut corners, cut classes, cut whatever can be cut to gain free time. Assignments can foster teamwork with other students to get through a tough course. Assignments can also root out issues in understanding before you take a test or your final exam.

    One course I had graded only 2 or 3 problems per homework assignment of 10 problems. We didn't know which ones were selected. We also had surprise Friday quizzes (best 7 of 10) and tests (best 3 of 4) and a final (you got to choose 25% to 50% of your grade). This prof covered every base and was one of the most effective teachers I have ever seen.

    If you look at college as a precursor to working then at work you are graded in everything you do as part of your manager's appraisal of you and your work. You can take shortcuts or not do some stuff because you think its unnecessay but in the end its your manager's view that prevails and if he thinks you didn't do enough...
    Last edited: Apr 2, 2013
  4. Apr 2, 2013 #3


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    Compare this to the system used in some/many countries, where you have a single big exam at the end of the course, which completely determines your grade.
  5. Apr 2, 2013 #4


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    I believe primary and secondary schools have deadlines as well. Most of my junior high and senior high school courses had weekly assignments or project assignments with deadlines. Humanities courses had reading and writing assignments, as well as tests. Math and science courses has weekly homework assignments, and sometimes several times a week, with periodic, sometimes weekly, tests/quizzes.

    University should prepare one for the professional world, and the professional world has deadlines. If one does research, one usually has requirements of milestones, monthly progress reports, quarterly progress reports, and end of the year reports. In business or industry, one has a specified period to accomplish a piece of work. A client would expect results at the end of some period.

    Since one registered for a course, one is expected to study based on the curriculum/syllabus for that course. If there is no syllabus, one should be able to ask the professor/lecturer about what is expected.

    One can certainly study what one wishes, but first take care of the required topics.

    I did a lot of personal study outside of the course work, but I made sure to do what was required - most of the time.

    During my first year of university, I did a self-paced course in modern physics (relativity and intro to QM). Some students rapidly completed the required sections in a couple of months. Others procrastinated. Some did quite well, and others struggled. The TAs were always available, and sometimes were frustrated with those who procrastinated.
  6. Apr 2, 2013 #5
    Most of my undergrad was like this, 4-5 hour long exams at the end of the year for every course, including lab courses(lab reports were only ~50% of the grade). Not fun.

    Assignments are nice if they help you find flaws in your understanding, and the more quantitative the subject is the more I'm convinced learning by doing is the only real way to test for this.
  7. Apr 2, 2013 #6

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    How do you think this should work instead? Assignments can be handed in any time between being given and the end of the term?
    Last edited: Apr 2, 2013
  8. Apr 2, 2013 #7
    IMO: All homework assignments should be given out early on in the course with in-the-ballpark deadlines (say if the course goes as planned and lectures cover the required material in time). Not at the end of course, I know correcting them is a time consuming thing.

    I didn't like the fact that I would have to wait until 2 weeks before the end of term for most of my lecturers to give out the last homework sheet for example, which I could've completed weeks before since I (and other students) had been reading ahead/the required material had already been covered weeks before.

    I guess one could argue the unpredictability in work assignments prepares one for the stress of a real life job... but to me that just sucks the pleasure out of solving interesting, creative homework problems.
  9. Apr 2, 2013 #8
    By some strange coincidence at my job do I have deadlines for various milestones within projects I am working. And out of various milestones and other tasks some are more important than others, forcing me to figure out how to best manage my time.

    There could be the chance that the professors know better what you should be studying to make progress in your chosen field of study than you do...
  10. Apr 2, 2013 #9
    I agree with this. Some of my professors have done things this way and it works much better. I don't want any-time deadlines, just something within a couple days without a penalty. For instance, I occasionally work all weekend and one of my classes has assignments due Mondays. Some of the academics don't understand this because they've never had to work during their education years, other do and will be a little extra time for everyone.

    One of my friends has a class where the assignments can be turned late (with a 10-15% penalty) up to the last day of the semester which I think is a little ridiculous. Something like that breeds procrastination in most students and I don't think it develops a good work ethic. Also, I really feel bad for the grader of that class, they have finals and end-of-course obligations too.

    The single largest factor of my understanding in a course is from homework. Last semester, in my advanced circuits class, we got demolished with homework every single week. The assignments were brutal and in most cases would take 15+ hours to complete, it was a pure time sink. He was generous deadlines but everyone knew that if you turned one in late you would pay for it in terms of time for the next one due. I learned so much from that course whether I wanted to or not. Next semester, I'm searching for the "difficult" professors because I want understanding from school more than anything.
  11. Apr 2, 2013 #10
    Then surely the last of the "couple days" is a deadline? How is it any different? When an instructor says "Due Tuesday, but I'll accept it on Wednesday", it really means "due Wednesday".
  12. Apr 2, 2013 #11
    I agree very strongly with you. I am a computer engineering student. This would make my life much easier.
  13. Apr 2, 2013 #12
    If what you planed on studying does not coincide with what your courses require you to study most of the time, than you probably made a huge mistake when you chose your program.

    Long relatively hard assignment with a high weight on the grade are the best thing that can happen to me. I can have a good idea on what level of work and understanding the prof thinks is adequate and it also makes stupid exams much more bearable.
  14. Apr 2, 2013 #13
    My professor last semester always said "it's due Monday." But if someone went to him prior to it being due with a specific case, like working all weekend, he would accept the assignment late without penalty. He would announce the extension as soon as possible and then tell us he still plans to stay on track with the upcoming assignment. He did this for 4 of the 14 assignments due. He also told the ones that asked for an extension not to make a habit out of it because he didn't want be throw off schedule. Like I said before the assignments were difficult and no one wanted to get bogged down with them so we had pressure to get them done as quick as possible regardless of deadlines.

    Surely, I believe a job reflects similar qualities. There can be some movement of deadlines but the work will surely accumulate dramatically if the deadlines are abused in anyway. Regardless of what someone can do day to day there's always a constant pressure to get as much done as possible as fast as possible. Surely, that should answer the confusion.
  15. Apr 2, 2013 #14
    But the exact same is true of fixed deadlines. The deadline is the last day it will be accepted, but surely it benefits everyone to stay on track and get the work done ahead of time. We're not talking about a professor granting reasonable extensions when a good reason presents itself. What I'm disputing is that "submit sometime within this interval" is in any substantial way different from having a fixed deadline. I just can't see how someone could criticize the deadline concept and then advocate something indistinguishable from it.

    More related to the OP: You will feel considerably better about assignments after taking a course in which the grade is determined almost entirely by a single exam. More importantly, in higher lever math and physics courses, there really aren't that many good questions that could reasonably be done on an exam. I've had analysis assignments -- not overly difficult ones -- in which a question might take a good hour or two (or three) of thought before you were ready to write down a proof. It's nearly impossible to do anything of substance in a hour.
  16. Apr 2, 2013 #15
    The idea of a class with loose deadlines or optional assignments sounds amazing. But I can tell you that when put into practice, it hardly works. I'm in an advanced undergraduate course right now in Algebraic Topology which only has about 9 students. The professor wanted to make it more like an advanced graduate course in course structure so every homework has a "suggested deadline" and homework is completely optional to begin with. The hope is that all the students will learn better without the pressure of deadlines/grades and more out of interest and a desire to learn. For the first few few weeks, every student was like that, but when we started to realize how serious he was about not grading hws, most of us stopped turning them in when other classes got busier with "real grades". By mid-semester, most of us were lost in the course.

    If you're the type that can really self-motivate yourself to stay on top of all your readings/lectures without any assignments or testing, then that is wonderful. I was surprised to find myself wishing that there were assignments in my topology class. The class was fortunately saved by a two-day midterm that forced all of us to learn the material in depth.
  17. Apr 2, 2013 #16
    I never said it wasn't a deadline, yes of course it's a deadline. It's an occasionally movable deadline for the more-demanding weeks. Also, if you read my first post of this thread I said how extremely loose due dates like turning everything at the end of the semester is ridiculous. Also, I said how I enjoy having difficult assignments forced me even more to learn and get things done.

    What I'm criticizing is non-movable deadlines, which yes are still deadlines. Some professors believe that students only go to school and do nothing else. Thus never move their deadlines. At a community college, this was never the case because all those professors knew the majority of us had jobs. When I transferred to a 4-year college with a good engineering program I quickly found out that the professors didn't understand the concept of working part-time and going to school. When I first transferred, I was still working a job every Saturday and Sunday with being on-call. Some weekends I would only work 16 hours other weekends I would work 30 hours. I would come in beat Monday and try to explain to my professor my issue and they would look at me like I was crazy and refuse to let me turn in anything late.

    I'm not saying every single deadline be movable but occasionally it is nice.
  18. Apr 2, 2013 #17
    If you permit me to be a cynic for a moment, the point is that employers don't want employees who will do whatever they want, they want employees who will do whatever they are told, and in a timely manner.
  19. Apr 2, 2013 #18
    Add to that in academia the point is to allow people to sort you out in decision processes (admissions) while requiring less decision work and hopefully you learn something as a byproduct.

    If the focus was what you learned than you would be able to retake exams to change your grade at any time in your college years. It wouldnt be that complicated to implement just allow students to sit in for midterms and finals to update their grade to reflect any new knowledge. It would have to run both ways though which means if your updated test was worse than your last your grade would go down.
  20. Apr 2, 2013 #19
    But a university is not a trade school, as I'm sure most people here will agree. Is a university supposed to be for learning, or is it now a job credential factory? Because if it was the latter, I don't think a lot of physics graduates here would have such a tough time getting a decent job. I think we need to be consistent with what function we expect from a university.
  21. Apr 2, 2013 #20


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    I think having assignments with deadlines is an inevitable reality. Let's say, for example, I were to hand out 10 assignments for the semester on the first day of class and expect each assignment to come in sometime between that day and the last day of the semester.

    Here are the issues that I see with such a scenario:

    1. You can't eliminate deadlines because eventually the class has to end, but in an effort to appease those who don't like deadlines, I'll back everything up to the last possible day.

    2. I don't think it's realistic to assume that I have the time to prepare each assignment before the term even starts. Last year, for example, I found out I was teaching a course only a couple weeks prior to the course starting.

    3. Preparing all assignments ahead of time eliminated the ability to tailor assignments to any discussions or questions that come up in class, thus removing an element of professor-student interaction.

    3b. Also lost is some flexibility with the marking scheme and adjustment for the professor's "only human" ability to predict the capabilitys of his or her class. Say, for example, I assumed that everyone in the class knows how to do X, but in reality only about 25% of the students know how to do X. It creates a somewhat unfair penalty for someone who doesn't know how to do X who is repeatedly docked marks for not knowing it, and not realizing it.

    4. Unless you have a particularly diligent class, the majority of people will hand in all assignments very close to the end of the semester. So if I, or a marker has dedicated time each week to marking, most of that time will tend to go unused, and at the end of the semester the marker will be swamped with work. Swamping a marker will also likely reduce fairness in the marking, I suspect.

    5. I will inevitably end up with students who are still requesting an extension even if they had four months to complete the assignments.

    6. Also lost is a critical feedback element. A student who thinks she knows Y but gets it wrong can go back and learn it properly before we build much further on it in class. Without that feedback, she could go through the entire semester with a false sense of understanding.
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