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Overview. Homework problems for this class can be pretty challenging, and even the best students may not get them right the first time. Homework-grading schemes that focus only on the final results can therefore make students anxious, and can even prompt avoidance or cheating. However, one can devise grading schemes that (1) allow students to engage difficult problems without anxiety, (2) provide them with an opportunity for further learning, and (3) make grading easier for you or your TAs. This page describes one such scheme.

The Scheme. When students first hand in their homework, I "pre-grade" each problem on a 4-point scale based purely on effort. I then return the homework with complete solutions the next class period. Students then may use the solutions and a differently-colored pen to correct their own work; the corrections are due the following class period. I then complete the grading process by assigning up to 6 points on how correct the initial effort was and whether all necessary corrections were made. The grading rubric I use is as follows:

Initial Effort Points

Correction Quality Points

Initial Quality Points

4 - satisfactory initial effort

3 - satisfactory correction

3 - no correction needed

3 - missing explanations, steps

2 - minor errors escaped correction

2 - minor corrections needed

2 - missing major parts

1- major errors escaped correction

1 - major corrections needed

1, 0 - little or no effort

0 - no correction attempted

0 - complete rewrite needed

Advantages. This scheme reduces students' anxiety, because one can earn 6 or more points for honest work on a problem even if the initial effort is completely wrong (and most problem scores will be 8 or above). Requiring students to correct their own work (1) prompts them to study the solutions carefully and assess their own work in comparison, and (2) makes your (or your TA's) grading task much easier, in spite of having to look at each problem twice. During the initial pass, I make a snap judgement about each student's effort and usually write something like "4/ / /" next to each problem: this often takes less than a minute per student (I do warn them that getting a "4" in the first slot does not say anything about whether their problem is right). Only if I don't think that the student can figure out an issue from the solution do I write a comment. When the correction comes back, I fill in the points for the other categories into the two empty slots and write (and record) a total grade. Again, since students have corrected their own work (generally pretty well), I rarely need to write comments, so grading only requires a few minutes per problem set. Note that if an initial effort is complete and correct, the student gets 4 points for a satisfactory initial effort on the first pass, 3 "no correction needed" points on the second pass, and 3 points for a "satisfactory correction" if they recognize that they needed no correction.

You might also record initial quality points on the first pass if you want to give more feedback.

To see how I explain this to students, view the syllabus I used the last time I taught the class.


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Thomas A. Moore has been a professor in the Physics and Astronomy Department at Pomona College since 1987. He does theoretical research on detecting gravitational waves using LISA (now eLISA). Send him a message.