Back when I was an elementary school teacher in Texas, I was selected to be the “science liaison” for the school. We had a training session with a professor of science education from one of the local universities who said the systematic process of answering questions in science was gone, and that SERENDIPITY was the “new” way of scientific learning. As I sat there, working on a major research project at night, married to a research scientist, I knew that what she said was mostly wrong. However, there was that one piece of truth in this somewhat bizarre statement … great scientists, in the attempt to answer questions, often “accidentally” come upon a unexpected answer to the question or even answer a question they weren’t seeking to answer. The key is, they recognize that answers can come in unexpected forms, at unexpected times, and even for unexpected question. Thus, as my husband tells our children, great scientists pay attention to everything.

I was just reminded of this, as I was talking with my department secretary, Kathy. Kathy is one of those people who is always on the look out for ways to help the students she serves, and she does it well. As she and I were discussing my concerns that students weren’t doing their homework, and some ideas I had, none of which I liked, she told me of what one of our majors had to do for a professor outside of our department. It seemed easy enough, yet forced students who wanted a few points to “behave” the way I wanted them to … they complete their homework, without too much effort on my part. I made a couple of modifications to this professor’s idea, in collaboration with Kathy’s perspective on what she thought would get students to behave…. and I have a new policy for the Spring Semester, that I hope will help me achieve the second of my two New Years Resolution … get more of my students to complete their homework.

I am adding additional quiz grades, to get students to look at the assigned homework. Quiz Grade 1: This will be an open “syllabus” quiz on the syllabus. Many of the questions will focus on the part of my syllabus about the amount and kind of homework I expect out of them. Quiz Grade 2: This will be an open book quiz … students will be asked questions about the book, including questions about where to find the homework assignments and the answers to the questions. Why am I adding these quizzes? Because even though I have a very detailed syllabus, too many students seem to not be paying attention to it (based on their emails and questions). Meanwhile, it is taking students too long into the semester to get used to the textbook. I am hoping by adding these two, open ended quizzes, which should yield all students high grades, that I could better focus students attention.

A New Grade: On exam day, students will bring to class their completed homework, in binders. I have already prepared a grading rubric, with steep deletion of points for missing even one assignment (email me if you would like a copy of my rubric). I will look through it for indications that they have complete all homework assignments. I have set up the rubric that I should be able to do a quick check of the homework while the students are taking the exam (or so is my plan — I’ll let you know how it goes). The students will have to have their homework completed before coming to class to take the exam, exactly what I have been trying to get them to do all along.

Certainly, students could convince a student from prior semesters to just use their homework … to get around this, I will put a mark at the center of all papers.

Will it work … time will tell, however, in the last semester, there were class periods were less than 10% of students had completed their homework. I had 54% of my class either fail or drop it because they got too far behind (yes, this is rare for me … typically that number is closer to 20%). In almost every case, the student said … I thought I could do well in this class without doing all of the homework because everything made so much sense in class. Meanwhile, for 8 points extra credit, students gave up 4 hours of their life to attend a field trip.

If this does work … it will serve to remind me that great ideas can come from anywhere … we just have to be paying attention!

I encourage you to share with us a situation where you serendipitously came across an idea to improve your students academic success. Also, I welcome comments from anyone who has ideas on how to get students to do their homework, without taking too much of our time.

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