From a teaching persepective, I’m trying to think of a lamer reason to award or deduct points from a student than for failure to follow directions.
From a learning perspective, I’m trying to think of a lamer reason to stress than wondering if your work followed directions. Even lamer is actually losing points for correct work due to formatting issues.
And let the battle begin!
One Size Does Not Fit All
My own thoughts on this have come full circle. In the first course I taught, I was a stickler for “formatting”. Half of the points on every question (homework, test, project, quiz) was for “formatting.” Why? Because I used a specified format to teach my sophomore class problem-solving strategies that would work in just about any situation.
Sophomores need to learn problem-solving strategies as well as communication skills. What employer will make a million dollar decision based on chicken scratch?
The next class I taught was for seniors. I figured they didn’t need the same level of guidance. So I swung to the other end of the spectrum: no portion of the grade was tied to format or presentation quality. Results were mixed.
The students who had already learned excellent problem-solving technique and communication skills turned in work that looked better than the sophomores who were required to do it. The ones that hadn’t learned problem-solving and communication? They couldn’t even read their own solutions.
I neglected to mention that these two stories were in classes of 40 students or less. I had graders for both. Every problem that students submitted was actually reviewed and commented on – homework, tests, all of it. The feedback on every single question led to rapid growth.
I am currently teaching a class of juniors. Caught between the need for strict guidance and autonomy, I wonder where to land on grading for format. Grades are a terrible motivator, because they work by triggering fear. But without a consequence for poor communication, many students let the quality of their work slip.
My Initial Thoughts:
I resent the idea of enforcing systems for the sake of my own convenience. However, in a class of 140 students simply grading homework for completion is 10 hour job! When I can’t read the work, or pages are submitted out of order, the time to decipher the work increases exponentially. That’s at least 10 hours each week that I don’t get to spend helping students with actual learning, developing better lessons, or creating more engaging learning experiences.
So I took these thoughts to the class. I presented the need for uniformity in homework format from the perspective that the easier it is to get the grading done, the more time they can have from me in higher-impact areas. Results were mixed. Why? Because even this pitch sounds a lot more focused on my own convenience, not the students’ growth. The students’ are asking, “What’s in it for me?”
My Revised Thoughts:
Students shouldn’t be asked to make instructors’ lives easier. The primary function of every action and policy in a class should be to accomplish a learning objective. The students should benefit first. Sometimes a side benefit may be that my life becomes a little more convenient as well.
So here’s my new pitch: Communication skills are critical. The person with the best idea isn’t the one who “wins.” The person who communicates the best is (just watch a political debate, the people who get off-message lose even when their ideas may be better). This tempts me to require a format so my students can learn communication skills.
Does deducting points for failure to follow formatting directions teach anything? We live in a world full of standards. But creativity and rule-following seem to be opposed. Do I want students who create, or students who follow rules? Can we have it both ways?
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