Friday, October 30, 2009

On Neatfreakiness

When I was in college, one of my science professors had very extreme requirements about the organization of the homework we turned in. The problem sets had to be completed on a certain type of graph paper, and all writing had to be in block capital letters written with a particular type/hardness of mechanical pencil. The pieces of paper had to be stapled in the upper left corner. There were restrictions on the amount of visible erasure allowed, and crossed out items were strictly prohibited. Answers had to be surrounded by a rectangle (not a circle). We all thought this professor was a total controlling neat freak and that this might be a sign of derangement.

And then I became a professor and understood how he came to be like that.

Last weekend I spent considerable time grading assignments and exams for two classes. I am requiring e-assignments as much as possible, but some assignments and exams are more practical with a handwritten component. The parts that are submitted as spreadsheets and graphs are mostly fine (though some students create horrendous spreadsheets of unnecessary complexity and with bizarre or no labeling of cells and columns), but the parts that are written by hand and turned in on paper are, in some cases, even more painful and impossible to read.

Some students do not staple the pages and do not write their name on every page. The first thing I have to do when confronted with a pile of homework assignments is to do the stapling for some students or else the pages might get scattered. I am considering requiring a staple (in the upper left corner).

Some students use scrap paper for their assignments; this is environmentally commendable, but it is hard for me to read the real assignment between the lines or in the margins of the non-assignment text. Others tear out pages from a spiral bound notebook, leaving little hanging pieces of paper to get caught in things and scatter around my office and home and cats. I am considering requiring a certain type of graph paper.

Some students use black or red or green permanent marker that runs through the paper and leaves marks on other pages, making everything hard to read. The number of crossed out areas and convoluted arrows and hard-to-find answers is considerable for some students. I am considering requiring neatly printed letter in pencil and prohibiting crossed out answers and hard-to-find answers.

Actually, I'm not really going to do any of those things. The emotional and physical energy required to create and enforce such instructions probably exceeds the emotional and physical energy required to deal with messy homework by students in my small classes this term. Such requirements would make me unhappy and it would make my students unhappy.

Furthermore, we professors expect (hope) that our students will put up with a bit of disorganization in our teaching, so ideally we will all be a bit patient with each other.

But still.. one recent assignment was so difficult to read that I discussed it with the student. I said "You teach labs. You know what it's like to grade a messy assignment. It would have taken you 10 minutes to redo this neatly so that I could read it easily. Why not do that?". The student smiled and shrugged.

My new plan is to attempt to figure out the student's method and answer, but not to try too hard. If I can't figure it out without great time and effort (and guessing), I will take off a lot of points, scribble (semi-legibly) a note saying I can't follow their answer, and let the student come to me and show me what they did.


Michael Greenberg said...

In the end, that has to be the policy: if I don't understand your homework, come and see me if you want points back. Concerned but up-to-speed students will do fine (mostly), everyone else...

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure that setting requirements would be that hard, and it may also benefit the student.

In the engineering program where I did my masters, all undergrads were required to take an "intro to engineering" class. One component of the course was to introduce requirements for homeworks: the format sounds rather similar to what your professor required with a couple slight deviations.

Maybe it's nit-picky, but I also think it helps students to realize that they ought to have a certain level of professionalism when submitting work. Certainly once they leave school, they will have to submit reports and other items which will have very specific requirements. Aside from that, if they end up needing to go back to those homeworks later on (as I have had to do with a couple of my math courses), they will appreciate it if they actually have a clue what they were doing.

ChemProf said...

The thing about the staples is the most maddening and difficult to understand. Why would a student risk having their assignment come apart and parts of it possibly getting lost? I assume they also do not staple their English or Humanities papers either. I am seriously considering requiring all my students to purchase a small portable stapler if they are in my class. We already make staplers available for students to use in the department office, which helps a lot, but not for all students.

Anonymous said...

I would probably look the other way on such stuff from undergrads (as you said... it takes more energy to enforce rules) but if grad students were to do it, I would not put up with the mess.

Monika said...

I feel your pain! I've been teaching vocational classes and had to give them assignments too.
My rules were quite simple.
- What I can't read, I can't grade.
- What I can't find (on a spreadsheet or handwritten page), I can't grade.
- No name on a page? Student "No One" gets a good grade for this assignment.

Oh, they bitched and whined, but it took only a few assignments and the students got it.

I think it's an essential skill for students to learn how to present results properly. So if you're more strict about form, you're not an unreasonable neat freak.
Students seem to think we're giving them bad grades just to be mean or something. No, quite wrong! It's much more fun to write "Well done! A" under an assignment, than to think "Drat, he didn't get it!" and write an "F".

quasarpulse said...

Why not set standards?

The professors I've had who have set standards and enforced them have been much happier people, overall, especially on assignment-collection day, and much more prone to return assignments on time and actually read/graded.

And coming out of classes with strict standards for presentation of work, I've actually felt that I've learned more, because I took more pride in my work and made a greater effort to communicate effectively. I also find it easier to help my classmates with their assignments when I can actually read them.

You don't have to be as strict with your standards as the professor you remember (I certainly wouldn't take well to being told to write in block capital letters, nor would many students who struggle with handwriting). But it's pretty reasonable to refuse assignments written in the margins of scrap paper. Requiring the use of engineering paper, one-sided, stapled, in pencil or black or blue pen...that would seem quite reasonable.

Anonymous said...

I became "that professor" years ago.

Two of my requirements are "You must spell words correctly" and "You must use punctuation." Wouldn't that be obvious? Yet, when I include those, I get nicely written reports. When I don't, I get crap.

Alyssa said...

Turning in neat assignments was part of my undergraduate education. I seem to recall most profs requiring "good copies", with answers in a box, no scratched out text (if you did make a mistake, a single line through it would do), names on every page, page numbers, and stapled together (in the upper left hand corner).

Perhaps I'm OCD, but I loved making my assignments neat as possible. I would do certain parts in pen (the question, some text), and others in pencil, and use red pen to "box" my answers. If a page was a bit too messy, I would do it all over again.

It was a good skill to learn, because it really helps with my lab books. Granted, it really helped that all my profs were asking for that.

Anonymous said...

I would recommend that you smile and shrug and give that student a low grade if you can. But it sounds like the student's work was right (the smile and shrug). In this case you have no choice but to mark him right, but if he/she comes to you for a reference don't write any or let that be part of your description of the student.

Anonymous said...

Funny how we begin to understand our old professors as we age. I am in the same place with my student's history papers--and typing is a requirement. But they still manage to make them hard to sort out.

Wanna Be Mother said...

One of my profs or TA would bring a stapler to class when we turned in homework. Sure, it would be great if the students already had their assignments stapled, but that is not hard to fix at the last minute and staples are cheap.

I would write my homework on the back of something that had been printed out. One of our graders didn't like that so eventually I changed my habit. But, because of him, many trees have died since then; painful, needless deaths.

I would bring attention to these issues in class and let them know that if you can't read their work easily because if its scap-paperness or illegible writing or whatever, you won't grade that problem. Just grade the ones you can read easily, at least, on homework. They will quickly learn to be at least legibly neat, though maybe not up to your full neatfreakish standards:) If you drop the lowest grade assignment anyways, as many do, they can't be that whinny...or can they????

Anonymous said...

It is not difficult to enforce rules on homework. Ask any TA and they will tell you.

My rule is (and my grad school PI's rule). I already have a degree.

I don't need to do your work for you.

If the student doesn't care about the homework being neat and tidy, making it easier for you to grade, why should you care about making it easy for them to get a good grade.

rules of homework in large classes for students:
-staple the papers.
-name and ID # on every sheet.
-don't meake the grader figure it out. you can't hide the fact that you didn't know how to do the problem.
-no spiral paper (a rule enforced in most high schools, btw)

My favorite rule was that homework had to be turned in at the start of class. If they wanted to follow along on a problem, they could make a copy of it.

thm said...

Even though I generally have painfully bad handwriting, I managed to turn in reasonably neat problem sets while in college and grad school.

Have your students not heard of scratch paper? I did all my scrawling work on scratch paper, and then relatively neatly wrote out the solution on a fresh sheet of paper to be handed in. My own particularities involved doing everything in pen, using a new piece of paper for each problem, and writing the statement of the problem at the top of each page.

The main difficulty I had was that my write-ups tended to be rather terse as I left out much of the algebra that I worked through in finer detail on my scratch paper, and some of the graders thought I left out too much.

Anonymous said...

As a student, I had a professor who had the rule that the HW was due on the front desk when he walked in the room. I forgot one time, and took a 0. Although it irritated me at the time, I now realize that he was just preparing me for NIH/NSF deadlines! (and, even at the time, he was the professor I respected the most)

As a TA, I remember grading countless reports where people would fold the corners of their assignment rather than staple. Seriously??? A stapler is a small investment compared to your tuition..

Now, I'm teaching a class with mostly short answer/essay questions. And I require them typed. After all, in the 'real' world, technical reports don't get done in light, illegible pencil.. grr.

Glad (or sad?) to know I'm not the only one who sees these things..

John Vidale said...

This discussion is entertaining and unavoidable, but I don't consider myself paid nor qualified to instruct in proper clerical procedures, nor do I want anyone back in my office to fruitlessly argue about what he meant to say in his homework but didn't.

My ranting about student shortcomings has also been tempered by watching the homework habits of my otherwise impressive 10th-grade kid in horror, despite intense and intrusive coaching by her pair of Caltech PhD parents. Then examining the mind-numbing make-work nature of her longest assignments (copying it over for neatness? Don't think so). Then remembering my own misadventures in school.

I hoping homework habits are of little consequence in the rest of life.

Anonymous said...

Amen! Your last statement summed up my policy. If I can't figure out, quickly, your answer it is wrong. If the student cares enough to argue for the points with me they will understand the need for basic neatness and organization. Not to mention grammatical correctness (ooh is that correct?)

Anonymous said...

For comparison, my requirements:

* Must be legible for credit. (I can read a lot of bad handwriting; this year am encountering first real problem student. His 1.5mm wide letters overlap and are formed in a nonstandard way.)

* Must not get lost for credit. (=> presence of staples or something.)

* There is one problem per assignment called the professional problem, which is graded on content, presentation, and competent use of the English language. Although the rest of the problems are not graded on presentation and English to the same extent, this one problem tends to bring up the level of the whole homework.

I'm surprised I don't get more argument, as I teach math. The concepts of professionalism and communication are ones I stress in class, so I guess students are not too taken aback.

Kevin said...

I haven't gotten a handwritten assignment turned in since I last taught Applied Discrete Math, many years ago. I wasn't aware that students still knew how to use a pen or pencil.
I do have to enforce the staple rule (I generally demonstrate what happens to paper-clipped papers in a backpack).

The biggest problem I have is when I require students to turn in programs by putting the files on a shared file system and telling me where they are. A lot of the students forget to set the permissions so that the files are readable. Most students get it right after the 2nd mistake, but I have one student who has failed the course twice (and is on her way to failing it a third time) who still can't get it right---in her case it may not matter, since the programs invariably crash or fail to do even 10% of the assignment.

One thing that my son's Algebra 2 teacher does that might help math and lab instructors. He requires that all homework be done in a bound quad-ruled book, and that the students have 2 such books: the books get swapped between the teacher and the student whenever homework is turned in. Of course, to do this the teacher has to be as prompt with the grading and the students with the homework, but it seems to work well for my son and his teacher.

another junior FSP said...

My first year of teaching, I got a lot of bleed-through pens, red writing, half-sheets of paper, nameless assignments, etc.

My second year of teaching, I began making my expectations explicit beginning the first day of class. I also make my reasons explicit, and tell the students "I know you all can figure this out on your own, but I've had problems in the past." Since then, I've had many fewer problems.

Anonymous said...

in my undergrad program (mechanical engineering) we all were required to turn in our handwritten assignments on engineering (graph) paper - single sided - so that at least took care of a few aspects of messiness.

ever since then, throughout my grad school and postdoc and my current job as a researcher, I have never once used engineering or graph paper for anything. I think I haven't even bought any engineering paper since my undergrad days. Now I do all my handwritten calcs on scrap paper or in my notebook. Everything else is done with software and documentation is written up formally in powerpoint or word.

the point that the students need to learn is if they can't communicate their work logically and clearly to others, they might not last very long in their future jobs because they will hold back their colleagues and team mates who can't decipher what they are saying. Sloppiness in engineering can also have very real consequences in a real job that can cost your employer money or liability and get you fired.

Loïc said...

In secondary school years ago pretty much all my teachers had similar standards: no spiral edges, blue or black ink, one line through mistakes, staple in the top left corner, write legibly, number all answers properly, keep the pages clean. Disregard the rules and you ran the very real risk of them refusing to accept it.

The same rules applied when taking the regional school-leaving exam, with the added stipulations of starting new answers on a separate page and writing your name and ID number on every page. When your answer booklet (along with thousands of others) is going to a different country to be graded by persons who don't know you, there really is no room for error.

To this day I still take pride in doing all written work the same way, even though no professor has been picky about it. I was shocked to see other students try to cram all their work on to one side of one sheet rather than turn it over or those who hand in work with entire pages scratched out. I always do work keeping in mind that I may just have to rewrite (and starting new answers on separate pages means that single answers can be rewritten without having to rewrite the entire assignment). Also, for students who work in pencil I have 2 words for you: "plastic eraser".

Pagan Topologist said...

I take up homework. Some students type it ot LATEX it. Some use pen or pencil. I don't really care about this, although I prefer pen to pencil. I don't mind neatly marked out errors; I don't like erasures. The fringe on spiral notebook paper, I call the 'lunatic fringe' and request that it be cut off with scissors if spiral notebooks are used. One quirk is that I prefer papers stapled at the lower right corner. I have found that I can flip through pages more quickly that way, which in a large class saves a significant amount of time. I am extremely picky about grammar, capitalization, and punctuation. I will merely mark misspellings and not count off for them if the meaning is clear.

Eowyn said...

I've always enforced standards. If an assignment requires a typed paragraph, then I will not accept hand written. We have too many computer labs on campus. "I left it in my car, and somehow I can't email you the electronic copy" is not acceptable.

As a student, I was practicing to be a professional.

As a professional, neatness counted a lot, in making my points and establishing my goals.

Doctor Pion said...

So how do you feel about lab notebooks written in pencil with erasures, whiteout to correct work written in pen, or missing pages?

At first I was naively assuming you were talking about a small freshman honors class, but clearly you were looking at work by students who are part way to becoming professionals. Part way. The part where they are still producing highly unprofessional work.

One place that insists on a strict form for all homework (and all work) is engineering. Plans are all written the same way. Work documents are all organized the same way. The reason is to make it easier to check work done by others in a reliable and efficient way. Anyone who has worked in a research group knows the value of that step, but it is also the case that organizing your work is the first step to organizing your mind.

I had a grad class where work was routinely returned to be rewritten (with something like 10% taken off) if it was ungradable. This was done as it was being turned in, not the next day.

Anonymous said...

Wow, I don't know how you put up with this!

Students need to learn that form matters a lot. In industry (where I work), communications skills are essential. If you cannot be bothered to get your point across, then nobody will listen to you. Even in academia, it is important to be able to write and present clearly your ideas. If the writer does not make the effort to make his/her work understood, then it means each reader has to make the effort to decipher it. This is a waste of time and completely disrespectful to the readers, or in this case the grading person.

I don't know if other factors are involved (e.g. if you are too strict, students will assess your teaching badly), but I would not hesitate to enforce basic requirements.

Anonymous said...

oh boy, I like your strategy, but you probably should dock them for lacking neatness. In undergrad we had a few profs who would take a full 10% off an assignment that lacked a staple. Guess what? To this day I always carry a mini-stapler in my bag. (It has saved me considerable grief, whether stapling my own materials, or my student's assignments.)