How should I collect and return homework in a lecture class of 100 students?
August 22, 2011 12:31 PM   Subscribe

How should I collect and return homework in a lecture class of 100 students?

I'm teaching a (college) course with 100 students, which meets three times a week, in which homework assignments will be due weekly. There are no "discussion" or "recitation" sections. There are two other sections of the course which also have about 100 students. All three of us share a single TA whose job is to hold office hours and help grade exams; this TA will most likely not be attending the classes. (Don't ask why we have this strange arrangement; I'm not the one who set it up.)

What I did last semester, which was the first time I taught this course, was to make the homework due on a day when class did not meet. (We met MWF; homework was usually due on Thursday.) I had the students hand the homework in to our department's office. This didn't create too much trouble, although I think the secretaries got a bit annoyed but they're too nice to tell me that. But the homework was then returned via the TA's office hours; this was a problem, I think, because people probably weren't getting their homework back. (I got the idea for doing it this way from someone else who had taught this course.)

So I think I want to collect and return homework in class. Collecting it isn't too bad. But returning it by going through the pile and calling out names individually could take ten or fifteen minutes, which over the course of the semester adds up to a couple hours. Is there some way to return the homework without taking up huge amounts of valuable class time?
posted by madcaptenor to Education (53 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
In my giant economics lecture, homework was returned in four boxes, sorted by last name - a-g, h-m, n-s, t-z (or something like that).

If there's a concern about someone incidentally seeing someone else's score, then write the score on the last page or the back of the assignment, rather than on the front of the first page.
posted by muddgirl at 12:35 PM on August 22, 2011 [3 favorites]


Can you put it out in smaller piles (organized alphabetically) around the room? If confidentiality is an issue, put it in a folder with the student's name on the front (or ask them to provide a folder if budget is an issue).
posted by handful of rain at 12:36 PM on August 22, 2011


Lay 'em out on the table in order, or use some stand-up folder holders marked A-K, L-Z, etc.
posted by michaelh at 12:36 PM on August 22, 2011


I've had professors distribute graded homeworks by folding each person's homework in half (so that their grade isn't visible), writing their name on the outside, and then sorting them alphabetically into piles, which are placed on a counter or table for the students to paw through themselves. You could also just have your graders always put the grade on the last page, if your homework assignments will always yield more than one page of stuff being handed in.
posted by needs more cowbell at 12:36 PM on August 22, 2011


My professors would just drop the pile of homeworks on a table in the lecture hall and people would just paw through them after class.
posted by griphus at 12:37 PM on August 22, 2011


if your homework assignments will always yield more than one page of stuff being handed in.

They should, although some of my students seem to like to write REALLY SMALL, as if paper were expensive.
posted by madcaptenor at 12:37 PM on August 22, 2011


Just so you know, in the US, leaving assignments out -- even with the grade hidden -- for students to pick up all willy nilly is illegal (it's a FERPA violation). Which isn't to say that it isn't done very, very often, but returning papers via a box that they rifle through or something like that, without anyone checking names, is illegal.
posted by brainmouse at 12:39 PM on August 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


Maybe you can mention this system to them and it will be in impetus for them not to write so small so that others won't see their grades!
posted by needs more cowbell at 12:39 PM on August 22, 2011


What muddgirl said, adjusted for however many people you have. 4 or 5 boxes would do for you. I did this with exams for a class of 120 and it worked fine. Just have them write their names on the back of the last page. Also have a separate box for old homeworks that people didn't pick up before.
posted by Mercaptan at 12:39 PM on August 22, 2011


In light of what brainmouse said, I revise my answer. I suggest you teach your class to file down in a specific order at the beginning of each class. It can be done as I had a professor do it once for another purpose. You could also consider accepting assignments electronically using classroom management software to disseminate feedback and a tablet to easily mark up papers.
posted by michaelh at 12:41 PM on August 22, 2011


Classes I've had that were that large usually distributed graded work in two ways. First, a large pile and a free-for-all either at the door to the lecture hall (collect it as you take your seat) or at the lecturer's table (collect during a break in the middle of class). Second, pass the pile around during lecture, everyone finds their homework and passes it to the next person. That might take half the class to make it through everyone, but each person's attention is gone for only a minute or so.

There was really never any effort to hide grades on homework, since each assignment was such a small portion of your overall grade. Not sure how you feel about it, but I don't recall any student ever having an issue with it. Exams were also handed out one-by-one so you generally didn't get to see other's tests.
posted by backseatpilot at 12:42 PM on August 22, 2011


Leaving personally identifiable, graded papers or examinations unattended for students to view is no different from posting grades in the hallway.

What is the definition of "unattended"? My professor would stand next to the table as we picked up our assignments. It seems to later imply that instructors should ask for ID before returning assigments. (after all, if you call out someone's name and they raise there hand, there's no assurance that the person is lying).
posted by muddgirl at 12:43 PM on August 22, 2011


You could also consider accepting assignments electronically using classroom management software to disseminate feedback and a tablet to easily mark up papers.

I teach math, so this doesn't work; students are, for the most part, handing in handwritten assignments.
posted by madcaptenor at 12:44 PM on August 22, 2011


If you like the suggestion of sorting into boxes, but are worried about the privacy implications, you can instruct the students to put only their student ID number on the papers. That ought to make them anonymous enough for students to paw through without worry.
posted by zug at 12:48 PM on August 22, 2011


Make your students type their work using LaTeX, submit it electronically, grade using a tablet, and return it electronically...

Alternatively, return homework during office hours but use some sort of course management software (Blackboard or similar) to post grades and answer keys, this way students can make better decisions about when to pick up homework.
posted by anaelith at 1:01 PM on August 22, 2011


As a student, I like the idea of file folders with their names on the tab in a box sorted alphabetically. It does suck having to waste time passing out papers in a large class.

In my statistics class, the professor collected homework and didn't give it back until the week before a test. He just gave us credit for doing the homework. (NB: He DID go over any questions about the homework that we had in class).
posted by wherever, whatever at 1:09 PM on August 22, 2011


If you like the suggestion of sorting into boxes, but are worried about the privacy implications, you can instruct the students to put only their student ID number on the papers. That ought to make them anonymous enough for students to paw through without worry.

In case you're considering this, this is still a violation of FERPA. What you CAN do is give them all random ID numbers that you and only you (and the TA) know, and have them use those on their papers, but their student ID number is considered (by FERPA) to be personally identifiable information, so using it for assignments/grades in this sortof-public way is still illegal.
posted by brainmouse at 1:17 PM on August 22, 2011


I don't know how your school works, but I had a few professors at my school who sent back our homework/papers through campus mail. It's free on campus, personalized/secure, and saves the time of everyone except the kids working in the mailroom, who are getting paid for it anyway. You just fold the papers in half and staple, name/mailbox# on the outside. If you have a campus mail setup, it works pretty well.
posted by dust.wind.dude at 1:18 PM on August 22, 2011


I've had professors who just left stuff in their box labeled "Graded Homework" so students just pick up their homework on their own time and if they wanted it back.
posted by astapasta24 at 1:21 PM on August 22, 2011


I don't know how your school works, but I had a few professors at my school who sent back our homework/papers through campus mail.

Wouldn't work here; too many students live off-campus. It sounds like a good idea, though. I actually had some professors who did this in grad school, using the mailboxes that we all had in the department office, but undergrads don't have those.
posted by madcaptenor at 1:23 PM on August 22, 2011


Ah, my school had on-campus mailboxes for everyone regardless of their housing, in a central area/building. Then again we were undergrad-only. Is there anything like that - like, campus paperwork that gets distributed to everyone regardless of location that you can piggyback on the mechanism?
posted by dust.wind.dude at 1:31 PM on August 22, 2011


To get around the FERPA thing, you could just have each student have the option to sign a permission slip at the beginning of the semester that their homework is allowed to be returned this way. Even assuming some folks don't sign it, that could still mean you could do the piles method for probably 50%+ of the class. FERPA doesn't seem to say you can never disclose grades, it just says you can't disclose them without prior permission (if I'm reading it right).
posted by wending my way at 1:33 PM on August 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


In a class of 100, I don't think confidentiality would really be an issue since most of the kids don't know or care about the other students in their class and they just want to get their work back. The way it went in my class is that the homework was sorted in general alphabetic order, and after the lecture, students could come up and pick out their homework from the piles. This did result in a huge clusterfuck, but if a student didn't care enough to navigate the masses to collect their paper, they could just pass on seeing it, and it was tossed.

You could further organize it by calling on certain areas of the room first, but that's not really part of your job description in my opinion, especially since they'll probably be claiming the homework after lecture is completed.
posted by Peregrin5 at 1:39 PM on August 22, 2011


Would it be too much workload to scan the homework in after grading and email pdfs to the students? With a sheetfed scanner it might not be too hard to get the documents digitized; the problem of attaching the right file to 100 emails might be hard though.

If you can scan 'em, talk to someone in your IT department. There might be a way to easily post them online where individual students can only access their own file after you have them scanned in.
posted by caution live frogs at 2:04 PM on August 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


There are some courses where the homework is never returned.
posted by sciencegeek at 2:15 PM on August 22, 2011


Why not make the TA (or a student office worker if you have one) alphabetize them?
posted by radioamy at 2:41 PM on August 22, 2011


Why not make the TA (or a student office worker if you have one) alphabetize them?

It still takes too long to hand back the assignments in class by the laborious method of:
- call out name;
- discover, with probability approximately one-third, that the student isn't here, because attendance in big lecture classes is notoriously crappy;
- if they're here, run across the room to give it to them;
- feel bad that I mispronounced their name and/or don't know who they are;
- repeat 100 times.
Alphabetizing helps, mostly because the students have some idea when their name will be called and therefore pay attention, which speeds things up. I've done this in a class of 60 and it was doable, but I wouldn't want to take almost twice as long to do it in a class of 100.
posted by madcaptenor at 2:45 PM on August 22, 2011


I am eagerly reading this thread, because I absolutely know this pain:

It still takes too long to hand back the assignments in class by the laborious method of:
- call out name;
- discover, with probability approximately one-third, that the student isn't here, because attendance in big lecture classes is notoriously crappy;
- if they're here, run across the room to give it to them;
- feel bad that I mispronounced their name and/or don't know who they are;
- repeat 100 times.


But, seriously, people who are saying that confidentiality shouldn't be an issue, it really, truly is illegal these days, even if no one in practice would or should be bothered, and that's why it's so hard to come up with a clever solution.

The permission slip idea is appealing (though I'd want to check with the legal office to make sure it wasn't considered coercive or something), but having to sort each set of responses into permission/no permission groups, and going through both kinds of chaos with each turn-back session, seems to me probably to be enough bother that it wouldn't really be worth it.
posted by redfoxtail at 3:05 PM on August 22, 2011


I was in classes of 100+ where we had homework handed out individually, and it rarely took longer than 5 minutes. My professor would hand it out at the end of class so every one was packed up and ready to go, and she'd read off the first five names from the pile of homework, and as those five people were heading down to pick it up she'd read out the next five, so there was a progression of people past the front, where you'd pick up your paper, and straight out the door. She didn't need to walk to each of us individually, nobody say anyone else's score, and it only used a few minutes of class time (and it was only the last five minutes, which are normally a bit less crucial anyway).
posted by twirlypen at 3:18 PM on August 22, 2011


It seems to me that, looking at FERPA guidelines for many schools, an actual person has to distribute papers.

So at some point there is going to be a trade-off between maximizing the number of students who get their homework back, and minimizing the amount of effort a professor or staff member spends returning homework assignments.

On one end is the solution of having a TA or department administrator return homework to students who show up for office hours (minimizies effort, minimizes the number of students who get their homework back). At the other end is hiring someone to drive around and personally deliver each assignment to each student (maximizes the number of returned assignments, maximizes the amount of effort someone has to spend to do so).

Your current solution honestly seems like it's right in the middle. If you could train your students to line up in alphabetical order and then hand them their papers as they walk out the door, that might be faster in the long run, but comes with some start-up costs.
posted by muddgirl at 3:20 PM on August 22, 2011


I'm both a graduate student/teaching assistant and a professor at a local college where I've taught large classes as well. I've always placed the grade on the last page and if it's just one page then you could always make grading slips and staple the grading scheme to the one page. I've done that too. You could also make the homework available for pick up in the TAs office. If she has to sit there for a few hours anyway, why not have her pass them out and make it the student's responsibility to come pick them up. Or make it the TA's responsibility to come every few classes and hand out the assignments while you hand out the other half.

I sometimes also keep the assignments until their test and I go around handing them back to students while they write the test.

I realize there may be some 'illegal' issues but the huge university I go nor the college I teach at seem to actually care about confidentiality issues all that much (I mean, obviously we don't post grades on a board or yell out grades). I've had to sort out my papers out of a giant pile all throughout my undergrad and rarely did I have profs individually hand them out.
posted by DorothySmith at 3:20 PM on August 22, 2011


Also, don't walk to the student - that takes a lot of time compared to calling people down (as twirlypen suggests).
posted by muddgirl at 3:20 PM on August 22, 2011


The last 100+ lecture class I had that didn't have sections or just give grades electronically used 6 alphabetized folders from which we picked up our graded homework after class. The grades were on the back and the professor stood there. It was pretty fast because students don't usually want to hang around.

It's weird that your TA doesn't come to class. That doesn't seem very helpful.
posted by oneirodynia at 3:39 PM on August 22, 2011


It's weird that your TA doesn't come to class. That doesn't seem very helpful.

My impression is that the custom here varies by discipline.
posted by madcaptenor at 3:40 PM on August 22, 2011


Well I was also going to say, just get a permission slip at the beginning, or make that the first question on each homework assignment or something.

Or don't put the grades on the papers, post the grades and the solutions online and then just hand back the papers so the students can see what they did wrong.

Of course, I have yet to have a class that didn't just put the alphabetized (btw: you have one of these right? Freaking LIFESAVER) papers on a table and let people grab them. FERPA be damned.
posted by magnetsphere at 4:09 PM on August 22, 2011


I actually like the idea of returning papers via the TA/instructor's office hours---it means the students know where they can get extra help! On the other hand, it's a hassle for students (have to go out of their way) and results in most? students not getting their papers back, which they will blame on you.

In my 60 person section, I just hand them back (without alphabetizing, because that's just a huge hassle). But it takes a while.

Your best bet is contacting your FERPA guru and seeing if students can waive confidentiality (a la "my professor can pass back my graded work in a big pile") and/or ignoring FERPA.

(if you must sort, have the TA do it. For what it's worth, I never attended the lecture when I was a TA, and my TAs don't attend lecture either. )
posted by leahwrenn at 5:18 PM on August 22, 2011


In fact, if you wanted to go with the A-G, I-P, Q-Z option, you can have them turn them in in piles. That usually is easy to get them to do, especially if you have label slips above the piles.
posted by leahwrenn at 5:20 PM on August 22, 2011


Wow, I can't believe that you're grading them. Most people I know would react to 1 TA / 300 students as a sign not to bother. Assigning ID numbers and throwing away non-numbered assignments is the best solution.

Otherwise, post an answer key, tell them to retain a copy, and have the TA put their numeric grades in a blackboard-esque system if you have one. They can compare their answer to the key themselves. If they want to get the paper, they can bug the TA. If it's a 100 person section, the marks likely correspond to little more than points anyway. My experience grading low level math is that almost all answers fall into {correct, careless error, not even wrong}.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 6:01 PM on August 22, 2011


I guess it might be mechanically easier to replace the usual random digit ID with a random pseudonym. A student can probably remember and find the paper for "Bravo James" better than 2034876.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 6:16 PM on August 22, 2011


Ok, based on the legal implications, I wonder if this would work:

Go through your roster and assign each student a random number between 1 and 100. First day of class, each student gets a file folder and label. You hand out to each student a slip of paper with their name and their unique "name of your course" ID number written on it. Students write their number on the label and affix it to the folder. Collect the folders and put into 4 bins (1-25, 26-50, etc). For the remainder of the course, ask students to use their "name of your course" ID number instead of their name on all of their homework/tests/assignments. The TA can score the homework for #6, enter it in the gradebook for #6 and then file it in the #6 folder.

Be sure to explain to your students that you don't mean to be impersonal by referring to them as numbers, but that you are trying to follow FERPA laws to protect their privacy and don't want to waste their valuable time handing out assignments.
posted by NoraCharles at 6:25 PM on August 22, 2011


Wow, I can't believe that you're grading them.

Ah, I didn't mention: I have a grader, who is an undergraduate. (Well, I don't have one yet, but I'm supposed to get one sometime before the first homework is due.) I didn't mention this because it's not really relevant to my question -- the logistics of collecting and returning are something that I have to do independent of how the numbers in red pen get put on the assignments. But there are no sections, which means all 100 people have to get their homework back at the same time, hence the questions.

And the course is high-level enough (I think the average student is a junior?) that I wouldn't feel comfortable grading them based just on the sort of things you can ask in a standard in-class exam. There need to be some problems that take, say, half an hour, and you can't rightly ask those on hour-long exams.
posted by madcaptenor at 7:12 PM on August 22, 2011


Talk to fellow faculty about their practices, but the custom of "papers in a couple piles (a-g, h-m, etc...) with grades attached to a separate half or quarter sheet stapled to the back and the instructor standing behind the piles supervising" is quite common in undergrad classes at many universities. I certainly can't tell you whether it's legal (and like everything else, that question tends to be a matter of degrees), but my experience is that it's quite common, and I suspect you'll find the same.

And as others said above, handing out papers by name (as twirlypen suggests) shouldn't take more than five minutes or so if you make the students come to you and do it at the end of class. For bonus points, you can switch it up and do reverse alphabetical order sometimes, so the same people don't always have to wait for the end.

Also, at my school, at least one department ran a test/homework return service, where all the graded work went to a central room and a couple of work-study undergraduates handed them out during scheduled hours every day. It worked well, but even in that department, a bunch of ~100 person classes didn't bother to use the central service and just used the piles method.
posted by zachlipton at 7:34 PM on August 22, 2011


Require that assignments be handed in in an unsealed envelope with the student's name written on the front. Return them sealed in the envelope by dropping them in various piles alphabetically. Grades go inside the envelope so you don't violate policies.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:54 PM on August 22, 2011


I'm confused why there's a problem with the TA handing them back in office hours? Is it that no one came to pick it up?
posted by quodlibet at 7:56 PM on August 22, 2011


Can you just put a post-it note over the grade to make it FERPA compliant then put them all in a pile(s) and have the students get them when the lecture ends?
posted by Poet_Lariat at 8:33 PM on August 22, 2011


Guys, seriously, the grade being easily visible or not is NOT what makes it not FERPA compliant. It's that anyone could take anyone's paper, and walk out of the room. Then, they could open the envelope, or turn to the past page, or take the post-it note off the grade. If there is a grade in any way connected to any identifiable information in a way where anyone could see it if they took the initiative to do so (i.e., if they stole other people's papers out of the pile), it is illegal.

Yes, it's silly. Yes, everyone does it. And yes, a university I worked for was fined several hundred thousands of dollars for doing this exact thing (I'm not sure how they got caught). I don't know about your universities, but we couldn't afford it. It was bad. And professors still do it! Because they don't think it's a big deal. It is. Any professors reading this thread, please don't do any of these things.
posted by brainmouse at 8:54 PM on August 22, 2011


The whole FERPA thing sounded too heinous so I did a simple google:

According to John Hopkins UNiversity:

"Fold and staple exams/papers with only the name of the student on the front"

According to the University of Baltimore and James Madison UNiversity

It's not that hard to be compliant apparently.

"leave graded work in a sealed envelope with only the student's name on it,"
posted by Poet_Lariat at 12:10 AM on August 23, 2011


This question may have turned out to be worthless because now I'm hearing that I might actually have sections. (They aren't formally scheduled, but they'll exist, and even in classes that had sections attendance is never great.)
posted by madcaptenor at 12:26 PM on August 23, 2011


Wow, I guess I never realized how many FERPA violations my University had.

Brainmouse, would it still be a FERPA violation to leave the papers in a pile if the corrected assignments didn't actually have the grade on it, or do the assignments fall under FERPA as soon as they have any markings on them?

In other words, could the grader mark up the assignment as normal, and then use some other channel (Blackboard or similar) to communicate the final score? Not sure that this is much better than any of the other suggestions, though.
posted by yuwtze at 9:32 PM on August 23, 2011


Can't you utilize TurnItIn.Com and have your grader read everything through there, no paper or returns necessary?
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 4:29 PM on August 30, 2011


A bit of a followup, since I got the automated 'you posted a question a month ago! how did it go?' e-mail.

I have returned two homework assignments in this class so far.

- once I tried passing the pile of graded homeworks around in class. In addition to the fact that this is technically not FERPA-compliant, the pile only made it to two-thirds of the class during the hour. (I'm not sure how this happens -- it's alphabetized! -- but it did.) I did it basically because one of the students suggested that would work, but how would they know?

- another time I divided the pile into several smaller alphabetized piles, put them on a table in the front of the room, and had the students pick them up. This worked fine except for the fact that the room is poorly laid out, so the table has to be on the stage, and so latecomers would come up onto the stage during class, which is distracting.

I'll probably go with the second one from here on out.
posted by madcaptenor at 12:26 PM on September 22, 2011


Maybe put the piles out on the tables for a few minutes at the start of class and then pick them back up, and late comers get their assignments after class?
posted by jacquilynne at 1:04 PM on September 22, 2011


I'm in a class with 190 (!!!) students enrolled* and we just got our first work back. She went with the piles-on-stage method, except we all got them at the end of class, so no one went down during class. One thing that really helped was that the piles were labeled (A-H, for example) with a sticky note next to the pile.

*How many attend? Fewer than that. But there are two 190-people-enrolled sections plus a 50 person weekend section!
posted by anaelith at 10:12 PM on September 22, 2011


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