Winning Homework

Today’s blog post stems from my having graded 40+ labs this week and the entirely shocking bi-modal distribution of professionalism. The students who handed in their lab assignments and did well, did very well. Those who handed in assignments and did poorly, did very poorly. For the most part these students are in their junior year of college, which presupposes they all passed courses requiring homework. Possibly even kindergarten.

Examples causing me to tear my hair out include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • No title, no date, no pagination on the assignment
  • Problems completed out of order
  • Name and lab partner names in the same order on two separate labs so I have no idea which lab goes to which partner
  • Two lab assignments submitted by one student with no indication of which version he wanted graded
  • Labs write-ups that look like they’ve been run over by a truck (several times)
  • Maps with no legend, no descriptions, and not to scale (essentially five lines drawn like a pentagon… leaving me to wonder, what does this mean?!)
  • Numerical values with no units and no explanation
  • Lab write-ups not only turned in unstapled, but the pages were turned in at separate times and to separate lab instructors — as if to say, “I wonder if my TA can figure this little puzzle out!”
  • Hand-drawn diagram spanning 5 sheets of 8.5 x 11″ paper except the sheets were taped together, then trimmed to fit the diagram, and folded several times

Dear readers, do not be mistaken. I’ve graded assignments for more than five years as a TA  at two separate universities and this is just the icing on the cake. The above exasperations are not unique to this class. It did get me thinking a base template for a winning homework assignment might be in order.

A Winning Homework Assignment

  • Your name, the date, assignment title at the top of the first page
  • Page numbers
  • If you worked with a lab partner, clearly notate who is the author of the assignment and who is the lab partner
  • Typed whenever possible; field notebooks and lab notebooks excepted
  • All figures need a title
    • Graphs need axis titles and units, legend
    • Maps need north arrow, legend, scale, date
    • Tables caption above
    • Figures caption below
  • If you erased and smudged your answers, get a new sheet of paper and re-write
  • Fit diagrams on to one sheet of 8.5 x 11″ paper unless otherwise instructed
  • Do not turn in an assignment that looks like (or actually has been) run over by a truck (or car, combine, golf cart, etc.); do not turn in an assignment with a boot print on it
  • Answer problems in the order given in the assignment
  • If assignment ends up more than one page, staple together (in order)
  • If you tore your answers out of a notebook, clean the fringes off prior to handing in
  • Box answers to engineering and math problems
  • If science, engineering or word problem, include units in answer

Four years in college should be considered training ground for the professional world. If you turn in assignments following the above guidelines, not only will your TA feel happy and refreshed upon grading your brilliant work, you will be practicing for success as a professional.

No boss wants to review slop, this I promise.


  1. Wow – Scyller – I think that you are upset – and – you are totally justified – because you are absolutely right. There can be no question about it. But I must respond here because this makes me feel bad – a little. If I was your student you would have given me an F for sure – as I did not follow protocol very well at all. To me – it was the ideas, and the new things that I was learning that was exciting. The formality of it was just a drag. I remember taking a course in Chaos theory and I think I only turned in half the homework assignments – and – the one’s I did turn in were so sloppy they were hard to read. When I got my final grades I received an A for the course. I went back to my professor and asked him why he gave me such a good grade when I knew that I did not deserve it. My professor looked at me – hesitated for a while – and then said that I did do well on the exams, and he knew that I really understood the material because the questions I asked him during his lectures always stumped him. I think he actually liked this about me so he was very gracious to me. But I still must maintain that you are absolutely right Scyller – because since that time I have learned that governments, religions, corporations and really every institution is primarily about protocol. It is a little about “what” you present, and a lot about “how” you present it. So I am glad that you are teaching your students good things. But I still think that I will always love grace more than the rules.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. John, you comments are well taken and I appreciate your background. Very few students have your grasp of the sciences – theoretical or applied. My hope is that I do not stifle the creativity out of my students… I just want to be able to grade their work!


  2. I have to say, I’ve been shocked by the state of some labs I’ve been given but yours sound so much worse. I will definitely not miss that aspect of grading.
    At CSM, the majority of the students were engineers–geology was not offered as an undergraduate major, and paleontology was nonexistent. As such, all the students in the GeoE department had a wide variety of engineering labs with strict guidelines (similar to those you’ve detailed above). We complained about the more ridiculous ones (one TA was rumored to dock points if the staple wasn’t horizontal) but for the most part organized, neat lab reports became second nature. I’ve wondered if perhaps the diversity in the department might be a contributing factor to the range of lab quality–engineers by nature like to keep things in order and clearly marked, but perhaps the students who haven’t taken many engineering classes have not been taught the merits of an organized assignment. (Of course I’m assuming here that you’re TAing a class with both Geol/Paleo and GeoE students…)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You make a good point… my first semester in engineering I went through a class where they taught us basically how to be engineering students. This included the proper way to write up engineering problems! Hmmm, maybe we need something like this in the GGE dept.


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