We need to rethink the weekly assignments

Photo by: Feliphe Schiarolli

Finals season is upon Brock students once again. As students plan out essays and study for exams, there’s one part of their courses that gets even more neglected than normal: the weekly assignments.

I want to provide a bit of background on myself to help ground this article: I am finishing up my sixth year at Brock. I spent the first three years enrolled in a mathematics degree before transitioning to an English degree. Though these two departments couldn’t have been more different, both of them tended to take the exact same approach to weekly assignments.

Each week, most classes would have some small assignment to complete: in the math department this tended to be a series of problems to solve, while the English department tasks students with responding to course-related texts. These assignments are often much smaller than the major assignments these classes have. For example, in English classes the typical required length of a weekly response is between 200 to 500 words, while a midterm assignment is roughly 1500.

Generally, the purpose for these assignments is to verify whether students are keeping up with the curriculum. They indicate to professors where their students are grasping concepts and where they might need additional help, and the grades on these assignments provide students with feedback on where to focus their attention. That said, this approach generally falls flat due to the volume of work it creates.

Though these weekly tasks are small individually, they’re due 10 to 12 times a semester, and collectively they would outweigh the work put into any one of the bigger assignments. Despite that, they typically account for 10 per cent of a student’s final grade — meaning each week’s work is worth at best 1 per cent of the final grade — while major assignments range from 20 to 40 per cent. They also frequently clash with these major assignments, as they will still be expected even on a week with a major deadline. 

This leads to many students foregoing this work altogether. After all, why waste time solving the 10 questions for your weekly homework and get 1 per cent of your grade when you have a 20-question assignment worth 20 per cent of your grade due soon? Whatever benefit these assignments could have as practice material for big assignments is negated by the fact that students generally don’t have time to do “practice” work, especially with two to four other courses demanding a similar time investment.

This also hampers another argument I’ve heard for weekly assignments: the increased workload is supposed to prepare students for the workloads they’d have in jobs after graduating. But I’d argue this system actually teaches students something different: the lack of weight behind these assignments instead imparts the message that trivial, routine work can be pushed aside or ignored so long as the big stuff gets done.

This strategic ignoring removes the benefit of these assignments for both teachers and students. But even if you believe this could be solved with improved time management skills, the increased workload from weekly assignments has another problem: the overloading of markers.

Whether the professor marks assignments themselves or assigns a TA to do it, this work is generally performed by the same person for both the weekly assignments and the major ones. Even with the aforementioned lack of interest on the part of students to complete these assignments, the ones that get through still create extra work for markers to do. At best, this delays the weekly feedback, minimizing the benefits for the students. At worst, this delays all feedback, including the feedback for the major assignments which make or break a student’s grade. 

I can’t even count the number of classes I’ve had with assignments, weekly and major, remaining unmarked until the end of the semester. I’ve gone into final exams unsure of how well I understood the material because I hadn’t gotten a grade back from anything submitted after reading week, despite the modest classroom sizes for both Brock’s mathematics and English departments. This model seems, from my experience, largely unsustainable, even if it were to work as intended.

So then should teachers give up the weekly model altogether and base marks solely off of a handful of major assignments and quizzes? That’s one way to do it, but this misses out on the gradual feedback that weekly assignments provide, which is ultimately helpful when the system works. But few classes consider turning it the other way: foregoing major assignments to focus on weekly work.

As a creative writing major, I’ve been in most of the writing workshop classes Brock offers, and each of them operates largely the same: students submit drafts of their work, other students give feedback and comments on them, then the students who submitted look at this feedback, revise and submit their improved versions. 

Any major assignments tend to be tied to these revisions, meaning more weight from the final grade can be put towards the weekly feedback, encouraging students to engage with each other’s work, leading to better feedback for the students who submit. This keeps students doing the weekly work even during midterms and finals seasons when other work gets more demanding.

Even in non-creative courses, prioritizing weekly work has benefits. I had a course last fall which followed the same responding-to-course-texts model most English classes have, but split students into groups of five. Each week, one of the five would be assigned to make a 750-word post — longer than a weekly assignment but far shorter than a major assignment — which the rest of the group would respond to accordingly. Each student would have two major posts per semester, each weighing 25 per cent of their final grade, with 25 more for their posts on normal weeks and a 25 per cent final paper after weekly work concluded. 

Tying the major assignments into the weekly work like this significantly lightened the course load for both writers and markers while also encouraging students to actually engage in the course work they’d normally ignore. This has the added benefit of splitting the work across the semester, as currently most major assignments are due the same few weeks every semester.

I want to end this by just reminding readers that I have no teaching credentials, nor have I studied how to teach a class. There may be reasons why this method may not work for all class types, even though it has worked quite well for the ones I’ve been a part of. I’ve taken a lot of courses in my time at Brock and these weekly assignments have always been too much to keep track of while simultaneously not big enough to worry about, and I think teachers should consider a new approach moving forward.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *