Instructor Insights

Homework Assignments that Spotlight Application

In this section, Dr. Jeremy Kepner shares his insights about creating homework assignments that ask students to apply new concepts to problems in their own fields.

"A teacher once advised me to always create homework assignments that are easy to grade. I absolutely go against that advice!"
— Jeremy Kepner

A teacher once advised me to always create homework assignments that are easy to grade. I absolutely go against that advice! I think when you make homework assignments that are easy to grade, you’re just creating problems to which students can easily find the answers on the Internet. They don’t engage. My homework assignments usually ask students to begin with their own experiences. I ask them to apply the concept we’re working on to a problem in their own field. This is advantageous because students work on problems they know and care about and you, as the instructor, don’t introduce problems from domains with which some people in the class won’t be familiar (i.e. you avoid losing half the class!).

The homework assignments in D4M Signal Processing on Databases all involved students trying the technology and applying it to problems in their own fields. I didn’t grade the homework assignments, but I did give comments, asked questions, and followed up with students who wanted to learn more.

Providing feedback on the first four or five assignments was fun, but then I realized I had to provide feedback on 20! I had to read each submitted assignment carefully and really understand what each student was doing in his or her own field. It was a serious time commitment and an enormous amount of work. But I didn’t—and I don’t—see any other way to do it. I understand the usefulness of easy-to-grade knowledge checks (those that verify that a student has actually read the readings, watched the videos, etc.), but to know if a person has absorbed a complicated idea, you really need to see how they apply it in their own work.

Although it’s a tremendous amount of work to provide feedback on application-based assignments, it’s also extremely interesting. It was so exciting to see how people took the concepts we taught in D4M Signal Processing and Databases and applied them in different and creative ways.

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