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I am designing a course for the upcoming fall semester, and I am tossing around an idea in my head. While planning which topics to cover each week and how to set the pacing of the course, I figured I might as well plan ahead for all of the homework problems I'd like to assign. And if I've already done that before the semester starts ... well, Why not make every homework assignment I plan on giving to the students during the semester available on the first day?

I plan on giving one assignment per week, due on Fridays. Each assignment will have a specific due date, and students will be required to turn in those designated problems by that date (but I will, of course, accept early submissions).

Potential benefits for students:

  • They can see the "story arc" for the course, beyond just a list of topics in the syllabus (which might have terminology they don't understand anyway)
  • They might be more motivated to engage with the course, seeing the kinds of problems they'll be able to solve later on
  • They can get started on problems ahead of time, alleviating time pressure during future busy times of the semester
  • They can set their own pace, rather than waiting for each week's problems to be "released"

Potential downsides for students:

  • Seeing the difficult problems posed later on, or just seeing the sheer number of problems, might demotivate some daunted students
  • They might feel like standards will be higher, knowing that every problem has been available for so long
  • Some students might get distracted from the current topic of the course by working on later problems too far ahead of time

Potential benefits for me, as the instructor:

  • While introducing a topic in class, I can point to specific problems they can now solve with this knowledge (instead of vaguely saying, "You'll see this later on, trust me")
  • I anticipate more office hours visitors as the students work on the problems ahead of time and realize they need help
  • I'll have a set schedule and can use this as an impetus to keep the desired pace of the course going throughout the semester

Potential downsides for me:

  • Having such a rigid schedule might be too restrictive, and small tweaks to the pacing/content of the course will be difficult to implement. (For instance, I would feel uncomfortable adjusting an assignment if some students had already started working on those problems.)
  • Might this lead to more student collusion?
  • It might be difficult to keep students on task if they're generally disinterested in the current topic, for whatever reason

Main questions:

  • Is this worthwhile?

  • Do you have personal experience with doing this? How did it go? Do you have any suggestions for how to do this well?

  • If you'd recommend against it, why? What are the major downsides that outweigh the benefits?

  • Even if you don't have direct experience, do you have any items to add to the lists of benefits/downsides that might help me make this decision?

(For reference, I'm planning this for an introduction to combinatorics and graph theory, a 3000-level course, so mostly 3rd and 4th year students, and almost surely entirely math majors. If your answer takes this into consideration, even better, but this is not a requirement for a good answer!)

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High school math teacher did this....seemed to work out fine –  Tutor Jun 25 at 23:40
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Some students post their assignments on question and answer sites like StackExchange so that others can answer the assignments for them. There is a bigger chance that they will get answers this way if you hand out all the assignments at the start than if you hand out an assignment a meeting before it is due. –  Joel Reyes Noche Jun 26 at 1:29
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Another benefit you didn't list is the additional trust/confidence students have that you as the teacher know what you are doing. Having a plan for the semester gives your students much more trust in this. It makes you look prepared and helps show you care - which obviously is not always true at all for professors... –  enderland Jun 26 at 13:35

2 Answers 2

I always organize my courses with the totality of the course set from the outset whenever I can. I see this as being closely tied to your question concerning homeworks assigned.

The benefits I see:

  1. Keeps me and my students on track. The semester invariably gets busy, it's nice to have a go-to place where everything is set from the outset. I can always tell the students to go look at my "course planner". This is technically distinguished from the syllabus which I am bound by various university regulations to clutter with useless information no one cares about. My course planner is usually like 2 pages at most with a spreadsheet with the day by day for the class including both reading from the text, my notes and upcoming assignments.
  2. When test time comes, I've already told them where the test gets to and what they should have done to prepare. If they happen to be absent it doesn't matter. It's all in writing and they have no excuse (well, no me-based excuse let's say)
  3. Organization of the course. If you organize the whole course in one sitting there will probably be more continuity in exposition than there might be otherwise. At least, that is the case for me. For others, it might not matter.
  4. Allows students to work ahead this is a somewhat rare event. But, in principle, if a student was like me, they might want more homework to attack if they finish what is due soon. Or, if they have some family reunion or honeymoon etc... they can work ahead to not destroy their semester.
  5. Unless you're making your own homework solutions are available online already. It doesn't matter if you give them a week or 12 weeks when the solution-pdf is just a google search away. Anecdotally, my colleagues who make no course planner have the same trouble with textbook based problems. For problems I write, the trouble is much more with bad group work. I encourage working together, but, I insist they write their own solution. I am often troubled by the group apathy.

In many course delivery systems there is this idea the course unfolds as it progresses. As a student this would have been quite annoying. I mean, am I an adult? Can I work towards a clearly defined goal, or do I need to be tricked into climbing a hill half as high before I climb the rest? The students will respect your honesty and see the hard work and care you've placed in the course from the outset. It has value.

Words of caution:

  • do include the word "tentative" somewhere prominent.
  • use your best judgement when test time comes. Students rarely complain about pushing a test back a week and covering new material. Yet, if you plan to cover new material before the Test officially this is greeted differently.

Here are links to a few of my past plans:

Linear Algebra

Differential Equations

Physics I

And, for a non-example, since this was something I updated as the course progressed:

Elementary Differential Geometry

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Thank you for the thorough reply! –  brendansullivan07 Jun 26 at 5:06

It seems you've done a good analysis of the student <--> course and the instructor <--> course relationships with regards to your proposal. One factor you may not have considered is the student <--> instructor relationship.

Posting homework ahead of time in this way will make students feel that you are a careful planner, but also inflexible and rigid. You will be seen as less creating a learning experience for them and more as a conduit for knowledge, such as a talking textbook. I see such a policy as being mildly negative in this regard.

Since in the U.S. there are typically student evaluations in which the students share their satisfaction with the instructor and course, such a policy in my view would have a small but negative impact on your career. I would not recommend it; instead I suggest using the creativity and enthusiasm for teaching that you clearly have, to find ways to better engage and delight the students.

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Regarding a talking textbook, this I think is the biggest problem. Many will see this homework list as all they need and forsake going to class (or forsake paying attention, if attendence is mandatory). –  Alexander Gruber Jul 2 at 2:53

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