Frequency: Do you get regular homework assignments?
Anyone under the misconception that online courses do not require as much effort as those taken on campus is in for a big surprise. While online courses may be more convenient, as they provide the flexibility of learning at your own pace, they can also be quite a challenge for students who are not motivated, said Anjit Bose, an online adjunct faculty member at the University of Phoenix.
“If you are not motivated in the online environment, it is really very easy to fall behind and drop out,” he said. “These classes are fast-paced and require an enormous amount of work.”
Likewise, Colin Murcray, an associate online faculty member at Ashford University, said he’s had students who believed college courses would be easier to take online than on campus, which is usually not the case. “In regards to how online courses compare, the main difference is that there is a greater burden on the student to get the information out of the course, since much of it is reading and posting instead of just listening to a lecture,” he said.
According to Murcray, online students will be assigned homework on a regular basis just like any other college-level course, maybe even more than they are used to. “There is a lot more reading and writing in an online course than a traditional course,” said Murcray. “I remember taking classes in college where I hardly cracked the textbook. I just listened to the lecture, took the tests, and moved on. An online class requires more direct participation. The convenience can also get students into trouble if they procrastinate. Assignments can quickly stack up if they aren’t staying on top of them. And if they aren’t doing the reading, they usually will struggle with the assignments.”
As an online course facilitator at the University of Phoenix, Daniel McCrobie begins each week by posting reading assignments, discussion questions, and individual and group assignments. “On a given week, there are usually two assignments from students, either two individual or one individual and one team assignment,” he said. “I also post five discussion questions weekly. Students have to answer two of these, and I like having the variety of topics to choose from.”
Jeff Kennedy, who earned his master’s degree online through Liberty University, said his online courses had regular assignments that followed a detailed syllabus and reading plan. Each week, his instructors would post instructions and assignments, which varied depending on the level of the graduate course. “In the 500 level, it was mostly reading, a few discussion boards, and possibly a quiz or test based on the reading,” he explained. “There could also be a short essay or two due. However, at the 600-700 level, there were far fewer tests or written quizzes, and many more research paper assignments. All levels included detailed book critiques of the assigned textbooks.”
With so many assignments and due dates to keep up with, online students tend to take on a greater amount of responsibility when it comes to homework. Adam Watts, an online MBA student at Ashford University, said this is because there is no one making sure you complete your work. “If you don’t do your assignments, the other students aren’t going to notice,” he said. “There is no group pressure to do the work, so it is all up to the student to make sure they complete their assignments on time.”
But even with the self-discipline it takes to handle the homework load, he prefers earning his education through online study as opposed to attending classes on a college campus. “One reason is that I need the dynamic schedule options to be able to choose when I will work on my courses,” Watts explained. “Second is that, within the scheduled deadlines, it is self-paced. Because it is self-paced I don’t waste hours of time waiting for others.”
Format: What kind of format homework can I expect?
Given that homework in an online course tends to be based around reading and writing, you should be prepared to crack open their textbooks and ready to type up your ideas, compose responses, and conduct research.
According to Melissa Venable, an e-learning instructional designer, papers are very popular assignments, as well as discussion boards that involve typing out responses in online forums, which can be very essay-like, and email is heavily used. “As with any course, traditional or online, the type of assignment usually corresponds with the learning objectives and can vary based on things like – instructor’s style or preference, type of course, and the discipline,” she said.
Reading. In online courses, reading assignments are more common as they often take the place of lectures and presentations that typically occur in a classroom environment. Michael Wright, a religious studies major at Liberty University, said his online courses are broken up into modules that provide instructions on the course material students must cover each week. “You’ll have assigned readings where you might have some scripture passages you’ll be asked to read, depending on the class of course, and then you’ll have either a series of PowerPoint presentations or videos,” he said.According to Venable, some classes rely heavily on reading assignments, particularly those that have been developed around a specific textbook, so chapter reading is a common assignment. While the number of pages assigned each week significantly varies by program and course, Venable estimates that students may be required to read up to two to three chapters.
Similarly, Michael Keathley, a former online instructor, said the amount of required reading averages to be about 25 pages a week. He believes that online courses will become less text-intensive since media like video is becoming more popular. Additionally, assigned readings out of the standard print textbook will be less common as this information can be accessed electronically. “The movement now is to supply electronic copies that are embedded into the course itself by unit/module,” he explained. “For example, if I were teaching creative writing online in Unit 3, there would be a PDF with the textbook chapter on the genre along with some examples.”
Along with textbooks, course reading material also consists of e-books, articles, documents, and other materials. “Textbooks might be print versions or available as e-books,” said Venable. “Articles downloaded from a library would be PDFs probably. Some items are actually embedded in the course to be downloaded by student. Items might also be found in reserved reading areas in an online library or students just search for the articles in the library’s online database.”
Discussion Questions. Discussion questions are important in online courses because they are the main communication points, according to McCrobie. “These are thought-provocative and ask students about the application of the material to their jobs,” he said. “Students then add to this and tangents grow to enhance learning as students talk about problems they have at work and how they could use the methods to solve them.”Each week these discussion questions are posted in a forum and students are required to provide answers that contribute to the overall learning experience. To ensure that his students understand course material, McCrobie checks discussion threads on a daily basis. “I monitor the discussions, and where students get off track, I will add an example or correct them on what they have written to make sure that their thinking lines up with the material,” he explained.
As a student, Wright said these types of forum assignments are common in his online courses. Students are typically required to begin a thread by posting a minimum of 250 words about a topic and then write a 100 word reply to two or more topics posted by classmates.
Some schools use these types of homework assignments as a part of the overall course grade, while others use them to take virtual attendance and may require students to write a certain number of posts each week to be considered in good standing. Students’ activity on a course discussion board is also a way to measure class participation, which is particularly important in a virtual classroom as online learning requires more direct participation, according to Murcray.
“In a traditional classroom, some students can get by without ever participating in a class discussion,” he said. “Every online school I’ve taught for will dock students who do not participate in the discussion. Some students don’t like this, but part of receiving an education is being able to vocalize what you have learned and to formulate opinions. It’s a skill they should strive to develop, even if they are uncomfortable posting their thoughts publicly.”
Group Assignments. Group assignments require a small team of at least three students to work together to a complete larger project. While specific components of a project may vary depending on course subject, they often require a team to submit a case study present a case study, submit a proposal, write a research paper, or create a presentation that solves a problem.”Creating presentations is a very popular format for groups and includes other things as a part of the overall assignment instructions,” said Venable. “For example, groups may have to create a presentation responding to a case study, choosing a side in a debate, or a proposed solution to a problem presented by the instructor.”
While he assigns the project as a whole, McCrobie said it is often up to team members themselves to find a way to communicate and decide who is responsible for which parts of the project. “Students can use a variety of methods to get the team problems done,” he said. “I encourage them to use Skype so that they get a chance to interact, bringing the different experiences together and really cementing that learning bond.”
During his time as an online student at Strayer University, Herbert Sexton, who earned a B.S. in accounting, said he had to complete several group projects that involved related information such as GAAP, IFRS, and tax codes. “We broke the topics into sections, and each group member took a section and researched it. We then compiled all the information into a paper,” he said.
Papers and Essays. When it comes to online courses, students not only have to write frequent posts for discussion boards, but complete longer writing assignments on a regular basis. “All of the classes I taught have required some sort of writing projects; however, essays are usually balanced with multi-modal projects, such as PPTs [PowerPoint presentations], portfolios, blogs, videos with a transcript, etc.,” said Keathley. “There are also lower-stakes writing assignments like invention activities that may not be graded or assigned a lot of points.”Jeff Kennedy, who earned his master’s degree online through Liberty University, said these types of writing assignments are challenging, not only requiring strong writing, but the proper formatting and mechanics as well. “I would say when it comes to paper writing, their standards are enormously high,” he said. “So, my advice is to take advantage of their writing center, which provides readers who will critique your paper before you turn it in. If you don’t procrastinate and write it at the last minute, you will have a solid draft to turn in to their writing service, and you’ll have enough time to make changes before the paper is due.”
The fact that homework for online courses tends to be writing-intensive works to the online student’s advantage as it helps them develop the writing skills that are vital to a socially networked culture, said Dr. Danielle Babb, who has been teaching online since the 1990s.
“By having to write out our discussion thoughts and experiences, I think it really helps students be able to survive in a network- and writing-challenged world,” she said. “Just taking thoughts from something they’d normally verbalize to having to write out with structure and explanation is so important. I know that being an online student improved my writing more than I could have imagined. I see students start with one of my entry courses, and by the time they are into their second year, their work is much improved. I can’t say I’ve seen that on-ground because the online environment forces them to be good writers.”
Sarah Hoback, a graduate student at Ashford University, agrees that the writing-intensive homework is beneficial, and she credits it for her personal and professional growth. “I feel like I can do anything I set my mind to, and I have no intentions of stopping,” she said. “I have been approached for many different opportunities because of it. I know a lot of it had to do with the writing assignments in each class, knowing how to become a better writer and expressing my thoughts, both written and verbal.”
Turn it in: Where can you submit your homework?
In online education, homework can be submitted to instructors through an online learning management system, as well as via email, course portals, file drop boxes, or class websites. Dr. Diane Hamilton, an online professor at six universities, said there are a plentitude of technologies used for online learning, including different learning management systems that organize learning content like Moodle, eCollege, and Blackboard.
“The differences in platforms are really about how students access information,” she said. “One platform may list discussion questions in a slightly different way than another. However, the students are all doing the same kind of work and answering the same kind of questions. They just may have a different interface to do their work,” she said.
As a graduate student at Liberty University, Kennedy submitted his homework through Blackboard. “The critiques, essays, and research papers were submitted through the online interface, and the tests were usually an online multiple choice or essay question format,” he said.
Ursula Garcia, who earned bachelor’s degrees in management and international business from Strayer University, said that during her seven years as a student there, she used eCollege to take quizzes and turn in essays and reports. “Homework was submitted online through a doc sharing portal,” she said. “The professor would grade the work and post the grades accordingly. Typically, grades were posted before the next session started, and, yes, feedback was always provided.”
Herbert Sexton, who also attended Strayer University, submitted his homework as document files through the course portal. “Generally, all homework was saved in Word format and uploaded into the portal as an attachment. I also had to upload files in Excel and PowerPoint, as well, for grading,” he said.
While submitting homework electronically is quick and convenient, technology tends to fail occasionally, making it difficult for students to turn their assignments in on time. McCrobie said it is particularly devastating when the server goes down and students are not able to log in to upload their homework. In such a case, due dates are usually extended by a few days so that students have time to access any course materials they need to complete and submit their assignments.
Sometimes, homework cannot be turned in because of circumstances beyond a student’s control, like a natural disaster. “We did have hurricane-affected students in the past that didn’t have electricity, so they were granted extra time to complete their class work. This is a rare case,” he said.
Grading: Who grades your homework, and how long does it take?
All homework is primarily graded by course instructors, said Venable. However, in larger classes that have hundreds of students, some assignments may be graded by teaching assistants or academic coaches. It is also not uncommon for the online platform to be programmed to grade assignments that can be accessed directly in the course system, such as quizzes with multiple choice answers. According to Venable, many learning management systems have quizzing tools where instructors can upload items and responses for closed-ended questions.
“You can assign points in the system, and you can also set it for timed responses and random presentation of items,” she said. “In this case, the system usually calculates the grade and it appears in the system gradebook. You can also add open-ended questions for students to enter essay-type responses or fill-in-the blank. These usually have to be graded by someone who goes into the system, reads the responses, and assigns points.”
Even though some grading can be automatic, it is ultimately the instructor’s responsibility to manage the course and give credit, according to Babb, who has taught online courses at several universities. “At every school I work for, I am responsible for grading exams, grading papers, grading discussions, and posting to discussions, checking for and reporting plagiarism, responding to all student questions, posting weekly announcements, and posting midterm and final grades within a specified period of time,” she explained.
According to Keathley, how quickly students receive their grades back on homework depends on assignment length. “At most places, shorter assignments, such as discussions, are typically given a shorter turnaround time, usually 48 hours after the due date. Larger projects, such as a research paper, are typically given five to seven days,” he explained.
On a weekly basis, Hamilton grades her students on their participation, discussions, papers, and quizzes and tests. “Students upload their assignments, quizzes, etc., through a link, and I grade them, put comments on their papers and then send them back with the comments and the marked grade,” she said. “They receive an email notification when something is graded in some platforms, and in others, they just have to look at the gradebook to see if their grade is posted.”
Students who are receiving unsatisfactory grades and struggling with homework assignments can turn to their instructors for help. McCrobie said he tries to help students who are late turning in assignments or have personal issues. He is even willing to mentor students with one-on-one coaching and different types of sessions to help them learn and correctly apply the material. Although, when it comes to group assignments, he said it is important that each student equally contributes and carries their own weight.
“My largest issue is with teams. A group will call and say that their teammate hasn’t shown up,” he said. “My policy is if they do not work on the assignment, then they should get zero points. I will contact that student and let them know what is happening, find out why they are not participating, and put in a corrective action plan.”
Feedback: Do you receive feedback from a professor once graded?
Feedback is an important part of the learning process, and online students receive just as much feedback as students who spend time with their instructors face to face. Once assignments are graded, Venable said that instructors will provide feedback in a variety of ways, which often depend on the type of assignment and technology used in the course. “I have heard of everything from entering all feedback in the gradebook and comments area of a learning management system, to recording audio feedback with Adobe Acrobat and Jing,” she said.
Each week, McCrobie provides his students with feedback that outlines where mistakes were made and shares the correct answers for them to look over and apply in future assignments. “If they still are unsure of what went wrong, I will provide more written instruction or encourage them to call to talk through it,” he said. “I feel that the feedback they get should allow them to understand what went wrong and why they lost points.”
Not only is feedback used by instructors to explain to students why they lost points, but to help them keep up with course material. “When students fall behind, I use the weekly feedback to try and get them on track,” said McCrobie. “This usually works, and students will report having a specifically tough week with family or job issues that took precedence over school. I try to find out why and see if there is other feedback or help they need.”
Ernie Weeks, who teaches online statistics, computer, and communications courses, said that feedback is essential in online courses. For feedback that requires a more human approach, he will call, email, or text his students, but when feedback needs to be instantaneous, he uses other platforms. “I have moved more to some of the vendor-supplied platforms with the quantitative and technical courses,” he said. “Getting feedback on a statistics problem or a computer assignment in 15 seconds is a real advantage.”
When it comes to feedback, it is important for students to understand that instructors are providing constructive criticism to help them improve their work and not to tear them down. Feedback can come across as negative when important non-verbal communication tools like body language and facial expressions are lost in online communication, said Michelle Rogers-Estable, who has taught online courses at several universities and is currently working on her Ed.D. in distance education and instructional technology.
“It can be easy to offend a student without even knowing it, as we were not careful about our wording and/or the structure of the written work we used,” she said. “Learning to create a fun, engaging, interactive, authoritative yet friendly online ‘voice’ in our writing is key to building a good learning community among the students.”