Homework Tips

I use this page to aggregate some tips I’ve gathered, both as a student and as a teacher. It is very much a work in progress.

How to make your TA’s life easier

Everything you write is meant to be read. With that in mind, it is always worthwhile to put some effort into writing a coherent piece of work which you can be proud of.

In the particular context of submitting homework, graders can only mark that which they can read. Moreover, TAs are far more likely to provide meaningful feedback to work which they can understand well with a limited amount of effort and time. To this end, here are a few concrete suggestions to make your TA’s life easier:

  1. Write your name, preferably at the top of the first page.
  2. Submit where you are supposed to. If there is a box, print your HW and drop it there; if there is online submission (e.g., through Canvas), submit it through the designated website; if you are supposed to e-mail, then e-mail your HW!
  3. Staple your HW. Up to a point, the more staples the better. Don’t tape it, don’t fold it, don’t clip it, and especially don’t leave it completely loose.
  4. Box your “final answer”. For example, if you have a problem where you must prove a claim is true/false, box your claim before following up with justification.
  5. Write in a natural, linear order. That is, try to present content in the order you intend for the audience to read it. In the US, that means your writing should be sinistrodextral, then top-to-bottom.
  6. Present only what you must. A few cross-outs are okay, but don’t leave swaths of rough calculations laying around.
  7. Justify your work. It’s hard to pinpoint the appropriate level of justification of a solution, but a good rule of thumb is to justify your work to the point where a classmate could easily understand each step. Also, homework is partly about demonstrating understanding, so keep that goal in mind as you write.
  8. Use your words. You don’t have to be a wordsmith, but a wall of only equations can be rather impenetrable.
  9. Don’t cheat. Copying someone else’s homework only hurts you in the long run.
  10. 1 point means nothing. Minor grading disputes aren’t very important, unless you don’t understand why points were deducted.

How to do homework

All of the tips above are logistical tips intended to keep your TAs sane. However, there are also a few things you can do to optimize your own learning experience.

  1. Start early. Take a look at the homework as soon as it is assigned. You don’t have to be that nerd that finishes homework a week early, but it is good to have it stewing in the back of your mind.
  2. Find a group. Ideally, everyone in the group is at a similar level and there is no dominant member. A few good reasons to work with others: you learn more; you work faster; you’re forced to follow a regular routine; you feel some sort of responsibility to the group; it’s more fun than wallowing in your loneliness; learning to work in a team is good practice for the “real world”.
  3. Use homework as a test. Review your notes before starting homework, but then try to initially solve each problem without referring back to your notes. Even if this doesn’t work all the time, it will encourage you to internalize the class material. Lectures and recitations can convey the “main idea”, but you also need to get your hands dirty and grind out some math on your own.
  4. Ask for help. Your instructor, TAs, classmates, and the Math Resource Center are all there to help! Sure, you can always look up the answer online, but at that point you’re just consuming information. Talking to someone in person will provide more of a dialogue which will guide you to a solution rather than teleporting you there.
  5. Try typing. It can be worthwhile to learn to TeX your solutions instead of writing everything by hand. Not only is it neater, but you also get an electronic record of your work which you can search through years later.

Homework can be annoying, frustrating, and time-consuming, but it is good for you. Attending an inspiring lecture about a cool topic is just ice cream; working through hard problems is the spinach. I’ll end with a relevant quote from Ronnie Coleman:

Evabody wanna be a bodybuilda; don’t nobody wanna lift no heavy-ass weights!