Finishing and Submitting Your Assignments
In This Chapter ▶ Reading and interpreting rubrics to your advantage ▶ Writing for the best grade ▶ Understanding the variety of possible assignments ▶ Turning it all in From earlier chapters in this book, you know the drill: how to log in, who’s in class, and how and why you should communicate clearly with everyone else. But how do you get a grade? You’re not there just to have fun and converse with strangers, are you?
Instructors have several methods of determining how you’re doing in class. They may assign papers or projects, or ask you to take a quiz or test. Some determine how you’re doing on a weekly basis through your participation in discussions. Hopefully, your class will utilize all these methods!
With technology, getting work to your instructor may require taking a couple extra steps or following different procedures than the traditional classroom environment. This chapter walks you through the basics of getting your assignments turned in so you can get the grade. After all, if you do the work, you deserve the score! We also review the use of rubrics and how to write different types of assignments effectively to help insure the best outcome.
Understanding the Ramifications of Rubrics Instructors have a challenge explaining to students what they want. In online courses without live communication, it’s difficult for students to ask — and for the instructor to answer — the many little questions that come up with an assignment. For that reason, instructors have a clever way of telling you what they want: They use rubrics. Rubrics are scoring systems instructors use to evaluate student work. This section gives you the lowdown on rubrics along with insights on how you can use them to your advantage.
Breaking down rubrics Rubrics sometimes come in chart form, although they may be formatted as lists as well. A rubric makes giving the teacher what she wants doable by categorizing for you the important parts of an assignment that the instructor will judge and making statements about what earns full points. You may find rubrics in a couple locations:
✓ On the home page: At the start of the course, rubrics are sometimes included in the syllabus or as a separate link to a document with multiple rubrics (for example, one for discussions, one for weekly papers). ✓ On the assignment page: Sometimes instructors post a rubric within each individual assignment. This is a big hint that they want you to review your own work before submitting it!
For example, look at the rubric in Table 14-1, which describes how a paper in a course will be graded. This rubric presents three levels of quality: excellent, average, and needs improvement. Within each level are specific criteria for judging. You can see that the paper will be judged on the quality of your writing as well as the overall structure and mechanics of the document. Not to mention the fact that the assignment must be turned in on time.
Notice, for example, that if you want full credit, you need to properly cite sources in APA style (see Chapter 13 for more about citations). As for critical thinking, if you identify two problems and don’t offer possible solutions, you don’t get all the points. On the other hand, if you clearly show the connection between theory and practice and give at least one example, you’re home free in critical thinking.
Using rubrics to your advantage From your instructor’s perspective, a rubric takes the guesswork out of grading. (A lot of instructors love to teach but hate to grade.) With the predetermined categories in a rubric, the instructor simply measures your work against the ideal as stated in the criteria.
If the instructor can do this, why can’t you? Here are a couple of guidelines:
✓ Any time you have an assignment, first read the rubric. Determine the major criteria and compare these to what you find in the instructions. Make a list that includes both the criteria in the rubric and the criteria given in the instructions. Sometimes instructors forget to put simple instructions like page counts in the rubric, which is why we advise doublechecking and making a combined list.
✓ After you write your assignment, judge it for yourself using the rubric. Go through each category and ask yourself for evidence. Pretend you are the instructor, and be critical! By writing out the expectations in the rubric, your instructor has told you what she will measure and how. You can do the same.
Writing 101 The reality is that most online courses are 95 percent text and little audio. That means instructors and students “talk” with their fingers. Writing skills become the language! Online students write papers, discussion posts, e-mails, reflections . . . the list seems endless. How well you write, according to the assignment and your instructor’s expectations, determines your success. To get the best grades, you must understand the style you need and the expectations of a specific assignment. In addition, you must show critical thinking through your writing. We work through what each of these means in this section.
Checking out different writing styles Think about everything you wrote today. This list may include a text message to your boyfriend, a newsy e-mail to your mom, your grocery list, some discussion posts for school, and countless documents for work. Did they all sound the same in terms of style and form? We hope not!
What you write for class depends on the assignment and the audience. This section considers different types of writing you can use in an online course.
Academic or scholarly writing You use academic or scholarly writing in assignments such as short essays, long papers, and group projects. This kind of writing calls for a different “voice” — a more serious tone with academic embellishments. It stands apart from everyday writing in several ways:
✓ The organization is obvious. Whether you’re writing an essay or a dissertation, academic disciplines have clear expectations for organized writing. At the essay or paper level, this means related paragraphs that begin with topic sentences and are held together with a main thesis. On a larger scale, this means chapters held together with a primary thesis. ✓ The vocabulary changes. When you write about your academic area of interest, you need to use the correct vocabulary for the context. This is not to say that you have to use multisyllabic words to impress the reader, but you do need to be precise and accurate in vocabulary use. For example, in nursing you might describe a patient as being in a supine position, whereas in other contexts you’d refer to the person as sitting.
✓ You use outside references to support your ideas. In an academic paper, simply writing your opinion isn’t enough. You need to back up your ideas with legitimate sources from other authors. Anytime you quote, summarize, or refer to someone else’s work, you need to properly cite the source. The format for citations depends on your discipline and your instructor’s preference. We write about finding resources at length in Chapter 11 and discuss the need for citations to avoid plagiarism in Chapter 13. Read the rubric for any assignment carefully, as we suggest earlier in this chapter. Chances are good that it will mention that you need to appropriately cite references as a condition of the assignment. ✓ The grammar follows standard conventions. In academic writing, punctuation, spelling, and syntax all count. What is passable in spoken English isn’t always acceptable in written form. If this is a weakness of yours, we highly recommend that you seek assistance, either through an online service available through your college or a Web site you find particularly helpful. For example, Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab (OWL) is a wonderful Web-based resource at http://owl.english.purdue.edu/.
The following items shouldn’t appear in academic writing:
✓ Colloquialisms and exclamations: Ya know what I mean? Gee whiz, like, you just gotta learn to write or yer gonna flunk! This kind of casualness is unacceptable in an academic paper. ✓ Texting language: A whole new language has been invented thanks to mobile telephones and text. Abbreviations such as LOL or IDK have almost become mainstream. (If you’re really out of the loop, LOL is short for laughing out loud and IDK means I don’t know.) Yet as mainstream as you may think these abbreviations are, your instructor and fellow students may have no idea what you’re saying. For this reason, texting language is inappropriate in online education. Keep it on your phone.
Casual conversation There are appropriate places within an online course for casual conversation. For example, if your instructor sets up a discussion area called “Student Lounge” or “Cafe,” you can pretty much assume she doesn’t expect scholarly writing in those forums. Also, some instructors allow for more casual studentto-student responses within discussion.
Here’s an example. Suppose coauthor Kevin has to answer a discussion question about an educational theorist. Following the guidelines and the rubric of the instructor provided, Kevin writes three scholarly-sounding paragraphs, including references to two outside sources. He follows APA style as requested by his instructor.
In response, coauthor Susan writes, “Wow! I just had an epiphany! You are so on target with your analysis of this theory. I was just telling my sister yesterday about how. . . .”
Susan’s style and tone is a little too casual for academic or scholarly writing, but it’s appropriate as a response to Kevin’s post.
Knowing what’s expected in your writing Before you plunge into a writing assignment, take a look at what’s expected. You can find this information within the instructions and the rubric. Three important aspects that influence how you write are the type of assignment, the length or word count, and any formatting requirements.
Remember how we advise you to make a list of criteria based on the rubric plus the instructions in the earlier section “Using rubrics to your advantage”? If you do this, you can’t help but meet the expectations.
Recognizing the type of assignment Read your assignment instructions carefully so you know what’s appropriate to include in your writing. Although all assignments require academic writing (which we describe earlier in this chapter), some of them allow more of your personality to shine through.
Think about the differences among a journal entry, a critique, and a literature review. Each of these calls for a slightly different type of writing:
✓ A journal entry is personal and written in first person, meaning it’s quite appropriate to use the word “I.” ✓ A critique is less personal but involves judgment. It may also refer to other resources and texts, thereby requiring proper citation. ✓ A literature review is a little more cut and dried with no judgment, just summary and reporting. It obviously requires references and citations.
Nothing is wrong with asking for an example. If you’re confused from the beginning and can’t get started with an assignment, ask your instructor whether she can share an example from the past.
Counting words to get the length right How many words or pages you’re allowed for a specific assignment tells you a lot about the writing. If your instructor asks you to answer a discussion question in 300 to 500 words, she’s not looking for a full-blown paper on the
topic! This also means that you need to write succinctly. Get to the point as quickly as possible, and then add a few examples. We recommend you restate a portion of the question in your first sentence and skip lengthy introductions or storytelling.
On the other hand, if you’re assigned a ten-page paper, the instructor expects you to fully develop each idea and back it up with outside resources. You can take a little more time and space to add details and illustrations of your main ideas.
Most word-processing programs can help you determine your word count. If the count doesn’t show in your bottom task bar, go to file information or properties and see whether the statistics are available there.
Formatting correctly Check with your instructor about institutional formatting requirements. Do you need a title page? What margins are standard, and is there a preferred font? Should you number the pages? Some institutions have very specific guidelines, and you want to know what they are before you start.
If your institution or instructor has formatting requirements, this information is usually found in the syllabus and again within the instructions for each assignment. If it’s an institutional guideline, the institution may even provide you with a sample document that you overwrite so you know your formatting is correct.
Demonstrating critical thinking Coauthor Susan remembers asking a student a question once in a traditional face-to-face classroom and seeing the student visibly think through the response. He took the concept she was discussing, broke it into pieces, related it to something he had read, and then gave a well reasoned, theoretically grounded response with his own insights. His eyes squinted, he rubbed his chin, and he spoke slowly with a few pauses. This was critical thinking in action in a traditional classroom. How does this work online?
Online your instructor may not see your quizzical looks or chin-rubbing, but she can tell whether you thought critically about the question before you gave your response. She determines this through the quality of what you write. Your thoughts become transparent through your writing.
If you’re not clear on the definition, critical thinking is the application of disciplined, thoughtful analysis to a problem. It combines what the experts say about the situation, what you know from life experience, and a dose of rational thought. You first break down the problem, and then reassemble it with your own evaluation.
here are some telltale signs that you’re on the right track. Do the mental stretch and you’ll be rewarded with better grades! Try to incorporate these indicators into your written work:
✓ Look at the question from multiple perspectives and explain this clearly. Some people rush to judgment, but if you can show the “other side” of an argument or perspective, you’re in a better position to demonstrate critical thinking. ✓ Actively ask questions. People with strong critical thinking skills ask questions like, “What if . . .” or “How could the author have stated this differently?” Asking a lot of questions before you write may help you organize your thoughts, too! ✓ Find support through literature or research. Critical thinking requires you to look beyond your own opinion and compare what you believe or know to others’ ideas. In most academic writing, this is where we expect you to weave in references to other studies, books, or literature. ✓ Figure out how this relates to you and real life. Any time you can put something into today’s context, it demonstrates critical thinking. It shows you’ve reconstructed the idea.
Instructors know when students don’t think before they type, so don’t just sit down and start typing your assignment. Organize your thoughts by outlining the assignment first. In your outline, define the problem, summarize the literature, clarify your thoughts/opinions on the topic, and note examples of past experiences or possible future applications.
Completing Different Types of Assignments Instructors measure student achievement in many different ways, all of which come in the form of assignments. You may be asked to write a paper, put together a project, participate in discussion, or take a quiz or test. In this section, we look at each type of assignment and what it means to an online student.
Mastering papers and projects For college-level online courses, papers and projects are the most common assignments. They keep students busy throughout a portion of the course and are a good vehicle for having students comprehensively review major course concepts. If you’re asked to submit a paper or project, consider the following ideas for success.
Papers One of the most common assignments online students receive is “the paper.” The following are examples of papers you may be asked to write:
✓ Write a ten-page essay on your philosophy of integrating technology. ✓ Write a five-page paper on your theories related to the causes of the Civil War. ✓ Compare and contrast in a three-page paper the structures and functions of animal cells versus plant cells.
Your instructor looks for several markers of quality:
✓ Organized writing: As we explain earlier in this chapter, scholarly writing requires organization. Whatever your topic, develop a clear thesis and present it from the beginning. Then write in a manner that supports the thesis. ✓ Points of view other than yours: Instructors want to see you’ve done the research and can summarize or quote from the experts. Citation is required! ✓ Original ideas: While your instructor expects you to research and provide sources for your background knowledge, she also expects you to develop some original ideas. Don’t just tell what the experts say; add your own insights based on past experiences and intellectual speculation.
Here are a few of the most common blunders we’ve observed:
✓ Not answering the question that was asked. There’s nothing more heart-wrenching than seeing a student submit a paper that has nothing to do with the question that was asked. As teachers, we assume that you put some work into this, and we hate to think that you wasted your time.
Therefore, save your teacher and yourself some heartache and make sure you understand the question she asks! In fact, sending a private e-mail to double-check that you have it right before you start writing isn’t a bad idea. ✓ Failure to cite any outside resources. At the college level, inclusion of research and resources is a basic expectation. ✓ Confusing writing or writing that’s full of nothing. Sometimes we see writing that’s poorly organized or grammatically askew, making it difficult to understand what the student wants to say. Or, the student goes on needlessly with little substance (we’re being polite here!). There are a couple ways to check for confusing reading. First is to ask someone who knows nothing about the subject to read your paper. Clueless people are very helpful, sometimes. Absent the extra reader, eliminate all the extra phrases and make the sentences short. Get to the point. Then, see what sentences you can combine to make the piece read a little more fluidly.
Projects Instead of papers, your instructor may assign projects. Like papers, these generally call for a comprehensive understanding of the course content, but you complete them with a variety of tools. Consider these examples:
✓ Develop a Web page that shows an image, a banner, and a table. ✓ Create a spreadsheet you could use as a general ledger for a small business. ✓ Design a ten-minute presentation to sell your colleagues on the idea of social networking.
Projects allow you to show a great deal of creativity. Unless you are told which tool to use, you can explore different kinds of presentational tools. For example, you could build a narrated presentation using a Web-based tool such as Jing at http://www.jingproject.com. Or, you could upload images and slides to a service such as SlideShare at http://www.slideshare.net.
Most projects come with a rubric. Especially if the activity is complex, instructors provide guidelines and rubrics to help you determine whether you are meeting all the criteria. In the same way that you need to carefully read the rubric for any written work (as we explain earlier in this chapter), you should do the same for a project in order to complete it successfully.
Participating in discussions The heart and soul of many online courses is the discussion area. This is where students answer key questions and respond to each other by replying to each other’s messages and offering multiple perspectives. We have a few ideas about how to make your participation shine in terms of quality and quantity, even without seeing your instructor’s rubric. (Flip to Chapter 10 for an introduction to discussions.)
Quality Quality always trumps quantity! Take your time to answer your question succinctly yet thoroughly. Introduce some of the literature you’ve been reading in class or refer to other sources you know of. Of course, add appropriate citations.
A good pattern to establish is: Restate the question, present your initial view in one sentence, point to some of the literature on the topic, and close with an interpretation of what this means in real life. If you can do that in a grammatically clean and clear fashion, you’ll be submitting quality work.
Before you hit the post or submit button, proofread and double check for accuracy!
With respect to your responses to other students, the instructor looks for quality writing here, too. You may want to say, “I agree!” but your instructor expects you to add why you agree with some depth of thought. Follow up with an additional point from the literature or an example that exemplifies some data the original author proposed. Don’t just post, “Me too!”
A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself whether the work you post has instructional value. Can people learn something from what you have written? If not, consider reworking the response.
Quantity How often you post responses to other students depends somewhat on the nature of the class, the instructor’s expectations, and the learning community. Typically, the instructor notes the minimum number of posts she wants to see. Be sure you know the expectations, which are typically described in a rubric handed out at the beginning of your course or within the instructions for the assignment.
Reading and following discussions can become overwhelming in an online course if students post too frequently. Plus, the conversations can get long and drawn out and break down to little more than trivial responses. And yet, your presence on the discussion board is one of the few ways the instructor knows whether you’re engaged. By all means, meet the expectations, but then nudge yourself to go a little higher.
Look at your postings and see whether you’re monopolizing the discussion board. If you’re authoring more than 10 percent of the total posts, you’re probably overactive. Pace yourself!
Taking quizzes and tests One final method of measuring student success is the traditional quiz or test. Whether you’re asked multiple-choice questions or essay questions, quizzes and tests are relatively easy for instructors to administer and, in cases where the computer does the scoring, results are immediate.
When an instructor decides that a quiz or test is an appropriate measure of student achievement, she makes several decisions concerning the administration of the test. These clearly impact the students! You may encounter these types of quizzes and tests:
✓ Tests with all kinds of questions. Most testing software allows the instructor to choose from multiple choice, true/false, short answer, and essay questions. This is nothing new to you as a student. The only thing that may be new is clicking in a box with your mouse instead of filling in a form with a pencil.
✓ Tests that have a time limit. You may be limited in how long you have to complete the test. Instructors commonly leave a test “open” for only a few days and then set the software so that you must answer all the questions within so many minutes. This is to discourage you from looking at other sources (like your book) for answers. You have to know the material and answer quickly. ✓ Self-quizzes with no score. Sometimes instructors build “self” quizzes to test your knowledge before taking a test for points. Practice makes perfect, so if you have the opportunity, test yourself! ✓ Open book/note exams. To be truthful, we advise faculty to assume students will use whatever resources they have available, including notes, books, and browsers. Your instructor may tell you that using your resources is permissible. ✓ Mail-in pencil exams. Believe it or not, in some cases an online instructor may ask you to complete a paper/pencil exam and mail it in.
When you have an independent third party monitor your exam, we say it is proctored. Proctors are like exam police making sure you are who you say you are and that you’re not cheating. For high-stake exams, schools insist on proctors. The methods for proctoring vary. You may be required to take a test
✓ At a center on-campus with a restricted IP range. If you’re taking the course from your local college, you may be required to come to campus and take the exam on their computers in their assessment center. This may not be the most convenient method, but it verifies identity and prevents you from using materials you may have saved on your computer. ✓ With a professional “contractual” proctor. Your school may allow you to find a proctor in your city and get that person authorized to monitor you. For example, coauthor Kevin proctors for a student he used to work with. When she has an exam, she takes it in front of him, he signs the exam to verify she was honest, and then he mails it to the school. If a school requires a proctor, they’ll give you guidelines for types of people who are acceptable. Library staff are always favorite choices! ✓ By using a Web-based service with enhanced technology. There are now companies that proctor exams online with technology like Web cameras. For example, ProctorU at http://www.proctoru.com/ has students log in, talk to a live proctor at the other end of the technology, turn on a Web cam, scan the environment where they’re taking the exam, and then take the exam. All of this is an attempt to make sure the person completing the exam is really you!
How well you do on an exam depends on old-fashioned study skills. Chapter 11 guides you through strategies such as setting aside time every day to keep up with coursework, reading effectively, and taking notes. But perhaps the most valuable tip is staying engaged and active to increase your chances of success. The more you work with the ideas, either by reading discussions,
taking self-tests, or practicing problem sets, the better your retention. If you’re engaged and prepared, there’s no need to panic at exam time!
Submitting Assignments Think back to middle school (if it isn’t too painful to remember those days!). Did you ever complete a homework assignment and forget to take it to school and turn it in? The same thing can happen online; you do the work and forget to submit it. In this section, we review several methods for getting your homework to the instructor. These include drop-boxes, e-mail attachments, and “submit” buttons. We also provide some pointers for turning in any kind of assignment.
Drop-boxes and e-mail attachments for papers and projects Some course management systems use a “drop-box” feature whereby students upload assignments. Different from e-mail, you can only put the document in one place and you don’t need to know the instructor’s address. The instructor retrieves your document, downloads it, and reads it. She may then comment on it and add a score to the grade book all within the same drop-box tool.
If there’s a secret to using drop-boxes, it’s knowing how to upload and hitting pthe submit button until you get a confirmation. In most systems, you look for a button that says “Add a file” or “Upload.” This prompts you to browse your computer to find the file. Usually you click Open once you identify the file you want, and then hit Submit. Your next screen should be a confirmation that the file has been uploaded! Figure 14-1 shows what a drop-box looks like from the student view in Desire2Learn®.
If your instructor doesn’t use the drop-box feature or doesn’t have this tool available, she may ask you to attach your work to an e-mail. This process works the same as attaching photos to send to your dear cousin Ted. You find the attachment icon, usually a paper clip, browse for the file, and upload. The uploading skill seems to be universal, whether you’re attaching a document to an e-mail or a discussion board posting. (Chapter 3 has the basics on fundamental e-mail skills you should have before you enroll in an online course.)
Post, Emily! Submitting discussion posts When you have a discussion question to post or respond to, the magic words change slightly.
that isn’t attached to anyone else’s idea. ✓ Reply: Use this button when you want to respond to something another person wrote. Here’s a super tip: Copy and paste one or two lines from the original text (delete the rest) so you can quote the first author and focus your comments. ✓ Post: After you have composed or replied, you must remember to hit Post or Submit. Otherwise, your great ideas don’t appear on the discussion board.
The “submit” button on quizzes and tests Your teachers probably told you this when you were younger: Check your work before you turn in the test. Make sure you answered every question. Technology has an interesting way of forcing you to do this with online quizzes and tests. It’s called the “submit” button. Look at Figure 14-2, and you’ll see that in this case, you’re given the option to Submit, Save without submitting, Submit page, and Submit all and finish. All of these make you think twice and check your work!
Tips for submitting any assignment Whether you’re working with papers, projects, discussion posts, quizzes, or tests, consider the following general pointers: Submit early, have a backup plan, and keep a copy. Here’s why these are important:
✓ Submit early when possible in case of problems: What if you plan to submit your assignment at 11:56 p.m. on the night it’s due by midnight, and the whole system crashes or your hard drive freezes? You don’t have a lot of time to remedy that situation. A safer bet is to submit your work during normal working hours, well before you need to. That way if you encounter a problem, you’re more likely to contact a real techsupport person who can assist you (see Chapter 9 for more information on technical support). ✓ Attach to e-mail when technology fails: Still on the 11:56 p.m. track? When all else fails, send the same assignment as an attachment to an e-mail to your instructor. Include a polite note explaining that the system wasn’t cooperating and that you wanted to be sure to get the assignment turned in one way or another. This shows good problem-solving skills. ✓ Keep a copy: Always, always keep copies of your work for the term of the course. You never know when you might need them. It’s common for the system to freeze up when you’re trying to submit a great discussion post (always when you’ve written something worthy of a Pulitzer), so if you first compose in a word processor and then copy and paste to the discussion area, you’re safe in knowing that you have the original text. Should there be any question, you can find the file and resubmit it.