How to Make a Grader, Prof, and Anyone Happy
(With Things You Probably Have Around Your Room)
By the Cheshire Cat,
Known to Comps Czars as John Weiss
I have compiled some things about doing problem sets for Astro 110. These would probably serve as well in most Math/Science classes really. Many of them are not rigid rules, simply suggestions to make the write-ups easier to grade. Easier to grade means higher points, so this makes everyone happy, of course. A few things are vital, but often get forgotten. These things are:
The Vitally Important Stuff
Stuff that You Will lose points for not doing
These items are mostly important so that we can see that you did the work and didn't copy it, in one sense (yes, we are pretty good at catching that, although it happens pretty seldom :-). More importantly, at least in my book, we can catch your mistakes this way, and give you partial (or even total credit) if you follow these rules, even when you make a mistake:
- Show All Work On Calculations. Well, you don't need to tell me what buttons you pushed on the old calculator, but show your conversions between units, your set up of the formula, and canceling you do before pluggin' 'n' chuggin'. This way, if you make a mistake with the calculator (trust me, I do all the time), we can see where and often give full credit for it. This makes everyone happy (no, I don't like taking points off, especially for things that could easily be avoided).
- Show you basic formula when you do calculations. If you
use Newton's Law of Gravitation, say so and you probably could
even write it out in the general format (like )
Fgravitational = G M m
- The occasional bit of prose is very helpful in explaining your reasoning and your manipulations. All that this amounts to is things like: "Solving for T, I get:" or using Wein's Law,". It really helps us tell what you are thinking and it helps you clarify your thoughts.
- It's best to think of these problem sets as more of an essay and less of your typical math assignment. You need to not only get the correct (or a correct) answer, but also explain how you got it and try to convince your graders that your approach is valid. Thus, explain what you are doing carefully, and give us your line of logic on essay questions.
- There is not problem and no answer so simple that it can't benefit from an explanation. Even if you are simply getting information out of a table, say so and cite the table you used (this is so we can track down any errors that may not be your fault). Science isn't about answers it is about the method; your problems sets should reflect this by showing your reasoning and method.
- No Naked Numbers (aka - N3): Show units all the time! It helps you makes sure that your final results is OK (unit checking) and lets us know where you are getting the numbers.
- Never plagiarize. We catch copying, both from books and from friends. We don't like to get nasty about this, but it is important to do the thinking yourself. You can use short quotes, appropriately quoted and cited, but avoid even these if you can.
Things that make us Happytm
These are things that we really, really appreciate, but if you can't manage them for whatever reason, it isn't the end of the known universe. They should also prove useful to you, however, so give them consideration.
- Make sure your problem set isn't too short. While I have seen one page problem sets that were OK, most of the short ones have far too little explanation. We aren't asking for a Doctoral Thesis, of course (nor would we want to grade one!), but you should take the time and space to be complete. The average prose-response generally merits about a third of a page for a response, although this is quite flexible.
- If you can do a second draft of your PS, it is quite helpful to us, since it is neater and more thought out, and useful to you in that it forces you to check your work and remind yourself of things that may have been clear two days ago, but you may not remember why you did them. In my experience, this is one of the most insightful parts of doing problem sets, so give it consideration. You certainly don't need to do this, but if you can, it is nice.
- Humor is good. Don't be afraid to add humor to a problem set, or to add a personal touch ("Wow, I didn't know that Deneb could be that much brighter than the Sun!"). It makes the problem sets a lot more fun to grade and we often can respond to your comments (and humor!) in helpful and friendly ways.
- If problems are out of order, for whatever reason, please make a note either at the beginning of the PS, or, better, where the problem belonged. Thus, if #4 is at the end of the PS, instead of between 3 and 5, note that between 3 and 5. It is rather annoying to go hunting for errant problems, and even worse when we can't find them. We feel bad and you loose points, so no one is happy.
- Try to keep your problems linear. Rather than have arrows criss-crossing the page and all kinds of scratched out work, keep the problem written up so we can follow it. If we miss parts, we may have to take off points, and it is just plain hard to follow these kinds of write-ups. Also, along these lines, please try to write neatly. While I know that we all don't have the best hand-writing (myself included), it really helps a lot...
- If you don't understand something, say so. As I said, we leave comments and suggestions, especially when they are asked for!
- On that note, leave margins and space between problems, if you can. We like these spaces to leave notes to you; suggestions, comments, smiley-faces, and even the occasional humor or thank-you for a particularly nice job. And do try to read over our comments afterward. They should help both future problem sets, as well as tests and simply improve your general understanding of the material.
- Typing up a problem set is wonderful, but I have often see the calculations parts suffer for the lack of flexibility of the computers. Be warned, the calculations still need to be complete, so you may want to simply hand write them or, if you are comfortable with these, us either an equation editor or Mathematica 3.0.
- STAPLE, STAPLE, STAPLE! Don't fold, or do that funky fold and tear thing. It doesn't work well. Even paper clips don't really cut it. I understand that you forget sometimes and you are having to hand it in unstapled, but try to remember. Thanks.
- Diagrams are often helpful in understanding and explaining problems, just be sure to label things so we can understand them.
- Don't run away from a problem! I've seen too many people start off correctly then panic and stop. If you don't understand, that is what we tutors and professors are for!
- About units: Try to pick your final units so that they will be the most useful. Thus, don't express something that takes seconds to happen in terms of years, unless explicitly told to do so. With units of time, you'll often have to play around until it fits right. Other units (distance, mass) are somewhat less tricky, since they are matters of a decimal point.
- Ratios are very good and very handy. It is often easier to do calculations for ratios, since many things tend to cancel.
- Do all calculations in terms of the general variables until the very last step. Often, many things will cancel and go away, and you can often apply the general results to later problems, saving work. (note: you are probably doing the problem right if lots of stuff cancels!)
- At times, problems are meant to give answers that seem really weird. But usually, you can ask yourself "Does this seem right?" as a check. I once had a student calculate the distance to a star as 1.8 ×104 m, which is 18 km. This doesn't seem at all right, does it? Trust me, it helps.
- Lastly, significant figures. We aren't really concerned with how many sig. figs. you need to keep, but generally, about 3 or 4 is good. just because you calculator shows 10, doesn't mean that you should write 10 down; it is painful to the hand and also distracting to read.
- Come in and ask question, either of the profs or tutors. That's what we are for. While many students have done well and never been at a study session, I've never known anyone to regularly attend the study sessions and not do well on the problem sets (and tests, as far as I know).
Wow, I didn't mean for that to take four pages. Don't take this as a Bible or anything, but I hope that these will help you in doing the problem sets and, ultimately, in learning about astronomy. And I do think that they will help we graders help you.
Thanks for reading, and happy astro-ing!