I remember the first time I got a zero on my homework.
It was spring semester of my sophomore year. The class was Electrical Engineering 16A, “Designing Information Devices and Systems I.” I had spent the entire week working on my problem set — writing and rewriting the linear algebra equations to make sure everything was neat enough for the grader who would read the scanned copy of my homework.
The only problem was that I forgot who the grader was: me. A week’s worth of homework ended up being worth nothing because I had committed the cardinal homework sin: I forgot to turn in my self-grades.
Homework “self-grades” have been a staple of my electrical engineering classes. Every week after an assignment is due, a Google form is sent out. We have to read through the given homework solutions and grade our own problem set.
It doesn’t seem that complicated, but remembering to grade your homework every week can be a pain.
Not only do I have to go through the agony of completing weekly problem sets, but I am then forced to relive the experience as I debate how many points to give myself on each question. Self-grades feel like a form of torture when I have to deduct points on questions that I worked on for hours.
My friends who don’t go to UC Berkeley are always intrigued by the idea that here, you have to do your homework and grade it, too. With all the weekly problem sets, labs, discussions and lecture hours, why would the course staff choose to burden us even more by adding self-grades?
I think it’s because self-grading is a “check,” something outside of grueling weekly problem sets and watching missed lectures at 1.5x speed on YouTube. I have to go through the homework solutions attentively and understand where I went wrong. Ultimately, self-grading ensures that I am actually aware of concepts that I don’t understand, so there are no surprises when midterm season comes around.
Sometimes when I’m in lecture, I like to look around the room to see what other students are doing. People checking Facebook, staring at their phones or sleeping are all quite common observations.
Because my STEM classes are so large, many of them are offered as webcasts, which allows students to avoid lectures entirely. Students can turn in homework online, and most discussion sections don’t even take attendance. And sometimes labs can be completed at home.
Without ever going to lecture or attending a single discussion, a student can turn in their assignments, show up for exams and successfully complete the course. A student can essentially completely disengage from classes and still end up with a good GPA and a STEM degree.
Without self-grades, I often wonder how much time (outside of completing the actual problem sets) I would take to study concepts that confuse me. If I simply turned my homework in online and wasn’t forced to read through the solutions, I doubt I would go through the assignment on my own.
Self-grading helps keep me engaged, even when I’m so busy that skipping class seems like the only way to get all my work done.
After missing that first homework assignment my sophomore year, self-grades became my least favorite part of my electrical engineering classes. It took me a while to realize that professors probably choose to include self-grades as a way to push students to engage with the material outside of lecture time — not as a way to punish them.
Sitting through lecture and snoozing isn’t enough. Doing the homework incorrectly won’t prepare anyone for an exam.
I’m grateful the STEM staff really pushes students with different and sometimes tedious-seeming tasks. Learning by doing is definitely the most effective way for me to master material. When I have to take points off my homework grade, I’m all the more determined to do better on the next assignment.
It was always easy for me to complain about all of the “extras” that accompanied my STEM courses: labs, projects, quizzes, self-grades and so on. The constant demand of being fully engaged with course material can be stressful, but I think the true value of UC Berkeley’s competitive environment is that I am constantly pushed to do more than I thought I ever could.
So maybe I won’t complain about my homework self-grades that are due Wednesday. Well, I probably will. But I know that even just one hour of reviewing my homework mistakes — and taking several points off my homework grade —benefits me in ways that will help me now and in the future.