The ‘Worst-First’ Method, and Other Ways to Manage Online Assignments
March 10, 2021
This is the beginning of a beautiful file share.
It's harder for the dog to eat your homework when you're uploading it. (Sorry, Spot!)
"Carlotta, thank you for turning in your assignment," the instructor's message read. "However, you received a 0/40 because the page is blank when I open it. I'll give you until 11:59 pm tomorrow to correct this."
"Ugh, this always happens when I convert Word to PDF," my tutee Carlotta groaned, before restarting her cranky MacBook and pulling up SnapChat on her phone. In this case, she had done the assignment, but I could see how it would make for a decent excuse for an extension.
At that moment, I thought about the absurdity of the whole thing. As prevalent as technology has become, it's still impressive how comprehensively the takeover has conquered the education world—bugs, glitches, incompatibility, and all.
Granted, printing out assignments (or—heaven forbid—writing them out) is still commonplace. However, more schools at all levels are conducting classwork through online portals like Blackboard and PowerSchool. There are even a plethora of legitimate online schools, like K12, which let students and instructors show up to class in their pajamas (if desired).
Of course, this is an exciting chapter for education. With online assignments, fantastic resources are now available for students through just a few clicks: multimedia content, lectures, source material, easy-to-check grades, helpful links, and important updates, to name a few. As for online schools? Students with special needs, different learning profiles, or alternative schedules can now access a thorough educational experience.
But there are a few key features to be aware of if you want to get the most out of this technological landscape. So, how do we master the art of online assignments? First, let's look at the benefits—and drawbacks—of going digital.
Online Assignments: The Good, the Bad, and the Error Message
- They're more convenient: Complete it, upload it, done.
- Feedback on your work is easier to access and track.
- It's easier to keep records of all your assignments.
- They require greater self-discipline. It's easier to "phone it in" when you don't have to interact with your teacher directly.
- You need to have some baseline comfort with technology. (Hey, some people don't.)
- Technical mishaps can foil your efforts. We've all been there.
The error message
- This bears repeating: Technical mishaps can get you down. Nothing is worse than a server being down, a file not cooperating, or gulp work getting erased.
The Nuts and Bolts (Or, Shall We Say, Zeros and Ones)
When you're using online platforms, make sure your technical specifications are up to par. You might still be chugging along with an old browser, but you may have to update accordingly.
PowerSchool, for instance, is optimized for a wide range of browsers, like Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome, Safari, Microsoft Edge, and Internet Explorer. However, if you're using Firefox or Chrome, you need to be on the two latest versions, and for good old Internet Explorer, you need to be on version 11.0. Blackboard's creators, on the other hand, recommend using Firefox or Chrome. K12 goes so far as to single out Firefox, claiming that for recent versions of Chrome, you need to install an extension that enables Flash to open.
It's essential to check the web compatibility of whichever online portal your school is using. You don't want to run into any tricky technical situations when there are more important things to worry about, do you? Also, make sure to pay attention to the required format your instructor is specifying for each assignment. It's usually PDF or Word (Pages does not always fare so well).
Of course, despite your best efforts, the worst sometimes happens.
I woke up one morning, flipped open my MacBook Air, and found, to my horror, that it wouldn't turn on. The Apple geniuses were equally flummoxed. Fortunately, I was able to get the data recovered from a local repair shop, although this put me several hundred dollars in the red.
Moral of the story? Back up your work. Get an external hard drive of a least 1 TB (Terabyte) and set up Time Machine on Mac or File History on Windows for regular automated backups that you don't have to think about. At the same time, consider uploading essential files to Google Drive or DropBox—you can never be too careful.
Lastly, regarding mobile devices, it's always a good idea to stick to your laptop or desktop computer when completing assignments. One of my peers recently shared a story about a student who found out (day-of, at the testing center) that his AP exam registration was rejected because he completed on an iPad. This situation isn't the norm, but it's safe to assume that the world of mobile leaves even more room for strange happenings.
Deadline Anxiety Is Real
Perhaps you've encountered this before with online assignments. I've seen it happen with online college applications (a whole other beast). At least with an in-person handoff, you can stay up late knowing that as long as you have some semblance of completed work by the start of tomorrow's class, you'll be OK. Or, you could spend an extra 15 minutes finessing the formatting, run into class with it, and hope you aren't marked late.
However, with online assignments, you may be staring at something more imposing: "Assignment expires in 02:37:21". You could procrastinate as usual, perhaps via YouTube or Instagram, but then the next time you check, it's "Assignment expires in 00:15:43," and you're in full-on panic mode. You can presumably talk to your professor about an extension, but there's something about the finality of a timed upload window that leaves less room for interpretation. Sometimes, you just have to get the file in.
The primary approach for this is something you should be focusing on regardless: time management. I know, it's not fun. But this is the perfect excuse to try out a new strategy, like the Pomodoro Technique, an approach that breaks assignments into smaller pieces. You can also try the Worst-First method (like getting that thesis statement written as soon as you get home). If you're using technology anyway, there are a multitude of time management apps that can help you achieve these goals.
If you plan ahead and organize your time wisely, there's no more reason to worry about an online deadline.
Not That You're Going to Plagiarize, But...
With the Internet at students' fingertips, writing and research have never been more convenient. At the same time, it's much easier to take advantage of the Web in an academically dishonest manner. One significant benefit for teachers is that they can run online assignments through plagiarism detectors like TurnItIn.
You can no longer get away with using others' language for your papers (we're assuming you won't do that anyway). However, in case you accidentally replicated a source without a citation or mistakenly copied a phrase by osmosis, you can run your essay through plagiarism checkers like Quetext or Grammarly (yep, it does more than correct misused verbs). Better to be safe—and spare your instructor the effort!
Not All Subjects Are Created Equal
Some areas of study have fared more smoothly than others in the transition from tabletop to laptop. Now that we've gotten the broad strokes out of the way let's break these online assignment tips down by subject.
First, remember the point above about plagiarism checking!
Next, if you're converting your essay between formats to upload, make sure that the technical elements are preserved (margins, font type and size, indenting, paragraphs, alignment, etc.) and that nothing funky is happening.
Some assignments can download as Word documents with pre-written questions and spaces for answers, which is super convenient. Some are fillable PDFs, which is also nice, but these sometimes have formatting limitations. Regardless, make sure to save your work with a required filename format. If none is specified, it's always a safe bet to include your name and the name of the assignment (example: "Carlotta Morello – Unit 4.5 Gatsby Response").
More and more teachers are using Google Docs as a valid, or even required, way to submit online assignments. They'll ask for you to share the document with them when it's complete. Keep this in mind with any deadlines, because they can always check the timestamp of the notification email for when you've shared it! Many schools have private Google accounts for your school email, in which you can only share documents with staff.
However, for schools or classes that let you use your own Gmail account, be mindful of who else can access the document. Some teachers want you to share the Doc at the outset to track your progress along the way. If you also share it with a tutor or a parent, make sure to ask the instructor first. This is often fine, but in case it's not, it's an unpleasant way for them to find out you're getting outside help.
The biggest complaint I've received about online math assignments is: "How do you insert _____ symbol??" The answer is that there's always a way to do it.
- For exponents or sub-numbers, you can use superscripts or subscripts from the "Home" toolbar in Word to make terms like x3 and a1.
- For more complex mathematical expressions, you can use the "Insert" toolbar and choose "Symbols"> "Equations" for either an array of pre-existing formulae or "Insert New Equation," which opens up a new toolbar of math-formatted capabilities and symbols so that you can make cool stuff like y=3x-3cos 2x
- For other symbols, you can select "Symbols"> "Advanced Symbols" to get like awesome characters like Σ or Ω.
- Worst-case scenario, you can search for certain symbols or expressions on the Web to copy and paste. However, there's no guarantee the formatting will stay into Word or another processing document.
- Some teachers will accept pictures of handwritten work. In this case, make sure you're taking a snapshot in a well-lit area where your handiwork is in clear focus. Try not to get images of unintended parts of your room. It's always good to practice professionalism, even and especially with online work.
In terms of making calculations, you can always use your handy TI calculator. If you're on the computer anyway, my absolute favorite online calculator is Desmos, which has a beautifully simple scientific calculator and graphing calculator.
A lot of online science assignments are pretty straightforward. Often, they ask you to integrate, apply, and analyze results from in-class lab work. However, you may encounter an at-home lab. In this scenario—celebrate! You have the opportunity to interact with science from the comfort of your own home, just like Bill Nye would want. Take advantage of the experience of doing real, interactive work—not just sitting and typing in front of a screen.
And remember: Adhere to safety rules as you would in a classroom lab.
Whether you're en línea or en ligne, language classes are quickly taking advantage of the online assignment wave. Language curricula often utilize third-party software or Flash-based applications to streamline the various types of media required for effective study, like listening, speaking, or quick-checking vocabulary and grammar drills. For listening exercises, make sure your settings are adjusted so that you can properly hear what's said. For speaking exercises, you'll often get a prompt asking permission for the application to use your computer's internal microphone so you can record your voice.
A Note About Research Projects
Unsurprisingly, there are excellent resources available for online research. Many instructors are using (and requiring) shared programs like NoodleTools (no relation to Noodle), which involves creating notecards for subtopics and filling them in summaries, key points, links, and citation information. These online tools are useful ways for teachers and students to stay engaged with the process of a long-term project from the beginning, instead of merely expecting essay drafts at the given deadlines. Shared programs can help you effectively scaffold each step of your work, hopefully removing some of the anxiety of large assignments.
If you're expected to upload a multimedia assignment like a PowerPoint presentation, give yourself extra time to become familiar with the structural workings of titles, text boxes, images, and design elements. These visual components can make or break an otherwise solid presentation, especially if you're not going to present it in-person. Use the glamour of the Internet's tools to help you be a stellar virtual guide through the material you've worked so hard to package for the audience.
Throughout any class, you'll likely see online discussion boards. This feature can seem intimidating to some who don't prefer interacting in virtual communities. However, you may feel better if you think of them as chat rooms like AIM (which, by the way, is back!)—places where you can share your opinions, thoughts, and insights with others. Discussion groups are an amazing way to engage with the class material in conversation with your peers. You'll learn some new perspectives and also share some unique thoughts of your own.
Discussions are usually pretty casual (read: low point value for grades), but it's still important to note the technicalities. Answer every aspect of the question thoroughly, make sure to hit any sentence or word minima, and stay true to the spirit of providing your original ideas on the topic. Most teachers will also require that you thoughtfully respond to one or two other students' posts. Be polite, but don't be afraid of starting a healthy, civilized debate, either. A good rule of thumb is beginning with a positive statement of agreement, followed by a question or additional thought for others to consider.
Test Taking? Lock It Down
The days of the take-home test (complete with a signed "Honor Code Statement") may be dwindling in the face of online tests. When preparing for an online test, know that instructors have ways to crack down on cheating. Take the LockDown Browser, for example, which effectively kills any other application besides the window running your test. It's also possible that your instructor will set strict time limits (as well as the number of attempts).
Granted, there could be ways around such restrictions, especially if you're a creative rebel, but why would you want to do that? Isn't it more fulfilling to study hard, as you would for any classroom test?
Online Assignments Are No Longer a Novelty
Online assignments create the illusion of ease, which is why some students get lazy with them or don't respect them fully. But they're just like in-person assignments—and in some ways, they're better. Online assignments can integrate with other learning platforms and study aids. They also save paper and are all-around more convenient to complete (and grade)—leaving you more time and energy to focus on creating excellent work. In fact, if you're completing online assignments in tandem with other helpful e-resources like Quizlet, LitCharts, or Khan Academy, you'll be an online assignment master in no time.
Don't forget that it's also the responsibility of the instructor to assign online work that is clear, effective, and easily accessible. If you have any concerns, the onus is on them to be available to you by email (if not face-to-face). After all, if they're giving online assignments, they should have an online presence.
Now, all that's left to do is find a way to send a virtual apple to your teacher. Perhaps a cat GIF instead?
Questions or feedback? Email firstname.lastname@example.org
Elijah is a longtime educator and writer with a focus on special needs pedagogy. In addition to teaching, his passions lie in creative writing, music and acting (including some TV and motion picture work). He received his BA from the University of California, Berkeley and his MFA from Harvard University.