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Assignment Time Information Management

Introduction

The Australian project on assignment turn-around time began in March 1987 following a successful tender for funding from the Standing Committee on External Studies of the Commonwealth Tertiary Education Commission (CTEC)—a statutory body which advises the Australian Government on the funding of tertiary institutions. The brief to applicants stated succinctly what the Committee wanted from the project:

Turn-around time for student assignments: what should be expected? how can it be achieved?

Slow feedback is considered by many to be a significant contributing factor in the drop-out rates of external students.

This will be an investigation of educationally effective and cost-effective methods of reducing turn-around time and could address:

  • factors contributing to delays in turn-around time;
  • means of reducing turn-around time whilst maintaining desirable standards;
  • educationally effective and cost-effective applications of technologies to reduce turn-around time.

The literature on assignment turn-around time revealed pioneer studies undertaken by Rekkedal (1973, 1984) and Bååth (1975, 1979, 1980). The theoretical framework for studies of assignment turn-around was strongly influenced by the work of Tinto (1979, 1982) on student attrition. Although the study undertaken here builds on this tradition, two additional dimensions are covered:

  • the administrative and academic processes of handling assignments;
  • the various perceptions of students, markers, assignment handling clerical staff, student advisers, senior administrative and academic staff.

We were also very conscious of the importance of assignment turn-around in the context of student support services. Indeed, the Standing Committee On External Studies in its report to CTEC (1987) made the following statement:

After the student has enrolled there remains a continuing need for support and advice of many kinds. A student needs academic advice, or teaching—comments on assignments, directions to further reading, correction of errors, commendation of what is good; it all amounts to advice and support... (p. 66).

Methodology

While the bulk of the research was carried out at Deakin University in order to analyse one provider in depth, we contacted other institutions to determine their administrative procedures and their perceptions of turn-around times. Differentiating between theory and practice was not practical, however, outside the one case study. We hope this case study research will encourage similar studies of assignment turn-around.

The first analysis was of computer records of 1986 assignment traffic at Deakin University. Not all assignments were handled by the central, computerised system. In addition, omissions, apparent errors and inconsistencies, and assignments submitted after due date reduced the usable data. The data base left was far less substantial than first anticipated: 24.16%, representing 6,564 of the 27,159 assignments that went through the central system. Since there was no indication that the computerised system did not function adequately as an assignment tracking system until we manipulated the records, we suppose that until a rigorous analysis of an institution's records is made it cannot be assumed that the system is totally accurate, and meets requirements.

From the data we determined:

  • the minimum, maximum and mean turn-around times as well as a summative statement for each course;
  • the number of assignments submitted after the due date;
  • the number of assignments that were returned before the next assignment was due, and the number returned at least ten days before the next assignment due date (where there was adequate lead time between assignments to accommodate this); and
  • the number of final assignments that were returned before the start of the examination period.

These facts were then compared to both students' and markers' perceptions of assignment turn-around.

Questionnaires were designed so that the responses could be processed using available statistical packages and the comments were handled manually. 514 valid questionnaires were received from students and 68 from markers, representing approximately a 50% response rate in both categories. Conclusions were drawn on a school (sometimes course) for postgraduate and undergraduate levels.

Interviews were held with markers and course coordinators where either extraordinarily long or short assignment turn-around time was apparent from the computer data and in response to questionnaire comments. At least two representatives from each of the six schools and each dean, as well as student advisors, key administrators and relevant staff from computer services were interviewed. This helped clarify what is likely to shorten or lengthen turn-around times.

Conclusions

That assignment turn-around is of concern was readily apparent. On a scale of 1 to 5, where 1 = very unimportant and 5 = very important, 84% of the 514 student respondents nominated 3 or above when indicating the importance of turn-around time for their study. Of these 23.3% selected 5. On the same scale, of 487 respondents, 90.7% (with 55.2% selecting 5) nominated 3 or above to indicate the importance of having assignments returned in time to be of value in the preparation of their next piece. Markers had very similar perceptions on this point. 91.1 % of the 68 responding, nominated 3 or above, with 67.6% selecting 5.

However, turn-around is not an issue of equal significance to all students. Turn-around seems of less significance for students whose assignments have little (if any) sequential relationship. Working on isolated tasks, the pedagogical role of feedback is minimised and prompt return is significant only to indicate an overall standard. Students who are confident and experienced with off-campus study also tend to be less concerned with prompt feedback than their less confident, inexperienced counterparts. Assignment turn-around seems most critical for first year students (especially for the first assignment) or students who are involved for the first time with a particular course, off-campus study, or the particular institution. Those students who use other feedback (such as telephone, electronic mail, study centre contact) are, again, less dependent on assignment turn-around. In this regard isolated students (and especially those overseas) appear particularly dependent on rapid return of their assignments.

Whilst clear and realistic guidelines should promote efficient turn-around, it would be inappropriate to specify an arbitrary period. It is necessary to recognize divergence: in courses with weekly assignments, and where electronic mail is utilised, a turn-around time of more than a day may well be considered excessive; in courses with two major essays a semester, using conventional postal services, a turn-around time of twenty-one days may be most acceptable. It is apparent that students whose work sequential should receive feedback from their work in time for it to be of use in the preparation of their next assignment. Students whose work is below acceptable standard (especially when requiring re-submission) need immediate indication. This suggests that institutions will have to set their assignment dates more carefully and clarify the instructions they provide to markers and moderators. A turn-around is a highly sensitive matter, we suppose that successful introduction of guidelines requires full discussion with the academic staff involved and some consensus.

The research gave compelling indications that the promptness of feedback had a significant effect on the way the students perceived themselves, the course personnel and the university as a whole. Where return was handled efficiently students' morale and confidence were boosted. Conversely, anxiety, dissatisfaction and even hostility were generated by tardiness. Whether assignment turn-around has a causal relationship with students' results in difficult to gauge. The clearest connection is where students receive useful comments in time for them to be applied to other work (including examinations) so enhancing their results. Of general concern is the possibility of a link between slow return of work and attrition. A clear causal connection was found in one particular course but the situation was atypical: no assignments had been returned for this first semester. In all other cases, students who commented upon decisions to withdraw stated that assignment turn-around had no relevance, or was a minor factor.

Many students slow their pace of study if they wait for feedback before completing the next assign assignment This, in turn, slows turn-around time if the students seek extensions. While some courses have stated policies regarding extensions and penalties for late submissions without adequate excuse, in practice lateness is very common (9,930 of the 16,626 assignments with full data) and excessive lateness is rarely penalised. The situation is worse where it is stated policy and practice not to finalise marks and return work until all assignments have been received. It may seem logical that students who submitted their assignments late should have them assessed at the marker's convenience and forfeit their rights to prompt return, but, in practice, most markers find that work received late, often in ones and twos, is best marked immediately "to get rid of it" and because, by then, standards and expectations have been established, the task is a quicker and easier one. Thus, ironically, these students are o ften the most advantaged in terms of turn-around time. It is students who submit early who seem to be the disadvantaged group. While most students who fit this category do so for their own convenience, in some courses early submission is advocated and some students get work in early hoping to expedite return. What generally happens is that these students work is held until the due date (on the pretext that it is necessary to mark a sample before finalizing results) and rarely do they then receive preferential treatment. A reconsideration of policies on lateness and extensions, recognising their effect on turnaround time for students who do conform to the set requirements, is therefore recommended.

If speedy return of thoroughly corrected assignments is to be achieved, recognition needs to be given to pressures placed upon markers. Although markers who choose to mark in several courses (and not necessarily with a single institution) bring such a pressured situation upon themselves, those administering the central system should probably be aware of this indication of clashes likely to lead to slower turn-around. Distraction and competing commitments are major causes of delay. To assist efficient marking, it seems necessary to ensure that markers receive clear indications of when assignments will be sent to them, the form they will take, the number they will receive and the date by which return is expected.

Just as it appears essential to give greater support to inexperienced students, so too should greater support be given to inexperienced markers. Not only should they receive clear guidelines, but also fewer scripts. As students look for feedback on their efforts, so markers should be given a clear indication of how their work is perceived. Isolated markers are as vulnerable to lack of support as isolated students. We suggest that teleconferencing should be used to enable markers working in common areas to communicate. This would clarify expectations, help solve any problems and assist in standardising marking. We believe that if markers were then more confident about their task they would work more efficiently. Thus turn-around time should be reduced.

As the student's attitude is important, so, too, is that of the marker. Some senior academics confessed to a dislike of marking and a tendency to look for other "more important" academic matters. A few part-time assessors felt that they were "exploited" in terms of salary and conditions and thus it was not incumbent on them to inconvenience themselves to complete work speedily. Equally a problem in the context of assignment turn-around are the especially conscientious markers who find the notional time indicated (and by which they are paid) inappropriate and for quite different reasons can feel a sense of exploitation. The solution to this lies in better communication with those marking, especially when they are part-time and isolated from the institution.

Administrative procedures must support both students and markers. As assignment turn-around is an important aspect of student support, a complete assignment tracking system that provides accurate and comprehensive records for all students in all courses should be established. The system should provide the date assignment is due, date of receipt from the student, date sent to marker (named), date returned from marker, and date returned to the student. Facilities should be included to indicate where work has been re-allocated, moderated, submitted, and where an extension has been given. While it seems normal procedure to contact students when their work is overdue by a set period seems desirable to have a similar alert for mark whose responses seem unacceptably tardy. This would also give a much earlier indication than is presently the case where assignments go astray between the institution and the external marker. The aim should be an assignment handling system that can operate as an effective informat ion management system and provides regular status reports for the deans and course co-ordinators.

Handling assignments efficiently, therefore, depends in large part on the attitude of all those involved. Where it is a priority, assignment turn-around is likely to be prompt. So the crucial thing to make efficient assignment turn-around a stated priority of the institution and to provide an effective information management system that reflects this priority.

References

Bååth, J.A.(1975). "Submission density in nine correspondence courses", Pedagogical Reports, Department of Education, University of Lund, Sweden.

Bååth, J. A.(1979). Correspondence education in the light of a number of contemporary teaching models, Liber Hermods, Malmö.

Bååth, J. A.(1980). Postal two-way communication in correspondence education, Liber Hermods, Malmo.

Rekkedal, T.(1973), (1984). "The written assignments in correspondence education. Effects of reducing turnaround time. An experimental study", Oslo: NKI-skolen Undervisnings-sentrum, English Translation, Distance Education 4, 2, 231–52.

Tinto, V.(1979). "Dropout from higher education: a theoretical synthesis of recent research", Review of Educational Research 45, 1, 89–125.

Tinto, V.(1982). "Limits of theory and practice in student attrition". Journal of Higher Education 53, 6, 19–32.

Click here to view the best-time management apps for students in 2018. 

New year, new you – right? Right! Whether you’ve made an active New Year’s resolution to be a more productive student or you simply want to work harder this year at university, you’ve come to the right place.

Improve your study time with this handy selection of time management apps and tools. Whether it’s making notes more efficiently, scheduling your work-flow better or making sure you stick to your assignment deadlines, there’s an app that can help you keep time, keep notes and keep sane as the work piles up.

Read on for some of the best time management apps for students on the market this year!

Productivity apps

1. Evernote

One of the best free productivity apps on the market, Evernote allows you to gather all your notes, thoughts and ideas in one place across as many devices as you like, making it possible to locate all your different university assignments, plans and inspirations in just one click. Whether you like keeping notes on your phone or not, Evernote lets you save any article, film clip or general webpage so that you can come back to it another time and on any device. Perfect for people who quickly forget their greatest ideas, Evernote also helps with multimedia presentations and conducting research.

2. Focus Booster

Marketed as a “digital Pomodoro timer”, Focus Booster is an online app that allows users to break up their schedule into manageable chunks. Just like the old-fashioned Pomodoro method – outlined here – Focus Booster is essentially a timer that splits up your revision sessions with a number of little breaks in order to keep you as productive as possible. The added benefit of the digital version is that you can track exactly how much time you’ve spent on a certain topic, as well as being able to analyze this activity on your dashboard.

3.30/30

A more fast-paced and modern version of the above, 30/30 (iOS) allows you to set timers to complete specific tasks. The interface is sharp and innovative, allowing users to control the app easily with swipes and gestures. One of the better-looking productivity apps on the market, 30/30 can also give you a better understanding of how long it really takes to do certain things.

4.Remember The Milk

Remember the Milk (iOS) is similar to the other productivity apps listed here, but it also functions seamlessly around the other time management tools you may have already set up on your devices. Earning a worthy name as the “veritable Swiss army knife of to-do list management” from Lifehacker, Remember the Milk helps you to complete tasks on the moo-ve (sorry), organize your schedule, and set up multiple-platform reminders for your most important appointments.

5. Any.do

Any.do (iOS/Android) allows you to organize your day by allowing you to create reminders, to-do lists, notes and events and store them on the clean and easy-to-use Any.do interface. Although similar to other time management tools on the market, the app works across platforms, making it easy to switch from your phone to your laptop without missing anything on your schedule.

To-do list apps

6.Listastic

Listastic (iOS) is one of many to-do list apps providing a similar service – it is essentially just a digital list tracker – but its smooth functionality and ease of use gives it an honest place among the best time management apps for students. Whether you need to keep a note of what groceries to get, what textbooks to buy or what chores to do, Listastic can help keep you, and anyone you choose to share your notes with, up to date.  

7.Finish

The so-called “to-do list for procrastinators”, Finish (iOS) is another in the long line of to-do list apps, but what’s special about this one is the feeling of achievement it strives to give you. When you finish a task, simply swipe over it and gain a checkmark, along with a nice rewarding sound. In addition, all your completed tasks are automatically archived, so you can finally stop rifling through your laundry in search of those old paper lists!

8. 2Do

If you find you don’t get on with the other to-do list apps listed above, consider 2Do (iOS), an app that offers a more flexible way of using time management tools, with a focus on color coding. This feature in particular is extremely helpful for visual learners, allowing you to distinguish your tasks by type (e.g. work, university, or home) and its level of priority. You can also defer set tasks, which, although seemingly counterproductive, allows for ongoing development without penalty.

9. EpicWin

If you were getting worried about the dullness of the to-do list apps listed above, fear not because EpicWin (iOS, US$2.99) might win you over. This functions just like most other to-do list apps, but with one major difference; every time you complete a task you earn XP which goes towards improving your in-app character in an “ongoing quest to improve stats, gain riches and level-up”.

Other useful apps for students

10. Coach.me

Coach.me (iOS), formerly known as 'Lift', works much like Facebook and other social networking sites, allowing you to utilize a community of friends online and to share your thoughts amongst them. The difference with Coach.me, however, is that the main focus of your community is on productivity, allowing you to post about productive things you want to do and to receive ‘props’ from other people (similar to a ‘like’) when people like your idea. One of the more unique apps for students, Coach.me works with the idea that people respond particularly well to friendly, informal feedback and that a written statement of intent makes people more inclined to actually complete a task. You’ll also receive tips and rewards for completing the tasks you set out to do, while keeping track of your progress. 

11.Prezi

Prezi allows you to create presentations anywhere and everywhere and make them available across all your devices. This app is perfect for those who leave things until the last minute, but also for those who enjoy being productive wherever they go. If you’ve only ever made a presentation using Microsoft or another computer-only service, Prezi will open up a new world of PowerPoint inspiration thanks to the good graphics, functional styles and an incredibly easy to use text-inputting system.

12. Super Notes

Super Notes (iOS) allows the saving of notes, recordings, images and more, so university students can better follow lectures without having to worry about writing every single thing down. With this app you can potentially sound record your lectures and take photos of any important slides, making note-taking that little bit more fun and interactive. Any written notes you make can also be color-coded for ease of reference, while the share function on the app allows you to share your notes online or download them onto a computer for backup.

13.Mind 42

One of a decreasing number of time management tools not yet to have moved over to mobile, Mind 42 is an online-only mind-mapping application which allows users to create and build visual idea trackers in the form of spider diagrams, lists, thought clouds and more. Although not transferrable across devices, Mind 42 is a fast and easy way of jotting down early ideas and also developing more in-depth ideas research. If you’re someone who gets stuck on the early stages of a project, consider using this online app to get your ideas flowing.

14.Google Keep

If you’re not happy with the functionality of the best productivity apps for students so far, you’ll be pleased to see Google stepping into frame with Google Keep (Android), a sleek pin-board style app which allows its users to pin notes, make lists and add photos onto a well-designed and easily updateable homepage which works across any Android device. If you’re already an active user of Google, this will be an easy transition into increased productivity. If you’re not an Android user, you can also use the web version of the app, which has all the same functionality as the mobile version.

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