Is Homework a 3rd Rail in Teaching?

The following are comments I made to Tom Whitby’s post titled The Homework Option Plan, which, in turn, addressed another, unnamed blogger’s post dealing with grading homework.  If someone could write a post about my comments about Tom’s comments, we could extend the recursive nature of these posts for quite some time.

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Great post, Tom.  Homework sometimes seems like a third rail in teaching. Now that I mention it, many things seem third-rail-esque in teaching to include: access, assessment, classroom management, curricula, developmental appropriateness, diversity, equity, grading, language, literacy, pedagogy, and support.  It is a testament to the tremendous import teaching holds for our country, and the immense complexity involved in doing it well, that nearly everything associated with it receives such scrutiny.

But back to homework. My homework philosophy (for high school students, as a secondary math teacher) evolved appreciably over the past several months. It started out where homework is assigned and graded to prepare students for college (where homework is a part of most courses) and evolved to homework is an important element in student learning, however, it is optional, and not graded since doing so can inequitably impact students.

Now, as I near completion of my credential program, I’ve settled on the following homework policy.

1. Homework is assigned, typically 3-5 times per week, for one or more of the following reasons:

– reinforce a lesson or concept introduced in class,
– expand or extend upon something introduced in class,
– allow investigation of alternatives to that introduced in class,
– develop higher order thinking, and
– prepare for the next lesson / topic, or an assessment.

2. Homework should take no longer than 20-30 minutes; if it does, see me for help.

3. Homework is not graded, however, not doing homework can negatively impact your grade.

4. Homework is not reviewed in its entirety during class, however, a limited number of problems, as selected by a student tally, can be covered at the outset of the following day’s class.

5. Homework solutions to all assigned problems will be available for students the day after they are assigned.

I also have the following current philosophies re: homework, taken from Homework Harangue written late last year.

– Homework will not necessarily make a student who does not understand a lesson suddenly get it, without significant effort by the student. However, it does offer the opportunity for a student to keep trying to learn, and to seek help in learning, especially those who are not adept at taking notes, or have special challenges.

– The written structure of the assignment should lend itself to re-learning the lesson, even for the most challenged students.

– Homework can help students develop methods of self-sufficiency, especially if the teacher provides suggestions and support (e.g. students can find ways to network among themselves or their community).

– Homework should neither be excessive nor a punishment; it is not a rite of passage.

The only lingering issue I need to address is a request by a few students that homework not only be assigned, but graded, to force them to do the work; counterbalancing their comments, a larger number of students appreciated not having homework graded.  I need to contemplate this a bit more, since I noticed that most, if not all, students stopped doing homework when I implemented this policy when I took over my classes midway through the year.  At the same time, I do not think it negatively impacted grades, whereas, grading homework definitely lowered grades for the vast majority of students in class.

What are others thoughts of my policy? Especially regarding this last issue?

PS See Assessment and Grading Policy for my view of homework in context of an overall assessment and grading policy.

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About Dave aka Mr. Math Teacher

Secondary math teacher teaching math intervention, algebra 1, honors precalculus, and AP Calculus AB. I spent 25 years in high tech in engineering, marketing, sales and business development roles in the satellite communications, GPS, semiconductor, and wireless industries. I am awed by the potential in our nation's youth and I hope to instill in them the passion to improve our world at local, state, national, and global levels.
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7 Responses to Is Homework a 3rd Rail in Teaching?

  1. Cal says:

    3. Homework is not graded, however, not doing homework can negatively impact your grade.

    I would flip this–don’t grade homework, but give points for doing it. That way, a student who doesn’t do homework but does well on tests isn’t penalized for something he clearly doesn’t need to do, and a hardworking student who struggles gets a small boost.

    I quit assigning homework the second semester and saw no difference in mastery–because, of course, no students were actually doing the homework. My students absorb what they’re going to absorb in 5 hours a week. If I had more homogeneous classes, I might assign homework and review it in class, but with a galactic range of abilities, that makes no sense.

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  2. Laura says:

    I often give short daily quizzes that reflect the homework (5-7 minutes). This encourages students to do or at least look at the homework and think about their own understanding before they come to class. This also encourages them to see me for extra help or to ask other students before class when they are not fully grasping the material covered in the homework.

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    • Thanks, Laura. I implemented just that last marking period. It worked well for my algebra 1 students. However, it did not spark anyone to see me for extra help. Of my 100 algebra students, only regularly see me for help, and very few else have even asked for help, regardless of how often I mention I am available and willing to help.

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  3. Hi Dave,

    First off, I was a first year teacher last year (in DCPS) and I thought I was going to die every day. I made it (barely) and agree that the 2nd year is better, as in, I have time to go grocery shopping now AND go to the gym 2-3 times a week. I don’t think I’ll ever have anything that resembles a social life during the week though. I can’t imagine having any sort of family trying to do this, I can barely take care of my one cat!

    Here is how I do homework: I check homework almost every day just for completion (sometimes I’m so busy I forget). Originally, my plan was to have the students turn in all of their homework assignments at the end of the week and I would do a “quality check”: choose 5 problems and check to see if the correct process and correct answer were there. Unfortunately, I did that second part once, and found that my kids try on their homework anyway (I’m very lucky here), so I forwent that I idea. Now, I just check for homework completion only. It’s not perfect, but so far it’s working.

    Also, have you looked at how Dan Meyer does a Concept Checklist instead of Units. Our math department switched to this method of grading and I have seen so many improvements: in my time spend grading, in my students comprehension of their grades, in their motivation and in their grades. I only have TWO students failing in my 1st period. That is basically a ground-breaking record for a DCPS Algebra class.

    Good luck with the rest of the year. Just think, if you can make it through this year, you can DO ANYTHING.

    Best,

    Stephanie Fauvelle

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    • Hi Stephanie. I tried what Laura suggested in another comment: daily quizzes that benefited students who did the homework. However, that swamped me with 150+ assessments to enter into gradebook every day (even after I learned that I could not score them myself & needed students to grade each others’ papers). My main beef is how grossly inefficient the logistical aspect of teaching can be, especially at the scale we deal with every day. There should be much more information and automation to improve process efficiency without losing the individuality of the teacher or the student in the process. Its amazing that in this day and age of iPhones, iPads, Facebook, Twitter, etc. that I have to grade tests automatically for both formative and summative assessments. I could go on and on but have a parade to go watch!

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  4. Maggie says:

    Hi Dave,
    Over the past 10 years, I have been teaching Algebra and Geometry to at-risk students in a public high school with many of the same challenging demographics you have already described in your previous posts. Btw…I just randomly stumbled across your posts this evening and have enjoyed reading through them instead of grading my own pile of Algebra tests that I swore would be done by Monday ; )

    None the less, though, like every math teacher, I too have contemplated on how to effectively use homework as a tool for learning and not as a “form of punishment” for both the student who struggles with it and for the teacher who might feel compelled to have to “grade” every students’ paper for accuracy. Therefore, after much trial and error…and then some much needed refinement, I have used the following homework policy with all of my students over the past 6 years which I believe has been effective in encouraging the students to “not give up” and attempt every assignment in order to help them prepare for their upcoming “chapter test.”

    Since I often compare our math class to an extra-curricular event (i.e. athletics/band), in which it’s participants need to “train for their upcoming competition”…I equate the idea of “daily homework” as a much needed reinforcement of skills that athletes would practice/refine during their daily trainings/work outs. And since it’s “assumed” that during these practice times, students/athletes will probably make mistakes as they refine/perfect their skills before the “big game day”…that penalizing one for making a mistake during this “practice time” is completely counterproductive and discourages students from wanting to practice these skills. For this reason, I only grade their daily homework on “completion…not correction”…so that each student could feel validated for their time and energy spent on attempting each homework problem…as well as for me to quickly see who is putting effort into these nightly practices. For this reason, every student (regardless of skill level) has the opportunity to get “full credit” on their homework assignments…as long as they attempt all of the math problems assigned (even if they couldn’t finish the problems…but at least showed me which method they started with).

    Don’t get me wrong though, because the homework points received are purely based on “participation” and not at all a measure of skill mastery…I only weigh this “participation category” as 25% of the students’ overall grade…and the other 75% comes from assessments (i.e. chapter tests, semester finals, etc.) in which I closely evaluate how well each student has mastered the covered skills….much like a referee/umpire/judge would do during an athletic event or band competition. Therefore, a student who might try to abuse my homework policy by simply “copying” a neighbor…or not really investing their time in practicing, correcting, and reviewing their efforts before the “big game” (i.e. test day)…will not perform well on the test and consequently will not be able to receive an overall passing grade with a 25% participation grade.

    I have much more to share with you in regards to the daily process of how students record their homework assignments and receive “effort points” the following day, with an extra emphasis on being able to “re-do” or turn an assignment in late….but that will have to wait since my eyes are falling asleep…and I’m sure you don’t want to hear me ramble any more : ()

    So, let me know your thoughts…Maggie ; )

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    • Thanks for sharing your methods, Maggie. I’ve tried variants of your homework approach to no avail. I use similar appeals to sports, training, etc. with no tangible results. However, please keep the suggestions coming. BTW, apologies for the delay in responding. I’ve been unable to spend time on my blog until today. And that came at the expense of grading retake exams, creating retake exams, planning, etc. I just find I need to start making time for myself, albeit writing about education, to ensure I have some sanity; otherwise, I feel resentful for giving myself entirely to something that can suck every ounce of energy from me and leave me unavailable to do what I set out to accomplish: help students overcome their math anxieties, improve academically, and prepare for life as a productive member of society.

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