Homework (v 5.0)

I have a split mind about homework. In my first years of teaching, I shared a commute with students attending one of the city’s elite high schools. I overheard complaints about how late they stayed up to do their homework; they occasionally whipped out their graphing calculator and beat up spiral to scrawl out some math homework. Not that this is a model of how things should be, but I thought: these students are already more proficient than my students, and the gap is increasing everyday. Thinking of my own high school days, I remember long sessions of homework which surely had some effect on my learning.

At the same time, I never developed a homework system that I liked. For the last school year, I essentially didn’t assign homework at all, which is certainly one solution to the issue. However, my students were expected to do DAILY homework in their previous class, and I’m not sure what message they’re getting by getting no homework in a class that’s supposed to be harder. So… homework is on the agenda for the next year (my fifth year of teaching!) I hope to use this blog post to share my thinking and propose a system that I could imagine working for me next year.

Guiding principle: Homework can let students use as much time as they need to try out some math questions. Therefore it can be an effective forum for practicing and receiving feedback. Feedback is the focus, not grades and the pressure they bring.

I highly recommend looking at Sam’s blog post HOMEWORK SURVEY RESULTS. It’s a thought provoking synthesis of what different teachers out there are doing. In the survey data I came across a great counterpoint to homework review in class, as follows:

Counterpoint: “Homework review, next to disciplinary conflicts, has been the most efficient way I know to waste classroom time and sink classroom morale.”

Homework System (v 5.0)

A handful of homework problems are assigned each night. Students complete them in their journal. At the beginning of the next class, randomly selected students put problems on the board. (Not optional.) They sit down. We look, discuss, correct. Teach a respect for what goes on the board. I love mistakes. Teach how to respond to the work and not the student.

At the beginning of class, the rest of the students have out their homework to compare with the work on the board. The teacher sees who has done their work in a rough sense. I make a note of who has an incomplete collection of work and/or missing notebook.

At the end of class, collect a selection of notebooks to look at. (Ideal world, I would get to see this during class, but not happening I think.) At least collect a few. Emphasize that I just want to look closely at their work and see how they’re doing. The students who get their work collected should work on their homework at a later date.

Also at the end of class, assign, say, four homework questions. Students make a four square in their notebooks and put one in each.  In their notebooks, write: “HOMEWORK DUE ON WEDNESDAY, OCT. 25th” or whatever. This gives me a clear heading to see that their work is organized, and it makes it easier to scan the class.

(Discarded idea: write this on the board at the BEGINNING of class. Students copy down the problems in their notebooks; this lets me put it on the board in an organized space. Discarded because this doesn’t let me be that flexible with the types of problems I assign, and some students will just automatically start solving the homework problems instead of reviewing their previous problems.)

Assigning a Grade

The grade will be given on a completion basis.  Perhaps I give a weekly homework grade: 10 points per week, and they start at 10/10.  I subtract points for incomplete work or missing notebooks.  No late work accepted in general.   When I collect the notebooks of a few students, I see if there is an agreement between the what I have observed and what’s actually in their notebook.  (Of course this is also the best time for providing written feedback to the student.)

Does this address the counterpoint?

What I like in the system described above is that it’s something I can actually imagine doing on a daily basis.  For the most part, it provides quick feedback in terms of seeing student solutions, which in turn can spur some revealing conversations.  I’ll need to read the class to make sure we don’t kill the homework review.  The major pitfall of the homework review is that it can become an endless process if a few students have a number of questions, while the majority of the class has no interest in hearing how this or that problem is solved.  With this in mind, I might start out with a lower number of problems (like 1 or 2), and then build up to more when I get the pacing down.

Any thoughts on this, intrepid reader(s)?

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4 Responses to Homework (v 5.0)

  1. pradlfan says:

    I like the way you have thought this through. Similar checks can occur in my English class, where I too have been refining homework processes, whether late work is acceptable, and how to give “completion” and “effort” grades. Give it a try!

  2. This is a fantastic system you’ve developed! Thank you for taking the time to document it.

    A couple of possible additions/ideas:

    1) I use Sam’s Binder Check system (one of his many classroom procedures I’ve adopted), so I think I will require that the student to put each homework assignment on a fresh sheet of paper with your suggested heading (“HW due “). That way each homework assignment in the HW section of their binder is on its own page. Also I can easily collect some or all HW pages for formative assessment on any given day *after* the analysis of student problems on the board. This lets me assess how they analyzed and corrected their own work, in addition to seeing who did what and how.

    2) I totally agree with your ideas about how homework review can become a drawn-out and endless affair. Shorter is better. That way homework review becomes the catalyst to revealing diagnostic conversation. I also like your idea of ratcheting up the number of homework problems over the course of the semester.

    3) This year I want to build in a much more random-looking process of assigning students to put work on the board.

    4) I love your guiding principles for putting work on the board: (i) Teach respect for what goes on the board, and (ii) Teach how to respond to the work rather than to the student. These are both practices that need to be actively taught. Most students have no idea about these distinctions, yet they are necessary to create an emotionally safe space in which to be wrong in public.

    5) Very wise of you to recognize that putting homework problems up on the board before or during class simply diverts attention away from class. Strategies for this are really hard. I’m thinking about only *ever* posting the homework problems on the course web site, since every kid in my new school has access to the web. That way homework cannot take time away from classwork.

    I also think this could become a productive way of helping kids develop a sense of responsibility for and ownership of their own learning.

    Thanks for giving me so many ideas to think about!

    – Elizabeth (aka @cheesemonkeysf on Twitter)

  3. Paul Hawking says:

    You are as detailed-oriented as I used to be during my first few years, so I can relate to your analyzing things to the nth degree.

    A few thoughts

    1.”At the end of class, collect a selection of notebooks to look at. (Ideal world, I would get to see this during class, but not happening I think.) At least collect a few. Emphasize that I just want to look closely at their work and see how they’re doing. The students who get their work collected should work on their homework at a later date.”

    How about collecting the notebooks at the BEGINNING of class instead? They can rip out a half dozen sheets from their notebook before you collect them to take notes during class. The next day, they can staple the notes and homework back into their notebook when you return them. This way, students can still do the homework when you collect their notebooks.

    2. Putting tonight’s homework assignment up at the beginning of class.

    Yeah, I’ve done that and watched kids doing tonight’s homework during class without any clue what they’re doing because I haven’t taught the concept yet! I’ve also watched kids doing tonight’s homework during class because they got the assignment from a student in a prior period.

    My approach is to stagger instruction and homework. I.E., tonight’s homework is on yesterday’s lesson. I put up tonight’s homework at the beginning of class and if a student starts working on it during class they are more likely to have remembered what was taught yesterday, or have notes to refer to, than with the traditional instruction-and-its-homework-on-the-same-day approach. (I talk about it in more detail at my blog, should you be interested in the logistics of things.)

    3. Having students put their homework up on the white board.

    This is probably complete torture for your shy students. Seriously, as someone who was extremely shy in high school (but who is now an extreme extrovert), I can tell you that having the entire class watch as I put up an incorrectly-solved problem would be horrible, and I would do whatever I could to transfer out of your class. I have taught such shy students and it is often difficult for them to even raise their hand to ask a question when they are lost.

    My approach is while I’m going around the room checking homework, I pick two students “at random” and have them both go up to the board WITHOUT THEIR NOTEBOOKS and try to solve one of the homework problems cold. That way, the pressure is reduced since the two students are working as a team and it lets those students know if they really know how to do it without their notes: too many students do fine on the homework with their notes in front of them and then are clueless as to why they bombed the quiz/test when they don’t have their notes to refer to.

    4. “The major pitfall of the homework review is that it can become an endless process if a few students have a number of questions, while the majority of the class has no interest in hearing how this or that problem is solved.”

    I have my students write at the top of their homework the problem numbers they want me to go over. While I’m going around the room checking homework, I keep a tally of how many students want me to go over each problem. If 5 or more students want a particular problem gone over, I go over it; for the remaining problems, it depends on time available or if I feel it’s worth going over anyway. (I only allow the students who did all the problems to poll in, which encourages students to complete the entire assignment.)

    Hope this is of help.

    Paul Hawking
    Blog: The Challenge of Teaching Math

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