Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Homework, Oh Homework

(Note #1:  The title of this post is inspired by this poem by Jack Prelutsky my sister had to memorize in second grade)

(Note #2:  This is my fiftieth post and it is coming exactly one year after I started blogging :)

Homework is a big deal.  It is something I have a lot of thoughts about.  It is also something I have trouble organizing in my head...so this may be an unorganized post :)

I give almost no homework.  Rarely (like maybe twice this year) I have asked a specific period to complete ONE thing outside of class.  Also once this year I gave all students a "project".  I gave lots of class time, but it may have been necessary to do work outside of class as well.

I am often asked why I don't assign homework.  Actually I was recently asked, "How can you not assign homework in math class?"  My answer to this question is multi-dimensional.

What is the Purpose?
(Man, this issue is so complicated.  I have put it off for a year, and I'm considering just deleting this post right now...)
I guess this right here is the critical issue.  All the other stuff doesn't matter.  What is the purpose of homework?  Traditionally, homework in mathematics was used as additional practice.  I prefer to do practice in class so that:

  • I can ensure it is getting done
  • I can ensure students are doing their own work
  • I can ensure it is getting done correctly
  • I can question and guide when necessary
  • Students can have conversations about what they are learning
So I'm going to discuss the other issues as well, but I do think this is the biggest.  What do you see the as the purpose of homework?  (Please leave comments, because I truly am curious.)

Who Will Do It?
When I first started in my district, I assigned maybe 5 additional problems a night.  Maybe 10% of my students completed them.  MAYBE.  Which students were they?  The students who did not need additional practice.  The students who needed more practice chose not to do it.

How Will It Get Done?
Previously, in a different district, I assigned homework almost nightly.  Ranging closer to 10 to 15 problems a night.  I would say my completion rate was closer to 80% there, but by completion I mean students who had the work written out on their own paper by the time class came.  What was happening right before school?  Massive copying sessions in the halls.

I do not want to put my students in a situation where they are going to want to copy.  I want them to see the value in what they are doing (one reason why I think they copy) and I want them to believe that they are capable of doing it themselves (another reason why I think they copy).

What is the Consequence?
If students choose not to complete homework, what is an appropriate consequence?  I firmly believe that it should not affect their grade directly.  That is something I am not willing to compromise on.  So what other options do I have?  Without an entire school-wise system, the only option I can think of is to assign a detention.  What happens then?  I spend extra time (and a lot of if) for several days tracking down students who need to serve a detention to get their work done.  And what if they refuse to serve it?

Do They Have Time?
I am so grateful for all of the time that I get to spend with my students.  I see them and interact with them for 51 minutes each school day.  I think that is more than what some parents get to spend with their children.  High school students can get so involved.  I think some of them stretch themselves too thinly, but I do think it is good for them to be involved.  So if I get more time with my students than their parents, who I am to take away some of the time they might actually get?

Societal Views
Initially I wanted to tackle some of the views society has about homework (including the one exhibited by the poem linked at the beginning of the post), but I'm too worn out right now.  Perhaps another time.

Please feel free to comment away.  I would be happy to hear both your agreements and disagreements.


  1. Thanks for the post! My question is how do you get through all of the material without assigning homework? Do you teach the lesson one day and have a workday over practice problems the next? If so, that's two class periods per lesson. Have you been able to get all that the Iowa Core requires in your classes?

    1. I have not yet been able to feel as though I have effectively taught all the standards I am expected to teach in my course. I have two initial responses to that:
      1. My students didn't get to pick the standards for the course (and neither did I). Why would I "punish" them (and me) for unrealistic expectations?
      2. I could perhaps justify moving through content more quickly if I assigned homework, but I still don't think it would help me effectively teach the standards. I don't feel that it would help the majority of my students learn.

      I guess for me it is about prioritizing and using time efficiently. I do what I can in the time that I have with them.

      I don't always feel like it is a 2-day deal for what might otherwise only take 1 day. I don't think of lessons as day-by-day in that way. I would be happy to share more about my lessons if you think that could help you, but I don't want to go in detail here in the comments... tweet me if you want more.

  2. Of course the kids who don't need the practice are the ones who do it. That doesn't mean you shouldn't assign it to them. They got that way by building up the habit of doing homework. Ideally, the skill we should be focusing on, in my opinion, is the critical thinking skill of answering "Do I NEED this practice?" followed by doing it or not.

    Realistically, I think, especially for those kids, you can view homework as practice for doing homework. There will come a time when they WILL need to do it and if they are in the habit of doing the homework, they will be good.

    Depending on the age of the students in question, I think there comes a time when you shouldn't be grading homework because it is, as you say, practice. The reward for practice should be to get better at something. Not to get better at something AND get ice cream.

    The kids who don't need the practice are punished into doing it for fear of losing points.

    Along those same lines, homework should be an extension of what happened in class or, in the case of the flipped classroom, an expansion into the next topic, allowing students to delve forward.

    My geometry kids have a list of practice problems that cover the material. I never grade or check it, but make it clear that I will anything they ask about it. I will not, however, give extra help if they haven't been doing the practice.

    Also, if they don't bring me cookies.

    1. I'm very torn on this topic, but I'll admit, for most of my young career I have leaned on the side of "homework is a MUST." However, the more I have contemplated whether or not it should be mandatory, I have to admit that I'm leaning more towards Kathryn's mentality. Time in the classroom is valuable, and the more work we can get done in class, the better because, like she says, I know they know it (or don't). However, I have constant turmoil over this because in my district, students are leveled based on "skill" (a.k.a. academic commitment) ((by the way, I'm joking...for the most part)) and what kind of responsibility is this teaching the students if homework is null-and-void?

      Finally, I read an interesting article recently titled "Reciprocal Relationships Between Attitude Toward Mathematics and Achievement in Mathematics" and the correlation that they found was that students ultimately didn't learn math out of interest, but learned it out of fear: fear that they would suffer lower [homework] grades, fear of reprimand from teachers/parents. The bottom line is fear does not spark an interest in learning, and if homework is forced out of fear, then how is that helping? Like I said, I'm torn with this debate but I like the debate! Oh, great blog Kathryn!

  3. Kathryn
    Thanks for taking the time to organize your thoughts. My response may be a bit wordy. I am in my 27th year in the classroom and I've been all over the map on the homework front. So much of what I'll say here is colored by the past, by living in a dorm on my campus and witnessing work habits outside of class, by teaching only AP classes right now, and by the fact that I work in an independent college-prep school. I'll try to respond to your thoughts in order.
    What's the purpose? - We all get better at anything we do if we do it more often. I am committed to doing problems when we're together, but I am also committed to not parroting the text. I trust my students can read a text, can look at examples and practice skills. If they can practice some of these skills on their own then that is a plus. I recognize that many do not. Some of those that do not practice still score well. High school is not rocket science and bright kids can do well. I don't believe that they internalize the way I'd wish them to, but my wishing cannot be the key. They've got to be the ones wishing to master ideas and skills. Again, we practice together, but I also think that some time spent struggling with ideas and working through problems on their own is pretty valuable. I'm not naive enough to think they're all doing it, but if I did not ask them to then none of them would.
    Who will do it? You're right, it's mostly those who don't really 'need' to. But again, if I don't ask then almost none of those who benefit from practice will do so.
    How will it get done? Kids will ask each other for help, some will look at solutions manuals, some will just curl up and get it done. Many won't do it. Some will do it at school with friends, some will come after school for extra help, some will do it by themselves.
    What is the consequence? I don't grade HW anymore. Won't go back to it for a number of reasons - most of which are the ones you've touched on. Don't want to be part of any system that encourages dishonesty. Kids who need some extra practice may recognize that the consequence of not doing HW is that they don't understand as well as they want to. They may not score as highly as they hope to. Some will see that some extra practice would be of assistance.
    Do they have time? This is a touchy one for me. Many kids at my school are over scheduled. To some degree this is choice, but these choices are driven by what they think colleges need to see. Kids - hell, all of us - need down time. Most of my students have free time but they also frantically cram and squeeze work into increasingly tiny windows of time. Rather than pace themselves and practice daily (something I've blogged about at http://mrdardy.wordpress.com/2014/01/17/two-conversations-and-a-blog-quote/ ) they get themselves in an endless cycle of cramming for one thing at a time while ignoring the process of thinking about their other classes. I get it - they have a lot on their plates. But ultimately I believe that the necessary workload is manageable.
    Societal Views - The only prevalent one I try to emphasize is a simple one - practice, thoughtful daily practice, makes you better at whatever you are trying to get good at. Some discipline and diligence are helpful. I do not convey to my students that I think that they should do every last problem I assign. I do try to get across to them that they should pay attention to their own learning and take my advice about what problems are worth their attention.

    Whew - I hope I came across as reasonably coherent here. Thanks for the thought-provoking post and the space to air my thoughts.

  4. i try to tell my students good learning habits that they should be doing outside of school....look at the notes/examples we just did today - try an example on your own - make up your own example - create a quizlet or quizup - do the last problem (we will do it tomorrow) - find something about this topic & read it - watch my tutorial video to review - find some tutorial video on the topic.....the little things that go into learning. For the most part they do none of these. They have been trained to try to get points in other classes so they try to do that "homework" meaning they practice wrong and copy from someone. If they are not into learning, nothing will work.

  5. I assign homework and do "grade it" for mostly completion. I look for common errors and try to bring students with those errors up to defend what they saw when trying it. I also do NOT penalize for late homework (with few exceptions) and allow my lovelies to re-assess quizzes and tests, but here's the rub: in order to reassess they must have the assignments done (and this time I do look at them and am more critical in my "grading")

    The kids who don't need the practice, eventually often find themselves needing the practice at some point (trig identities, for example) and since I do not penalize for lateness my eventual homework completion rates aren't really all that bad (and I offer homework passes for students who truly get it and who are willing to circulate and help out others.

  6. Homework sure is a controversial topic, isn't it? I think a lot of the decisions about homework must be made based on school culture and there's no one right answer. Homework is a big deal at my school. I give about three homework assignments per week and expect that they'll take a typical student about 15-20 minutes. I like to devote lots of time in class to cooperative learning which means less time for independent practice than in a traditional lecture classroom. We might get through a couple of independent practice questions after many guided practice questions in class, but not often enough that I feel like the concept will solidify. A few homework problems give the students an opportunity to refocus in the evening on what they did during the day and to think about their own understanding of the topic. I also think homework can build perseverance. Without classmates or a teacher immediately accessible, students have to rely on themselves to complete the homework and use their resources when they get stuck instead of looking to the teacher to fix the problem. I typically have 90% homework completion in my Algebra classes and about 80-85% completion in my math 8 classes. Yes, there are students who don't put in all the effort needed. However, I think the benefit to the large majority of students doing the work outweighs the risk of leaving behind a few students who are choosing to opt out. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! It was interesting to read how you handle homework.

  7. I think a lot of the controversy comes from association of homework with rigor and with high quality education. Also, math freaks parents the most, so they are predisposed to panic. The isolated aspect of homework has always bothered me, when we know that most students learn best when discussing and negotiating. The inequity of homework is a very serious issue.

    So you, making decisions based on the students you have, in light of the goals you have for them, and evaluating by learning achieved, are doing great stuff. You're not telling everyone to ditch homework, you're explaining why it's right for you with these students, and giving others a framework to evaluate their own homework policies, which may or may not have been intentional or cultural.

  8. I am very honored by all of your comments. I am amazed at how much more we could continue this conversation. It is so complex. Here are some of my additional thoughts at this point:

    1. Thank you John for reminding my that my perspective definitely has a lot to do with the culture of my school. I might make a different decision if I were at a different school or working with a different group of students.

    2. I believe my perspective also has a lot to do with where I am at in my teaching career. I am a new-ish teacher. I only have so many hours in a day. I choose to spend my time planning lessons that develop conceptual understanding rather than fluency. I believe understanding will take my students farther. Do I need to integrate fluency--yes. But I don't have the time to do it as well as I would like right now, seeing as the only guidance I have for my year's worth of lessons are the standards. I borrow, modify, and create everything.

    3. Not all standards are skill-based, but for those that are in my ideal world I would have extra practice available for students who wanted it. However due to time and the percent of my students who would use it, I do not have that developed this year. I would like to have resources compiled for them as Paul shared, but I do not (at this time).

    4. I agree with Justin that having students decide whether or not they need more practice is something we should be asking our students to do. If I had things the way I would like (see 3.), I would be able to push that more.

    5. Thank you Matt for sharing about learning through fear. I definitely do not want to fall into that trap.

    6. If I had practice available as I would like (see 3.), I would do as Scott shared and require some level of it to be completed for reassessment.

    7. I agree with Kathryn that students need opportunities to refocus on what they previously learned to have an opportunity to consider where they are in terms of the standard.

    8. Thank you Mr. Dardy for your detailed response. It is interesting to see how you (in a very different setting than I) deal with mostly the same issues, but with a different response. What stood out to me was: "I'm not naive enough to think they're all doing it, but if I did not ask them to then none of them would."

    9. A follow-up question for those of you who assign homework: Does the homework practice come up in class? Do you allow time to discuss questions? How do you structure your class in a way that includes the issues that might come with homework?

    Thank you once again for all of your feedback. It is encouraging me to continue thinking on this issue. Obviously the conversation is equally as important as the thinking.

  9. Normally, the majority of the homework practice can be completed in class. It all depends on how cooperative and quiet the kids are that day. I have one class that works really well, and they almost never go home with homework. I have another class though that hates math and is always talking about things off topic. They go home with homework quite frequently. I always allow time to discuss questions. I spend the first 5-10 minutes, after the bell ringer, going over any questions from the previous lesson's assignment. Then, they each grade their own homework using a pen and make the corrections to the ones they got wrong. I give completion points on the daily work. Hope that helps!

  10. I've been teaching middle school math in Tennessee for ten years, but I think I've tried a million ways to deal with this issue. In my tenth year, I can say that I've yet to assign a single homework problem since August 1, when we started this school-year. If students want to put effort into a project outside of class, that is fine, but I don't force it. This is by far my favorite way to deal with homework. There is no more starting class with the daily inquisition, "Why didn't you do your homework?" I don't have to worry about running the collection agency of the old days anymore either. We do everything in class, we keep everything in class, and we're all a lot less stressed. I love it, and so do they!

    I started out, early in my career, giving 6th graders sets of homework problems from textbooks that might take 30 minutes to an hour to complete.

    I taught 8th grade at another inner city school. I remember I decided I would give credit if they at least attempted it. There were a lot of haphazard attempts, but I don't think it supported learning, or meant anything.

    I moved and started teaching 7th grade in a rural setting. We didn't have any math textbooks. If I gave them any practice, I had to create it myself and run copies of all of it. I had 175 students. It was a culture shock, and there were little to no resources. Administrators read somewhere that homework needed to be more challenging if we wanted test scores to go up. They wanted us to attempt to bundle up these week long assignment packs that had to be turned in by a certain date the next week. Ugh. Their thinking was that with more time to turn it in, the students would do it all by the deadline. Really? This type of homework policy was a lot of work, for teachers, and there were lots of lost papers. I had to jump through hoops just to get extra copies of them. I bought my own copy machine that year. If they didn't turn in the bundle, you had to chase them down, give them another copy and make them work on it during lunch. They would just lose them in there. I rarely got anything back that had been done accurately. After I took on a 6th, 7th, and 8th grade workload the next year, I said forget it.

    Nothing was working in the settings that I was in. So, yes, culture is key to homework policy. In the current rural district I teach in now, the percent of unemployment is higher than the percent of college graduates. 33% of adults here didn't even graduate high school. It is challenging to get my students to break the cycle.

    Homework isn't a factor in my students success or failure, but the extra prep and collection of it could be a factor for a failure in teaching effectively and efficiently.

    1. Thank you for sharing your experiences. I truly believe in your last statement. I don't want to allow homework prep, collection, and feedback to inhibit my ability to be an effective teacher in the class time I am given with my students.

  11. Those of you you do not give homework, may I ask what your grade weight schedule consists of for report cards?

    If you give classwork and then what isn't finished in class is homework but they students do not complete - what do you do about this as far as grades for the report card?

    I only count classwork/homework as 10% of the overall grade. I give the students more than enough time in class to work in groups to complete the assignment and help each other, but there are those who do not get around to completing this but won't finish it at home either.

    This homework topic stresses me out I think more than the students. We have block classes (100 minutes). I teach for half and then give half the class to do the work so that I am here to help.

    I'm thinking that next year my weights will only consist of test grades and quiz grades since if I give homework most of the students refuse to do it and the parents do not make them but then come back to me accusing me of failing their child. Third quarter I gave 100% participation points for those students in were actually in class and were doing the work. Those here but not doing anything I gave a zero. Those absent I just put absent into the online gradebook and gave them an assignment to do. If they did it they got a grade, if they didn't the ABS remained and showed that they chose not learn the material.

    Sorry for rambling, just wondering how everyone handled "homework" in their gradebooks. Thank you for any information.

    1. Monika,

      My gradebook is essentially a list of my learning targets, all weighted equally. Unless I have a specific reason to do something differently, the score students receive on the test is the score that goes into the gradebook...that is all.

      This is something that my school has transitioned to, and something that I still do not feel is totally where I would like it. But I like it more than having x% for homework, y% for tests and z% for projects. I feel like this better shows what students know. And that is what I view the purpose of their grade.

      I hope that helps you.