My Struggle with Homework

The math classroom I knew from school followed a typical pattern.

  1. Review/Collect/Correct previous assignment.
  2. Teacher introduces new concepts/topic(s).
  3. Teacher walks through several example problems.
  4. Students are given an assignment.
  5. Repeat process.

Some math teachers are quicker with a joke, or friendlier, or more strict, but ultimately I think the majority of classes follow this pattern most of the time. When I first started teaching I struggled with how to handle steps 1 and 4. Here is the story of how I came to my solution.

My first year teaching at my current school I followed this pattern fairly religiously. At first I collected homework assignment and tried to check every problem from every student. I quickly learned this is a nightmare. Between students not showing work, poor penmanship skills, and trying to decipher multiple approaches, it is just way too time consuming.

I next tried an approach I picked up student teaching. I wouldn’t correct every assignment, but I would choose them randomly. It was still time consuming to correct, but at least that time consumption was limited. However, there was still a flaw with this system. One day when I went to collect a homework assignment to grade I had a student approach me. He didn’t have the assignment done. Every other assignment was completed, but something came up and he didn’t get that assignment done. I liked the kid, he normally was everything a teacher wants from a student, so I decided to give him a break. The problem was that more and more students asked for breaks, and every now and then I would get the rare student that skipped every assignment, but just happened to complete the one that was collected. I felt like this system was just to coincidental and happenstance to represent some sort of accurate measure of knowledge.

And it was still time consuming. So I adopted something I saw during student teaching, instead of collecting entire assignments, I started collecting just a few specific questions from homework assignments. But the outcome was still largely the same, it just felt like the grades were coincidental and happenstance.

There was also one large problem with which I had an issue. Correcting homework for accuracy led a lot of students to blatantly copy a handful of students. This defeated the purpose of homework to me. I firmly believe homework is there for students to reflect and practice the skills covered in class.

I decided to handle this problem by making homework a participatory grade. About two times a chapter I would collect homework from the students and just check to make sure they did something. I used this system for three years. I liked it because it allowed me to distance myself from student responsibility. If students took the time to understand the homework, great, and if they just filled in their notebooks to get the participation points that was fine with me too because they would just get low test grades. They didn’t put in the effort to learn the material, so they would suffer the low grades. I didn’t feel bad because I was essentially offering 30% of their grade for free by making homework participatory.

Then, at the end of one school year, about 20% of my students failed. It came down to their homework. They weren’t making the connection between doing quality work and success in school. I heard reason after reason, excuse after excuse, as to why the homework wasn’t done. Some of them were legitimate and some weren’t, but that wasn’t the point. They saw me as an authority figure and the homework I assigned was about following directions, not an educational opportunity. I had already struggled with the cycle of detention, and I do fall on the side of the debate believing they don’t achieve the desired result. I kept second guessing myself, thinking maybe I should have assigned more detentions. But those detentions just would have reinforced the cycle of obedience for those students.

If my goal is to breed compliance and obedience in students there are much more effective ways than math homework and detentions. Actually, the more I think about it, math homework and grades are about the dumbest way to teach concepts of compliance, obedience, and following directions. A paycheck and a job are much more effective for that.

Sending 20% of my class to summer school or back to Algebra I again wasn’t enough to make me change my ways though. I spent one year teaching summer school and have had several students go through the process. Though summer school itself is largely unresearched, my personal experience is that it serves largely as a prolonged detention to avoid repeating a class. By sending kids to summer school, the homework wasn’t about obeying me, as a detention would have been, but the homework was about obedience in the system.

And I was perfectly okay with this set up until the end of the next school year. I didn’t have nearly as many students fail this time. Actually only a couple, but one stood out in my mind. It was the last day of class and I had a student who was sitting at around 50 some percent. His homework, 30% of his overall grade, was negligibly above a zero. I had always told students it’s not when you learn something, but rather that you learn it. Well, here it was, the last day of school. Simply do some of the homework and the student could pass the class. I knew the kid had the math ability, I had watched him do math during class before, he just needed to get enough participation points to pass the class.

When he claimed he didn’t have enough time to get the work done, one of his classmates offered the use of her old notebook and worksheets to copy. He still refused because, as he stated, he didn’t care. Homework still wasn’t having the impact I wanted it to. I decided I needed to change something for next year. I couldn’t keep going having so much of a student’s grade represent obedience.

I needed to devise a way to grade so that those grades represented math ability and not classroom obedience. I needed to get students to realize the work they do with homework is what led to success, not watching me give notes. Most of all, I needed to break the cycle where students defend their behaviors with, “…but I didn’t think you’d care.” If all we ever teach is school is to do things because the teachers care we haven’t really educated anybody.

Why I don’t do homework

I hate homework. For the few people that know me, I feel like I have at least an average vocabulary, I would pretend that it is above average. And I cannot stress the importance of the choice of words. I hate homework. I am not annoyed with homework, I am not repulsed by homework, I am not disgusted with homework. I hate homework. There are two major misconceptions about homework that I would like to attack to explain why I hate homework.

But first a clarification, homework can have a purpose. Readings that provide students with information that will be necessary for participation in a class discussion. Using flashcards to memorize medical terminology prefixes and suffixes, those are good uses of homework. So why do I have a problem with homework? Here’s why.

Homework reinforces the concepts covered in class.

If I ignore whether an assignment is graded based upon completion or accuracy, I see eight possible outcomes from the homework assignment. If a homework assignment is to achieve its maximum benefit it needs to be in a place where a student has mastered the material enough to complete the task, but still has to expend intellectual effort. The goal for this homework is that the student is moving recently learned information to become part of a long-term schema. Once in schema, the material becomes intertwined with prior knowledge and can be used to interpret and understand even more concepts.

Publication1

However, very few homework assignments covered in class actually fall into this sweet spot. If all outcomes on my flowchart have equal probability (which is a big assumption) only one out of eight homework assignments will have the desired result. Only one out of eight outcomes will reward intellectual effort positively. Seven of the eight will reward aspects of school that do not help us learn.  Imagine homework for a student, with the student thinking, “that was dumb, that was dumb, that was dumb, that was dumb, that was dumb, that was cool, that was dumb, that dumb.” Now repeat that over and over and over for twelve years. Is it surprising that so many of our high school students have a negative view of the purpose of school?

Students need something to work on at home.

Often I will get a question from a parent the first time we meet. Usually it goes something like, “What should my child be working on at home?” Deep down I really want to tell the parent that their children should be working on whatever interests them. In reality though, I get a sense that work is associated with learning. If a large math assignment is completed, much learning has occurred. Big assignment equals big smarts (insert caveman imagery here).

But work is just that and nothing more, work. A better option for parents who are concerned with their children would be to simply have them demonstrate what they are learning in class. What follows might come in fits and bursts, with some information being comprehensible and mastered, while some of it might lack clarity, but that is the nature of learning. A student working doesn’t necessarily mean that the student is learning. Learning takes work, but not all work is learning.

So what’s the solution?

I wish there were an easy answer, but there isn’t. Research is mixed, even personal experience is mixed. So what I have chosen to do is have my students do as much work in front of me as possible. At least that way I know what they can and cannot do. I will list a practice assignment for students to work on if they desire, but it is optional. It is optional precisely because the student would need to see the benefit of homework, how homework’s purpose shouldn’t be grades, but rather homework should exist to benefit understanding and mastery. Not many take advantage of this opportunity, but a few have.

I hope more will.