Homework Crisis

If my WordPress stats reveal anything, it’s that the blogosphere likes me best when I’m in reflecto-panic-crisis mode. Well, thanks to a post from John Scammell over at Zero-Knowledge Proofs, I’m back at it. The subject this time: Homework.

I’ve spent a lot of this school year weighing the usefulness (or lack thereof) of my various classroom practices. I lecture too much, my students spend far more time doing more “exercises” than “problems,” my assessments need some serious work… The list goes on. In recent months I’ve thought occasionally about the effectiveness of my homework policy. John’s post has me thinking about it again, and this time I don’t believe I’ll be able to rest until I’ve sorted out what my approach should look like and how I’ll get there.

In the Past…

In my first year of teaching, my homework sins were many. (1) I tried to grade it all myself. For about two weeks, anyway. Then I tried to grade 5 problems per assignment, all myself. Still terrible, and now for twice as many reasons. Eventually I “outsourced” homework grading to the students themselves and a TA. Better in some ways, worse in others, but still broken, because… (2) I would allow the start-of-class homework discussion to last 15 to 20 minutes (out of a 45 to 50 minute period). Horrible. Shamefully horrible. There was then never enough time to address new material, which meant I could expect widespread struggles on the next homework assignment, which meant another long homework discussion to start class the following day, and on and on. For me, it was wash, rinse, repeat at least 150 times per semester. (3) “Preparing students for the homework” became the driving force of all my instruction. Which was weird, because I was the one who selected the homework, but then once I did that I felt like I was no longer in control. The assigned homework was in control. When we weren’t prepared for the sometimes well-selected, sometimes poorly-selected assignment, I felt like the day was lost. I would occasionally send kids home to suffer through the assignment anyway (lots of frustration and tension and guilt mixed in with that approach). Other times I would postpone the assignment (which was always received with loud applause from students) and consider myself a failure—at least for the day—because the lesson didn’t “work” and we were “falling behind.”

In the Present…

It would take thousands of words to describe all of my imperfections as a teacher. But I could probably use almost as many to describe the ways I’ve grown over the past nine years. I may not be particularly good at this teaching gig, but I’m better than I used to be.

I feel like I’ve successfully addressed the major issues outline in (1) and (2) above by streamlining our in class “homework check” routine. Of the many things I’ve tried over the years, I’ve been reasonable happy with two approaches: Hard copies of solutions (one paper per pair of students) or slides of solutions, with either method placed right at the start of class. There have been advantages and disadvantages to each approach, with each growing larger or smaller depending on the particular group of students, but the common result has been a start-of-class homework routine that usually takes between 2 and 4 minutes and provides every student with feedback on every attempted problem as “immediately” as I can manage given my available tools and my limited skill set.

Issue (3) is an ongoing struggle, and something I hope to consider further. Maybe it’s related to what I discuss below, maybe not.

Still in the Present…

For all the improvements I’ve realized, there are still some glaring weaknesses in my current approach to homework. In my honors classes, almost all of my students complete the assignment each night, but some of them spend a ridiculous amount of time on it. Is this the most effective way for them to learn? Is this the healthiest way to spend their evening? Is there a way to transform what I do in the classroom so that they end up learning and practicing at least as much as they do now, but without my stealing so much of their non-school time with school-related things? (If you think the answers are not “No, no, and yes,” you are hereby required to explain in the comments.)

In the Future…

Should I do away with homework all together? Posts like John Scammell’s make me think I should. But then most of my classes don’t have the dismal homework completion rates that John and many other thoughtful teachers point to as one advantage of the no-homework approach. Will I use Dan Meyer’s 2007 approach? Or his 2008 approach? (Anyone know the latest thoughts out of Camp Meyer?) And while we’re linking to blog posts about assigning or not assigning homework, are there other posts I should read?

In all likelihood, my course responsibilities for next year will include AP Calculus AB, Honors Precalculus with Trigonometry, Honors Algebra 2, and Honors Algebra 1. In these classes, the homework completion rate is through the roof, plus or minus 3%, and (as I’ve shared above) I think many of the students benefit from the practice. It would be tempting to say that my homework policy is “good enough” for these classes. The students will do the work, they’ll remember to bring it to class, they’ll grade it efficiently, I’ll assume they’re getting the feedback they need to draw conclusions about their strengths and weaknesses, and that together we’ll be able to decide how to proceed from there.

One of the classes I don’t expect to teach next year is regular Algebra 1. This year’s section of Algebra 1 has been my most challenging ever. Among other things, my homework completion rate has been discouraging and not at all like the majority of my classes. I would guess that less than 50% complete the assignment each night, and for those who do only about 20% (or less) benefit from the practice. For a class like this, my current homework approach isn’t working. They need (and deserve) something better, something more thoughtful, something less frustrating, something more effective, something like what John Scammell describes in the post I mentioned above.

Does the fact that they aren’t served well by my current homework system mean that my other more compliant classes would also be better served with a different system? Or does the high completion rate mean I should leave things the way they are for these classes?

Should I have one approach to assigning homework for all of my classes, irrespective of the habits of an individual class? Or should I tailor my policies to the tendencies of my students, and define effectiveness in relation to the particular set of students?

Clearly I need some help sorting all of this out. Thanks in advance for anything you can offer in the comments.

Comments 9

  1. I’ll write something more detailed when I sort out my own thoughts, but I am reminded of an important conversation with a colleague. We were talking about the difference between exercises and problems. My take is that exercises are more of the mechanical type of practice problem. You know, factor some quadratics (if that sort of thing seems important…), sketch this trig graph, take that power rule derivative… Problems are more of the multi-step, thought provoking activities. Those where it is not obvious what needs to be done right away. When my colleague Jason and I were talking he proposed the idea that HW assignments were more likely to be completed if they were routinely of the exercise variety where our students might nor get so easily frustrated. Leave the problems for our time together when we can pick each other’s brains. Might be a helpful line of thought.

  2. I’ve been there. I’ve marked homework. I’ve done homework quizzes. I’ve done homework checks. What I learned was that not everybody needs to practice (Ask Allen Iverson). Kids who I was docking marks for not doing the homework were still acing exams. Kids who did every question were still failing exams. Kids who need to practice but don’t practice suffer very real and natural consequences. Their performance on the summative assessments suffer.

    I also taught AP Calculus. You’re right. Those kids will do homework. They’ll especially do it if you tell them the questions are similar to ones they might see on the AP Calculus exam. It’s a great power. Use it sparingly and wisely, because those kids also need to be well rounded. They still need time in the evenings to talk to their families, play community basketball, volunteer at the local food bank, practice the trumpet, and many other things. The top AP student I ever taught (guaranteed 5 on the exam) did a lot of homework. She was also well rounded and was a serious piano player. She ended up not writing the AP exam because it conflicted with a big piano test she had to take. Despite her significant mathematical strengths, she went into music at post-secondary because it was her passion. I think she made a great choice.

  3. mrdardy,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on exercises vs problems. I’m beginning to think along the same lines. Too many frustrating experiences at home, and many students begin to learn that homework isn’t worth the effort. Maybe that’s why some of my current students (Algebra 1, in particular) won’t even try their homework: too many frustrating experiences (possibly with “problems” rather than “exercises”) in the past.

    My working definition of a problem vs an exercise comes from George Polya’s How To Solve It. I’ll paraphrase his thoughts since I don’t have the book nearby and Google failed me: A problem is something for which an efficient method for solving is not (yet) known. An exercise is something for which an efficient method IS already known.

    (As an aside, it’s interesting to me—if you buy this pair of definitions—that the very same thing may be a problem to me but because of your experience it may be merely an exercise to you. Certainly that difference will exist if you compare a student in Pre Algebra with a student in Precalculus. I wonder how often that difference will occur within a class, and how that affects this whole conversation.)

    With those definitions in mind, I think one change (at the minimum) that I will make heading in to next year is that I’ll save the problems for our time together in the classroom.

  4. John,

    Thanks for your thoughts (and for original thought-provoking post). Suppose I’m starting to see the wisdom in your perspective. Suppose further that I can imagine what my future Algebra 1 class will look like. (That is, I can visualize a new classroom routine—complete with learning, formative assessment, and opportunities for re-teaching and extension as needed.)

    Suppose now that I can’t imagine what my new AP Calculus routine will be like. If my students are averaging an hour of homework a night, all year, and I take some or most of that away with the intention of shifting that necessary practice to the classroom… Couple that with the notion (true or not, it’s one that I hold) that we use time efficiently in class (though we could also do a bit better)… How do I recapture that practice time? Or maybe a better question, how do I structure my new AP Calculus classroom so that students get sufficient practice (whatever that may be for an individual student) with most of their practice time occurring in class?

    For background, here’s a look at my typical routine:

    In Class
    [1 min] Play SET Game
    [2 to 4 minutes] Check homework
    [10 to 40 minutes] Learn new material
    [Remaining class time] Begin assignment

    At Home
    [30 to 90 minutes] Finish assignment

    I suppose what I’m really saying is… In light of the wisdom you and others have shared about the value of balance in their home life (in particular, removing the burden of massive amounts of math homework that I’ve imposed on them, and replacing it with a “use it sparingly and wisely” approach), do you have any advice for what to do with our in class time that will calm my current fears (“Oh no! They’re not going to get enough practice!”)

    Thanks again!

  5. Polya is SO important in my evolution of thought as a teacher. So glad you mentioned him. In fact, one of my prouder moments as a teacher was recently when I was observed and the observer mentioned that I reminded him of Polya’s writing.

  6. Small data point: I started off this year by checking Precalc H’s homework and having a small amount of points for completion (momentum from teaching with another teacher last year and having the same grading system). Quick check, not collected, just 2 “points”. But it’s been a crazy year so I had to triage. Stopped grading and checking. Guess what. They still did work at the same rate.

    For this class and AB calc I was updating a public google spreadsheet with completion for the first two quarters. The parents could find this document and see if their child was doing the homework. But the updating stopped as well. Kids still do the homework. As long as they can see the value then they will mostly do the homework. Sometimes other things come up and then they underperform on tests. Chalk it up to a life lesson.
    Old hmwk post: http://blog.recursiveprocess.com/2011/03/11/no-homework-grade-no-way/

  7. So right there with you, math blogosphere has me in near constant state of reflection-panic. I hadn’t really thought about HW lately until,these recent posts. I think the exit slip idea is genius. I teach regular classes with kids who probably should be in a lower class but we don’t have one. So, I have the same experience of strong Ss doing HW and weak Ss not. Plenty of copying before class “in case” mrs. Reilly grades the HW. I had been trying to grade randomly to increase the chance they’ll do it. It all sounds pathetic now as I write it. Going to have to try out some of these ideas now and pick for next year, thx for the GREAT post.

  8. I definitely think that Cornally’s post on homework isa must read. You can find it here: http://shawncornally.com/wordpress/?p=583&cpage=1&wpmp_switcher=mobile

    I still disagree with Cornally that it is never worthwhile. I have been running a system without homework for 4 years, and is year the students begged me to reinstate homework. They don’t care about it pulling up their grade so much. They just think that the lack of points for HW makes it hard for them to properly prioritize it, even when they know they need the practice. Academic habits are poor across the board in this community and many students, even among the high performers, have never really had planning skills taught to them or required of them, so giving them freedom to choose, even with guidance from me, isn’t really a help. It is more like the freedom to not have health insurance- no real freedom at all. My reasoning behind an upcoming change back to a SMALL amount of their grade based on hHW in a SBG scheme can be found here: http://ihati.wordpress.com/2013/04/19/homework-and-coercion/

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