Questioning Homework

Search twitter for “math homework” and you’ll find a lot of this;

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Honestly, you’ll see a lot worse as well. Kids hate their math homework, and largely for good reason. Many math teachers assign 20-30 problems for students to complete every night; I was one of them. As a new teacher I came in with the assumption that this practice was essential for students to learn math. Ten years later I’m more convinced then ever that this kind of traditional, drill and kill math homework does more harm than good.

If you’re on Facebook you have likely seen the explosion of parents complaining about their kids’ “Common Core” math homework. I’ll leave the CC part to Christopher and focus on the homework aspect. My 1st grade daughter has homework to complete once a week. Most of the time they are puzzles and simple practice, and sometimes they are even games we get to play. It’s wonderful. We get a chance to interact, talk a bit about math (aside; check out, and she learns that math is fun. One time she had homework that was challenging for her. It was frustrating; we had to continually push her to try, and things escalated. It turned out fine, but I can see how parents would get frustrated and vent on social media.

So maybe the problem isn’t Common Core; maybe it’s that the only time students should be doing homework is when they are actually ready for it. I’m not saying don’t challenge kids; I’m saying challenge them when there is an expert in the room ready to help them out. Homework in elementary can be simple, fun, and encourage interaction between parents and kids, if it’s there at all.

I have been thinking about this in context of my Physics classes. A few years ago in my college-at-the-high-school physics class I stopped grading homework. It was counter-productive. I had students who hardly did any homework and aced exams, and students who completed it perfectly that earned Cs. I did have a student one time who didn’t do homework all year, earned C’s and D’s on exams, then did all the homework for the final unit and aced the exam. I still believe practice can help students learn, but I’m questioning how I have students practice. There’s even research in physics that homework actually hurts some students’ learning. The research in general is mixed on homework’s effectiveness, which is exactly why we have to be very careful when and why we assign it.

The problem with not grading homework is that less kids do it, particularly if they were motivated only by the grade (not many of them) or if a different priority overshadowed their non-graded homework (like graded calc homework, for example). I tried a lot of methods to get them to do homework on a regular basis, and all failed. I was frustrated. Much of that homework was problems I wanted students to complete ahead of time so we could whiteboard them more efficiently. However, only half the students attempted the problems, so then I had frustrated students who had done what they ‘should’ explaining things to students who didn’t. It was not efficient, nor did it seem effective.

Kelly O’Shea moved to a no-homework policy a number of years ago, and her students perform as good as anybody’s. Instead of having students do the problems ahead of time, they simply do them in class, then whiteboard them. I decided to give it a try.

The first thing I noticed was the richness of the discussions as students worked on the problems the first time around in class. They ask great questions and help each other out. The second thing I noticed is that it took them waaaaaay longer to complete a worksheet than I expected, as well as struggling more than expected. ‘Honors’ kids! This made me feel awful about previous years; I was assigning a ton of homework they really didn’t know what to do with, and I had no idea. The in-class interaction has been huge to help students start a problem that they would have been stuck on. This experience reminded me of a teacher who once told me that the first time he taught a pre-calc class, he sat down to complete the first assignment that had been traditionally assigned. It took him two hours. That’s crazy. And I suspect it happens more often than we know.

Now the awesome part; the whiteboarding process, where we get to have discussions as a class about the problems, is way better and faster than before. It’s now a time to flesh out nuance and important generalizations rather than figure out how to do the work, and this happens quickly. I have been able to move at exactly the same pace as previous years. Not a day lost, and the kids are happier.

Not only are they happier, but they’re doing better work. the first two exams of the year (Kinematics and Forces) saw significant increases over last year, with probably 1/3 of the homework assigned. I want to emphasize that. Students are doing better with less homework. Though I can’t really tease out the variables, I think the combination of more working in class and more emphasis on actually doing the homework that is assigned makes the difference. I’m still assigning ‘Independent practice’ after the point where I think students have had enough in-class practice to be ready to try it on their own. Often there are 2-3 weeks between these assignments.

Some recommendations to get you started thinking about the homework you assign.

  • Try it yourself. Take the time it takes you to complete and multiply by 3-4 for an estimate of how long it will take a kid.
  • Ask yourself if they are going to learn to hate your class because of  doing your homework, and be honest with yourself.
  • What is the quality of the homework? If you are picking 1-31 odd like I used to, it’s not quality. Choose 4 focused problems instead.
  • If you spend a lot of time going through homework after the fact, would it be more worthwhile for students to work on it with you there? Same amount of time, but that way they are actually doing the work.
  • Try doing something different with homework, and be prepared to be surprised. I didn’t expect that cutting students’ homework load by more than half would raise their achievement, but it did.
  • Finally, listen. Listen to kids in your class. Listen to them rant on Twitter. And do something about it.

Other great reads on homework


8 responses to “Questioning Homework

  1. In my opinion, what to do about the work assignments traditionally called homework is the toughest of all the teaching nuts to crack. I have never graded it, ever, in all 20 years of teaching, because it’s a game that’s rigged for failure.

    If you make it count for a grade, the stakes are too high to give them anything challenging enough that they might actually learn from it. If you do, kids and parents will freak out that you “didn’t teach them”. So you have to give them stuff to do that they already understand, which makes it educationally meaningless.

    For a long time, I assigned homework that was challenging and could have led to real learning and set up some killer class discussions the next day if they had done it. But they didn’t do it, because (a) it didn’t go in the gradebook, so therefore it didn’t matter and (b) they had to do 1 – 51 odd for pre-calc, which was easier and not only counted for a grade but also earned them “Fun Bucks” that they could use to buy their way out of tests. (I’m not making that up, sadly.) So my students got really good at repeating the algorithms they were trained to do in their math classes and they (and their math teachers, which is worse) went happily along believing that they were actually learning math. But they weren’t, as our attempts to get them to apply it in science classes showed very clearly. And my students had to figure out the hard way that not trying the homework in my class led to not having questions to ask me, which led to not understanding, which led to a bad grade.

    For about the last decade, I have been doing what Kelly and you are doing. I pose challenging problems and let them work on them in class. At first, they don’t get it at all. I mean, it’s like homework, but the problems are way hard. So they sneak around the room “cheating” by asking each other for help when they think I’m not looking. At some point, several weeks into the class, they figure out that I know they’re collaborating and I don’t care. Then it begins to dawn on them that it’s not cheating when it doesn’t go in the gradebook so they “cheat” openly. Much later, often when it’s nearly too late for some of them, they finally figure out that the only thing that matters to me (and their grade) is that they increase their understanding of the science we are learning in class. At that point, the class quickly divides itself into two groups. One group thinks I’m nuts and waits in suspense for someone to come explain to me that I’m playing the game wrong. They usually end up with bad grades. The other group realizes that, for the first time since before kindergarten they are in a room with an adult (other than mom) who doesn’t give a crap about compliance, and genuinely cares about their learning. And that group amazes me with what they are capable of.

  2. Spot on with this write-up, I absolutely believe that
    this site needs much more attention. I’ll probably be back again to see more, thanks for the info!

  3. Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist

    I come at this from two directions: 1) Last semester I taught general physics 2 at the college level and I didn’t assign, collect, or grade any homework. 2) I have a son in high school who does ~3 hours of homework every night.

    Having just read the evals for my course, I feel I need to find a way to get students to practice more. I think I can restructure the class activities a little to get at this, and I like what you’re doing. I think I had my class groups working on conceptual questions too much, and should have replaced some fraction of those with “ok, try to figure out this problem” or something.

    Dealing with my son every night takes a lot of energy. He hates it, we hate it. And, especially for math, I think it’s not helping him learn. He’s definitely getting a handle on the various algorithms, but when I work with him I’ve learned that I have to follow the letter-of-the-law with the algorithms he’s learned. He really dislikes it when I say something like “ooh, here’s another cool way to look at it.” He’s all about just getting the homework done.

    I think my interactions with all my boys at home is informing my thoughts about homework much more so than my own teaching. Thanks for this great post to get me thinking more about it.

    Quick question for you: How should schools go about coordinating amounts of homework? One scenario might be something like “no more than X hours of total homework per night, so for your class you only get X/n” but then you have to deal with the great variability of how long it takes students to do it.

    • “How should schools go about coordinating amounts of homework?”

      Yeah, that’s tough. I don’t love blanket statement rules, because there’s always exceptions. I think what would work best is if the school had a real discussion and study on the purpose and need for homework, then each individual teacher made sure they were being very purposeful about the HW they assign. The issue you are seeing with algorithm-based homework is really a symptom of a larger issue where a combination of national test-emphasis and, frankly, many math teachers thinking that ‘doing the algorithm’ means students understand the math. But certainly a conversation at the school level would help to some extent.

      • I agree with your take on why math teachers are assigning so much homework. They really do think that doing procedures means understanding math.

        I also like the idea of a school-wide conversation about homework, but I’ve been a part of these and without some good leadership (and understanding of pedagogy, which is far too rare) at the administrative level, the discussion usually degenerates into disputes about equity of hours spent doing HW for the various classes.

        I don’t want to paint with too broad a brush here, and I probably am, but I think a big problem is that so many of us teachers have never done anything but school with our lives. We carry the momentum of how school was done to us right through college and into our teaching careers and we keep doing school to our students as it was done to us.

    • “He’s all about just getting the homework done.”

      And that’s the real problem, isn’t it. If it counts for a grade, it’s just a task you have to do to comply with the teacher’s expectation. It’s totally natural and normal for students to do what we all do with tasks we don’t value that we have to do to comply/conform. (Think mowing the lawn or raking your leaves or doing your taxes.) We create an efficient method and get it over with as painlessly as possible. If we have the means, we pay someone else to do it. Same with kids and homework. You learn the algorithm and jump through the hoops as quickly as possible so you can get back to your X-box. Or if you can coerce someone else into doing it for you, you don’t do it at all.

      So the trick is to find a way to get them to want to do the homework. The teenage brain is a major issue here, IMO, as they don’t yet have the foresight to look far enough ahead to see that the practice will pay off later.

      • This is huge Dave. I think you’re right on the money. If it’s about compliance, then students find the easiest possible way for them to comply. We have to convince them (and ourselves) that it’s about learning.

  4. Pingback: Making Homework Work for My Students | LEARNINGANDPHYSICS

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