Category Archives: Homework

Questioning Homework

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

Screen Shot 2015-01-07 at 8.25.17 PM

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 talkingmathwithkids.com), 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