Wrestling with homework (Algebra 1, Geometry)

I started this year with a homework policy that came out of tempered idealism. I believe that in high school kids should gradually take ownership of their learning, and that includes practice. I think they are capable of doing a small amount of practice for no reason other than it will help them learn and retain new skills. No points! No homework grading!

On the other hand, I knew that a certain percentage of kids would work the system however they could, including to their own detriment. No homework grading? Cool! No homework!

Then there are some kids who probably will not do the homework whether you grade it or not. Some of them have chaotic home lives. Homework inherently discriminates against these kids. Many of these kids are the ones we will work ourselves to the bone to prevent from failing.

So, what to do? I feel I need to encourage practice, and responsibility. I do not want to grade 135 kids’ homework. I don’t want to “check in” homework, unable to tell whether it is correct, or copied. I want everyone focused on learning, as much as possible.

I told kids the first week that I’d be giving a weekly “Homework Quiz.” These would be designed so that, if you did the homework, you should ace the quiz. Quizzes are given a full class later than the homework is due, so we have a chance to go over the work together and find any misconceptions. I’ve been making the quizzes short (half a page) and only allowing about 15 minutes of classtime. They are quick and easy to grade, and have the tested skills listed at the top. They get entered into the gradebook, divided by skill, under Formative Assessment, which altogether will be 20% of their grade (schoolwide SBG-hybrid policy… long story).

This week, in an attempt to see how things were working (and to keep everyone on their toes) I checked homework. Students were, needless to say, shocked. Three weeks in, and they had already decided I would never check the homework! “I thought you didn’t do that!!” I love teenagers.

Does it work? Yes and no. Here are some gross generalizations based on the first few weeks:

  • Kids who are quick learners either did or didn’t do the homework, and did fine on the quizzes. Honestly, if they could have nailed the assessment just from paying attention in class, do they need homework?
  • Compliant kids – who probably would have done the homework without the quizes – did the homework, but seemed a little clearer on what they should be getting out of it.
  • System-working kids who would do anything to avoid the homework did a minimal amount of the work and often did poorly on the quizzes. I am still hoping that as the weeks go by they will really swallow the connection between practice and success.
  • Kids who lack home support have mostly not done the homework. I suspect that would also be the case in a graded-homework setting. They have done poorly on many parts of the quizes, but not all. The only advantage of this system, for them, is that we have some data on what they know, and what they don’t, so I can get some targeted help headed their way.

There is one other thing about this system that I like: it’s a low-stakes test. Kids get more practice in a testing environment, and another opportunity to recall and build memory.



3 Responses to “Wrestling with homework (Algebra 1, Geometry)”

  1. 1 Mr. Vaudrey September 25, 2012 at 11:19 am

    I like it. Student groups A and B did fine for me, as well.

    With groups C and D, I took some time to pull them aside and pave them a path from “No Homework” to “Bad Quiz Grade”, a path that they may have made on their own, but probably not. I used the time that I would spend collecting, stamping, or grading Homework to do those mini-conferences.

    It sounds like you’ve made much more immediate progress than I did with this concept. Well done!

  2. 2 Andrew Schultz February 22, 2013 at 11:41 am

    I enacted the same for my Physics classes this year.

    Any updates on how it is working at this point in the semester?

    • 3 Paul Gitchos March 3, 2013 at 9:10 pm

      Hi Andrew,
      Thanks for asking. I continue to find homework-grading a challenge to implement fairly and in the service of learning. Last week I gave a homework quiz in Algebra 1, and from it learned about a prevalent misconception about exponent properties held by the majority of kids in the class. This was incredibly useful as an assessment to plan and adjust my teaching. I chose not to put it in the gradebook, though – what would be the point? I intend for kids to do the learning they need to do to fill in the gap, then show it on the unit test. In the meantime, this formative work serves an important purpose: to help me and the students discover what they know and what they don’t, so we can fix that.
      I’d love to hear about your process and learning around this issue, as well. Thanks for reading.

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We are all born into this world, and at some point we will die and that will be that. In the meantime, let’s enjoy our minds and the wonderful and ridiculous things we can do with them. I don’t know about you, but I’m here to have FUN.
-Paul Lockhart

In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they are not.

-Yogi Berra


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