Saturday, February 9, 2013

Thoughts on homework

Julie put out a call for posts about homework differentiation, which came at a perfect time for me since this is something I've been thinking about recently. I'll get to differentiation in a sec, but first, some general issues that I'm having with homework:

It has sort of taken over my teaching life. We spend a lot of time on it in class, and I spend a lot of time on it outside of class. I am not sure if this is good or bad. The way that I do homework, students have all of the answers and must check their assignment and identify problems they have done incorrectly or that they don't know how to do. In class, students discuss their questions with each other in groups for about 5 minutes, then we make a list of questions to go over as a class. Students volunteer to present their solutions to the identified questions and answer any follow up questions from classmates. Those who got those questions wrong or didn't complete them are expected to make corrections to their work. The whole thing takes about 20 minutes, on average, which is almost half of the 45 minute class period. For my end, I look at each problem for each kid and write feedback on each paper. If there are errors or incomplete work or misunderstandings demonstrated, credit is reduced and students are expected to correct those assignments and turn them back in to me. Once the assignment meets my criteria for "goodness," full credit is given. Students are also required to write up corrections and explanations of their errors for tests and complete a journal entry reflecting on their progress each chapter. For my four classes, which have four homework assignments each week, the whole grading process takes me on average about 2 hours every day. That's a lot of time!!!

On the plus side, I think doing problems independently, discussing their thinking with other students, presenting their work and having to make sure that it adequately communicates their process, and getting regular, frequent feedback from me are all really helpful for their learning of both the math content and how to be a better student. On the minus side, it means that there isn't much time left for group explorations or as thorough grounding of each lesson as I would like, both in terms of how much class time is available and how much time I have to plan lessons outside of class.

I use this system not because I think it's super duper awesome, but because I haven't seen any other way that accomplishes the student learning piece better. A few things that have helped me be slightly more efficient:

  1. If I see a bunch of errors, say three or more, I stop grading the paper and write a note to the student reminding them that they need to check their answers and make corrections, either on their own or with help from me. The assignment doesn't get any credit until that happens. I don't want them relying on me to check their answers for them, and I want them to come in and get help.
  2. As the year continues, I start restricting the amount of time given before corrections can be turned back in to me. Eventually, they are not allowed to correct any more and must come in and get help before turning in the work in the first place. This helps them transition to their future math classes, none of which allow corrections on homework assignments. 
  3. I try not to assign too many problems and assign ones that I think are meaningful and helpful to students' learning. Kids do see the connection between putting effort into their homework and their learning and progress in the class.
But really, this is a crazy inefficient system, especially in terms of my time use. I don't know about everyone else, but grading homework for me is somewhere up there between having hot pokers shoved into my eyes and being trapped in an airless mine shaft. It's seriously obnoxious. But I hate the idea of just grading based on completion because then there's no feedback to the student and much less of a connection between homework and learning. So, I'm stuck with my current system unless someone has any suggestions.

Okay, on to differentiation!!

So I don't currently actively differentiate a lot of homework, other than test corrections and journal entries. There is a good deal of differentiation that happens as a natural outcome of how I structure homework though because students who didn't get full credit on assignments have to correct them, which means that they are addressing their own specific misunderstandings. Also, students who score less than 70% on a test are required to complete extra work as well as meet with me.

Here are some other ideas of things I'd like to try:

  1. After a quiz, breaking up the class into groups based on the types of mistakes they made. Each group will have all the kids that need to work on a particular concept together. Then, I can work with each group to reteach/address misunderstandings on that topic and their homework will be problems targeting that specific concept. The kids that rocked the quiz will work together on a challenge problem. Their homework will be to complete it and do a write-up of their process.
  2. In my regular-paced class, which is completing Algebra 1 over two years, we often spend two days on a learning target. For the first day, I'd like to assign everyone the same basic homework assignment. Then, for the second night's homework assignment, students will have the option of either doing more basic practice OR to do a more challenging, shorter set.
  3. I loved this post by Bob Lochel that I recently read about differentiating homework assignments in which different problems are worth different point amounts (depending on difficulty) and the students complete enough problems of their choice to earn the assigned total point value.
Looking forward to reading everyone else's differentiation strategies and ideas.


  1. I did #1 this year based on the results of a pre-assessment. We were reviewing percent increase/decrease and I wanted to know which students knew what, so we made up a short quiz. Then, I group students based on their mistakes Everyone made mistakes, which I think was key to share with the students. Some of my colleagues didn't frame things this way with their students and got a lot more status issues and resentment about the grouping.

    I made up a set of self-check cards--question on the front answer on the back--with different tiers of questions based on the mistakes that the groups made on their quiz. The first card for each group (which wasn't a self-check) was to analyze their mistake(s) on the quiz and explain what happened, and why they went wrong. It was really cool to hear the students talk about "our" mistake was... And while most of the class worked in their small groups, I helped the group who turned in their assessment with the words "I don't remember how to do this" scrawled on the top.

    1. Thanks, Breedeen! I think the suggestion about emphasizing that *everyone* made mistakes is an excellent one that I will incorporate when I implement this idea. I can definitely see this causing some students to see themselves as being in the "dumb" or "smart" group otherwise. Differentiating without emphasizing or creating status differences is so tricky, but important. Thanks for pointing that out!!

  2. I like that your students have the answers already. I give them access to the answer key in class, but not at home. Not sure if I could do that without a copyright problem :( I'll have to look into it.

    I also like the idea of breaking up into groups after a quiz. I'm doing that one next time!

    1. I found that having them check answers in class uses up too much precious class time, and it also means that they may have inadvertently made the same error on a bunch of problems and not realized it because they couldn't check as they went along. Are you assigning homework from some place other than a textbook?

  3. Last semester I just checked homework for completion and it showed on tests. I need to find a way to get them feedback on whether they completed the homework correctly. The curriculum that we use at our school, though, does not allow for me to spend more than about 10-15 minutes a week in class addressing the homework. I'm thinking of putting together a partial answer key (like say for all the odd numbered problems).

    As far as making your system more efficient, I recommend only giving one or two homework problems every day. Early on in the unit those homework problems can be very simple, along the lines of performing operations related to the unit (without being given any context) or regurgitating vocabulary for the unit. Maybe these problems do not come with an answer key for the students, maybe they do. Later in the unit the problems become much more complex: problems that require an application of the skills students have learned during the unit or problems that require students to create something (a problem, scenario, etc.) that they can only now do as a result of the unit. This could help cut down on the amount of time it takes you to grade the homework, without sacrificing the rigor of the assignment for the students.

    I don't know if these ideas are any good but they might be worth trying. Let me know if you find a more efficient way of grading and still giving the good feedback that you're giving. I'd love the ideas as I'm trying to figure out what to do for my students.