Using Homework Effectively

I don't grade homework. When I say "homework" I'm talking about formative assessments that are assigned to follow up with a lesson in class rather than culminating projects that may require some time outside of class to finish.

This created a firestorm of comments in an exchange with my professional learning network over Edmodo. Apparently, some school districts are mandated to grade homework with a 10% weighting and some of my own collegues said that if they "don't grade homework, the students won't do it." This was the resounding cry from many others.

The Problem With Assessing Homework
We must be careful about how we use and grade homework as educators. Formative homework assignments often give the illusion of understanding. Here's why:
  • They are early in the learning process and students have yet to fully grasp the material in depth. 
  • Students can get help on these assignments from parents and friends. 
When I started out as a teacher, I graded homework with a rubber stamp. In other words, if it was done and looked somewhat complete, I would usually give it credit on a three point rubric which looked like this:

3: Assignment complete, neat and easy to read, some minor mistakes
2: Assignment mostly complete, mostly legible, a number of mistakes
1: Assignment mostly incomplete, many parts unclear, a large number of mistakes

There were a number of constraints which added to the problem. Time was a big factor. I couldn't spend more than 5-10 minutes debriefing the homework assignment and how was I to accurately grade 25 students homework assignments, provide time to ask questions, and check their work with the time given before moving on to a new lesson? Also, math assignments tend to get harder as they progress so when students take home an assignment they're doing the most difficult parts which require more application, on their own.

A Quest for More Effective Practices
My metamorphosis and evolution from ineffective to more effective homework practices started when I started thinking about grading for the content knowledge rather than just threatening students with the grade book which was essentially grading them on completion, with no accounting for understanding. I learned that:
  • Homework needed to be meaningful and relevant.
  • There needed to be time to debrief the assignments.
  • Assignments needed to be varied, different and unique.
I wrote an article a while back on "Flipped Lessons"that gave some more flexibility to the above bullets and I'll provide some more examples of sample flipped assignments this year.

Creating a Classroom Where Homework Is Valued, but Not Graded
Philosophies of education look great, but what do they look like in practice? Some things that I've found are very useful are the following:
  1. If you're "flipping a lesson" and designating class time only to working on problems, have the answers posted in class. 
  2. Have students self assess their productivity. I have a poster of the above rubric and students tell me what they've accomplished in their time. I report this number, but give it a 0% weighting. 
  3. Provide time in small groups or large group settings to debrief and discuss homework and allow a number of open ended responses. Since there are many ways to find a right answer in math, we must allow time for these different avenues to be valued. 
  4. Create a living document with bullet points of what "was learned" as a result of doing homework. This creates ownership of the learning process and can be posted in class for reference. 
Taking time to discuss homework assignments and clear up an misconceptions if vital before moving on to new material. Since learning is so foundational, we must provide this time for students to discuss, and ask questions.

What are your best educational practices regarding use of homework? Feel free to comment!

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