The value of homework

Homework has always been the thorn in my side as a teacher.  I understood it’s importance, but have struggled to get the students to understand the importance. From the beginning of my career, homework was a completion grade, quite often I would “check” it through homework quizzes that had questions from that week’s homework that we had specifically gone over in class. Then I wasn’t happy with that and switched it up to points 2-1-0. I would walk around and check for completion while they were checking with their neighbor. Switching to Standards Based Grading 3-4 years ago has helped my Algebra students understand a little better the importance of practice not points, but it hasn’t helped my Pre-Algebra students. It sounds like I run my homework similar to Andrew Stadel; I don’t collect homework. I don’t check it off that they did it.  I don’t keep track. They do spend the first 5 minutes checking with their table, while I go around and stamp their homework (if it is done) & take attendance, but I just stamp for completion and don’t keep track. Then I will go over any questions they couldn’t agree on at their table or questions they had good discussions about. Recently I have noticed a strong decline in the amount of homework that is being completed and discussed, either that or I am getting more annoyed with the whining “I didn’t understand it”, “It was too hard” or “I forgot” that comes from a multitude of students on a daily basis. I know it isn’t entirely the time of the year because I know I’ve been kind of ignoring the issue for a month or so now, hoping they would turn it around.  Andrew StadelChris Robinson, Hedge, and Fawn Nguyen were discussing the lack of homework completion the other day on Twitter and I shoved jumped right into the conversation.  I need a better focus on my views on homework and how to make it worthwhile in my classroom.  Since I jumped into the conversation a little late, they had already done a decent amount of leg work and came up with a few warm-up questions to pose to the students on Monday.

1. Briefly explain what reason cause you to regularly complete or regularly NOT complete the homework assignments.
2. What incentives would motivate you to complete more homework assignments?

I had students complete the questions on a note card and attempted to give very little direction or any examples. Unfortunately one of my Pre-Algebra classes didn’t understand the word incentive so I tried to explain it with an absurd example, “An incentive…like if having a pony would get you to complete your homework.” Somehow that helped them understand, but as you will see below also prompted them to tell me that a class pet would be a great incentive.  As they were leaving class, students were offering cages and toys for some class pet (I think someone said hamster), while I was mumbling something about it being too hard to have class pets these days due to all the allergies students have.  Just to be clear, we will NOT be getting a class pet.

I was going to tally up all of the results from all four periods together, but as I read through them (Middle School students are the best entertainment.), I realized very quickly that there was a distinct difference between my Pre-Algebra student responses and my Algebra student responses. Algebra for my students is an accelerated class at the 8th grade level, so they do tend to be more studious and responsible.  I wanted to then tally the results by course. Here are the results: (Someone needs to explain to me how to put tables in a blog)

FYI: I do teach about 120 students, I did not record responses that were off topic which is why they don’t add up to the right amount of students. 🙂

My Thoughts: (Reminder I do teach 8th Grade)
Reasons for not doing homework – I wasn’t surprised with Pre-Algebra having more students say they don’t understand or they forgot. Years of teaching have proved that to be the case. The 3 responses for distractions are home were from the students I know take care of siblings many of the hours they aren’t at school. Algebra responses were strongly not having time to do it, outside activities and they were busy, which I probably should have combined.  A lot of students in those classes are heavily involved in multiple sports, music, dance, etc. I am just fine with the response that if they understand it, they don’t do it.  I was happy only two students said they hated math; my goal is to change that.

Reasons for doing homework – I feel as though a lot of the responses from Pre-Algebra stemmed around getting good grades and it will help them, which did surprise me because I don’t feel as though that is what I see in the classroom. The parents would kill me response while morbid, was a little refreshing, I wish more parents were on their students to complete homework or to at least work on school work at home. I LOVE that so many Algebra students said it helps them to understand and to practice the skills, YEAH! They get it.  Why them and not all my students?  I also enjoyed so many of them saying that doing the HW helps them know if they understand the material. I wanted to do a cartwheel, they get it, they really do.  And to be honest, they don’t have the missing homework issue as bad as my Pre-Algebra students…the students that do are the ones who are struggling on skill quizzes.

Incentives – I love middle school students.  They really came up with some good incentives. Just to hit on a few…
Incentive Card Signature – We do have a grade level incentive program that ALWAYS gets tossed to the side as the year goes on. It’s similar to a Caught Ya Being Good system, where we give signatures on a card and full cards get them food, candy and other incentives a few times throughout the year.  It is such a pain to have them take out their cards and then I sign them.  I want to create a stamp, maybe then I would do it more.  It seems like they want me to.
Fun worksheets: Really? I thought the homework was fun or at least interesting.  There are comics and jokes and the homework is almost always self checking with answers provided.  Apparently my version of fun is not their version of fun, the “punny” jokes must need to go.
Extra Credit: I don’t offer it, they know this because THEY ASK ALL THE TIME. Why write it down? Do middle school students ever listen?
Less HW/Less problems: Really? The max is 20 and that is very very rare.  It’s usually 6-10.
STAR Card: My personal incentive system. STAR stands for Students Thinking & Acting Responsibly. I made them through VistaPrint. But again, I just don’t use them enough. I like to hand them out to students when they are on task and so many other students aren’t. It is a little overkill with the grade level system.  I am only still using them because I have so many left. But I do need to find a way to use one incentive or the other.
Stickers: The students love getting stickers when they master a skill. They keep begging me to buy scratch and sniff stickers, but they are expensive to give daily for homework.
Candy: I dislike eating in my classroom and try to avoid it at all costs. I also am not made of money and don’t want to buy candy all of the time.

I loved the student who said if you don’t do homework you need a punishment of some type, like a name on the board or something.  I do like the idea of if they have it all week, maybe they get something.  I have no idea what though. A lot of the Algebra students talked about high school placement, that’s only because we’ve been talking about it and we discussed what an Honors student looked like.  It’s on their minds I guess.

Overall – They really aren’t completely motivated by points, which is good, but I do need to find a way to work something in.  Years ago I did a chart for each class and they would put an sticker (again with the stickers) on the days they had their homework. It was a great visual to see who had it and who didn’t. I have also tried if everyone has their homework the class earns a tally mark, the period with the most tallies at end of week, month, etc. would win a popcorn party. I keep trying things and they don’t stick, I think because everything is too hard to keep up as the year goes on. Plus with the 42 or so minutes I have for class, I dislike spending too much time checking homework.

I guess I have a lot to think about.  Suggestions are welcome.  I want to figure this out so I can come back in January with a solid plan and actually carry it out.

6 thoughts on “The value of homework

  1. Homework is an issue for me as well. Many years I counted as a completion grade. I am in a new setting now. The school does not support counting homework in grades. I understand the historical reasoning for that (students failing because they didn’t do homework but they know the concepts on tests). At the beginning of the year I was getting decent amount of homework completed … did the same as you … checked briefly … discussed briefly … kept track only to provide feedback when grades were low (Hmmm, you failed that quiz … let’s see did you do any homework? I wonder if that would help?)

    Less homework is being completed now; less discussion … seems to be a waste of precious class time to check it at all.

    The traditional math teacher in me says it is a travesty to give up on homework! The practical do what it takes to make it work in me says … give up … move on …

    Like you, my homework was 6 – 10 problems … not always self checking but always directly linked to a skill or two that needed reinforcing.

    Looking for ideas for January … going to shake things up a bit … ideas?

  2. I, like many I think, have been trying to get my head around this for a few years now. I’m not there yet, but I’m getting close. I have been using a pared down very focused assignment as the price to take the test come test day. If they don’t have it they are not allowed to take the test. If they refuse to do it I refer them to our homework center until they do it.

    As Reeves says, the consequence for not doing the work should be DOING THE WORK. The hard part is finding a mechanism in your classroom and school makes it happen.

  3. I go back and forth about HW. Marshall, how has the feedback from students been about your system? Have you seen improvement in grades?

    I teach Algebra 1 & 2 at a community college. This semester is the first time that I used MyMathLab (online HW tool). For my 50 students in Algebra 1, only 10 of them regularly did the HW. 8 of those 10 received a B or higher. From day 1, I said that the overall HW score would count as a test grade. When it was obvious that very few students were doing the HW (even though it counted as a test grade), I told the students that I would only include the HW score if it helped their grade. Of the 8 students with a B or higher, the HW score did increase their overall percentage, but only 2 students grades actually went up a half a grade with the inclusion of the score.

    When I asked the students if they did the online HW and why or why not, the responses were interesting.

    Some really liked using it and felt that having the ‘see an example’ or ‘help me solve this problem’ really helped them. Others did not like the tool because the syntax was sometimes difficult to enter. I wish that I would have kept better track of their responses. But 42 of the 50 purchased the access code for the semester.

    I would love to know how others deal with HW too.

  4. I teach sixth grade, four sections of math and one section of LA. Last spring students investigated the value of homework by reading articles, surveying parents and students from grades 6 and 7, plus interviewing teachers. They then took a position and wrote arguments about the value of homework.

    Most of the class articulated the position that homework must be meaningful and should not be assigned as a routine. During a class discussion one student shared how a teacher assigns homework, and then next day has the students put it in the recycling bin. She only checks that it has been completed; she doesn’t even go over it. Imagine telling a student to throw away something they’ve worked on!

    Instead of stamping the assignment and checking it in, perhaps we should consider collecting the homework, even if we have no intention of rifling through it. Collecting it at least sends the message that the teacher values the assignment.

    I, too, get irritated when students don’t do their homework. I always have to remind myself I’m dealing with kids and that keeps things in perspective for me. It’s easy for kids to see the direct relationship between practicing free-throws and being ready for a game because there is immediate pay-off in their short view of life. Taking the long view of seeing the benefit of completing homework is difficult for many kids.

    When it comes to incentives, I’m not a fan of extrinsic rewards. Instead I think students should set goals and we should help them monitor their progress. Then the “incentive” is the goal and the goal is to achieve the learning target.

    There will always be kids who don’t comply and they may one day become one of our most admired leaders. We never know!

  5. I allow students to have their notebooks open for quizzes, and I recycle problems from the homework and notes. Students who have done their homework well and have taken careful notes get perfect quiz grades easily. Once they figured that out, their homework completion improved significantly.

    • I started letting them use their notebooks as well, but I don’t use recycled problems and I try to vary my problems. If they have it in their notebook from taking careful notes when you are doing the problem on the board, doesn’t that show on a quiz that they can copy and follow directions well instead of having them prove that they understand how to solve the problem?

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