Bright Student Doesn’t Do Homework

Wow, my post title reads like an Onion headline. But in fact, I didn’t read it in the Onion. I read it on Twitter.

Jackie Ballarini asked:

Picture 2

The question is worth thinking about, because it gets to the heart of some pretty deep issues. What is a grade, what is homework, and what is our role as teachers? I’m afraid my opinion will be in the minority and I’m okay with that. Just don’t be too harsh in the comments.

I personally am a fan of homework. I assign it. This year, in my second year, I’m assigning less of it than last year. But it allows me to focus on concepts in class, and has students practice more skills at home. We spend about 1/2 the class learning concepts and building up to being able to solve problems. The other half is solving these problems. Then I assign homework to have students try things on their own, individually, away from their desk partners and with some time between when they first saw the material and when they see it again. Why homework?

1. It forces students to naturalize the skills they’ve learned in class. I think there is something valuable about doing the same problem, but with different numbers, five times over. It drills home basic procedures. Some of my students can’t see something once and remember it. They need time to work through it on their own. And doing it again and again actually does help them.

2. It allows me to have students grapple with slightly newer situations, that we don’t always cover in class. I do this more with my Calculus class than my Algebra II class. Homework has been, at times, an extension of class. (Just to be clear, this isn’t me saying “oops I ran out of time, so you have to learn this new material on your own.” I actually choose a preliminary list of problems, and then revise the list based on where we got to in class.)

3. It is an easy way for me to make sure that all students are learning. If homework were optional, I know that the students who most need to do it to practice their skills won’t do it; and for the most part, students who don’t need it as much will do it. (Note to self: definitely an important point that I should think about.) But yeah, homework is a way for me to easily make sure that students who don’t always get things immediately have time to practice them — and a consequence is that students who do get things quickly have to do some extra work which might be unnecessary.

Clearly though, there are problems with homework. The most apparent being that it is not individualized and not all students need to spend the time on it to be successful. And certainly I agree that coming up with alternative ways to assign homework might be fruitful and worth trying [1]. However that won’t be my concern here, today, in this post.

Back to Jackie’s question. Most of the responses I saw on Twitter were of the “give the kid an A!” variety. And I totally get and respect that point of view. How can one argue against the fact that the student knows the material? And if the student can get straight As without working, and can even teach the material to other students, why would we demand that this student spend the unnecessary time to do what they already understand? Why force busy work upon the student? It doesn’t seem legit.

I see all that.

And yet, I actually believe that the student should be penalized for not doing the homework.

If a grade is merely about the ability of a student to solve problems well, I say okay, give the kid an A. But I don’t see my role as a teacher as only teaching students to work problems. (That is my primary goal, though.) Even though they are in high school, my students are kids. Think to you in your classroom everyday. These kids are learning what is acceptable behavior and what isn’t. They are learning what expectations are and how to meet them (or what the consequences are of not meeting them). They are learning how to act with maturity and handle responsibility.

I mean, holding a trashcan in front of a kid so they can spit out their gum, or encouraging them to come to you for extra help, or congratulating them on doing a fantastic job at the basketball game or the school dance concert — these actions affirm implicit values that you are trying to instill in your kids. Yeah, and one of the values is accepting responsibility for your actions.

The students knows that they should be doing their homework. Even if is the most mundane, boring, piece of busy work ever assigned. But the teacher has set up the expectation. And in my opinion, even if the student gets an A+ on every exam and the most perfect angel, the student should then be asked to face the consequences. (And in my class, since homework is factored into the grade, the consequence is that the student’s homework grade would greatly suffer.)

My question is: if we don’t penalize the student, what message are we sending? And if the consequence of not doing the homework is that the student gets an F for all the homeworks that weren’t completed, so be it. The expectations were there, the consequences were laid out, so I say: follow through.

I guess by following through with the grading system that I had been using all year, I am pretty much saying to the bright kid who can’t be bothered to do homework: “Hey, sometimes in life, we all have to do things we don’t like. Things we don’t think we need. But we have to do them anyway.” And guess what? I’m really okay with promoting that value. Welcome to the larger world.

Now I have to end this with a small note. This post isn’t about Jackie’s student. I don’t know her classroom, her student, or her policies/expectations. It’s all highly individual. But if this happened in my classroom, with any of my students, and with my policies/expectations, this would be the consequence.

[1] There is something really great about Dan Meyer’s class setup, where if you know the skills, you get the grade. If you don’t know the skills, you don’t get the grade. Most notably, it allows students to be active agents in their own learning process. And if a student drops the ball and doesn’t learn something, he or she has the opportunity to pick the ball up again. In Dan’s classroom, grades aren’t punitive but encouragements and sites for individual improvement. However that isn’t my classroom (yet) and I doubt there are many around like it.

I was thinking of trying something next year more along the lines of Jonathan’s comment at the end of Dan’s post:

I assign 3 pieces: practice, regular, and challenge. Everyone does regular, and one of the others. So the stronger kids get a couple of challenge problems, and the weaker kids get a fistful of easier exercises to build up some proficiency. And since it is easier, they are more likely to do it.

Dan himself this year has started assigning homework, but just a little. It seems like he spends a lot of time in class working problems for the drilling aspect I think is so important.

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10 comments

  1. I’m with you. My grades are calculated transparently. 60% from tests and quizzes, 20% from homework, 10% from participation (almost always between 7 and 10 points), and 10% from a small project (6 per year).

    I don’t tell the kids at the beginning of the year, but eventually I share, since the volume of assignments is so great, and the possibility of a clerical error real, I allow for one or two missing assignments without affecting the grade (ie, 42 assignments, but I use 40 for the denominator.)

    So a kid misses an assignment, they know the penalty. (I also always take late work, with a deduction. No sense in burying the kid, give him a chance to catch up and mitigate the effect on his grade).

    Also, I try to make the assignment easy enough for each kid. That’s why I offer two varieties.

    The key in a class where homework completion is very spotty: shorten the assignments and make them easier. Make them so short and easy that it becomes genuinely embarrassing not to do them. (As the kids get older and stronger, this becomes less of a factor).

    Would you like to see a sample assignment?

    Jonathan

  2. About a year ago, I would surely disagree with this post. just because I have a bias toward homework.
    In fact, I think you posted something about homework sometime ago and I did a response saying homework is not useful or w/e… or is it some other website… I’m not completely sure…

    but then I do start to see the other side.

    If there a system that’s not optimal, there are 3 possible things to do.
    1. change the system
    2. do what the system expects
    3. do not do what the system expects and suffer the consequences

    As a student, I constantly chose 3. I do know many people chose 2. and many people in my school who chose 2 are just copying answers… but they suffer during the tests… that is one of the reason I disliked homework. Student can use their social engineering skills to find homework to copy.

    For a bright student, if grades matters enough for him, he would complete the homework to get the grades because that’s how the system works. And if he didn’t, he can’t complain because clearly the grade didn’t matter that much to him.

    But if I become a teacher, I would like to make the system more flexible.

  3. Homework is still an aspect that I have yet to figure out. While obtaining my credential, it was the big question that I brought up in all my classes that no professor could answer, and every teacher had a different solution. How should I assign and manage homework?

    I will definitely say that I do assign more homework now compared to my first two years of teaching. But I still don’t think I’m doing it correctly.

    What really is the point of homework? …To allow students more individual practice? To allow students to self-assess their learning? To allow the teacher to assess the students’ progress? All of the above? Not too sure, really — great.

    One thing that I do remember learning is to not grade homework, but to provide feedback. I do neither. Truthfully, grading tests takes long enough. I’m not about to grade every homework assignment. I do give them the solutions to the homework (to check themselves), yet I have students still turning in assignments with completely wrong answers.

    And then of course I have Dan Meyer’s issue, too. Those who need the practice, don’t complete the homework. Those who would ace the test even without homework, complete the homework. You can take as many points away as possible, but how is that going to affect students who don’t really see poor grades as a consequence.

    One thing I am looking forward to though is our school schedule change for next year. We are on block scheduling and are implementing a 20 minute tutorial session after each class. How will this help me? Well first, those who need more practice will be directed to stay after class to do more practice. But more importantly, students who do not complete their homework will stay after to complete their homework. Taking away points is useless for some students, but taking away their time from an extended lunch may be more motivation for them to get their homework done … at home. Sorry for making this too long.

  4. You raise some good points. Here are some of the quesitons I am wrestling with. If we are assinging mundane busywork, what message is that we are sending? What if a student has responsibilities outside of school that make doing homework impossible? There are a bunch of reasons for a student to forgo homework that are legitimate. Do we grade it or give credit for completion? How do you know the work that is handed in was done by the student and not copied during 3rd period? I mean the list of questions is endless.

    I am with you when you say that we are teaching more than just math. Most of our students won’t be math majors, but they will all be citizens and we want them to be responsible. And yes, “I don’t feel like it” isn’t an excuse to skip something you are supposed to do.

    If we are going to assign homework, it has to be meaningful. Is there a way for a student to create his own homework assignment?

    I am working on a post right now trying to hash this out.

  5. My question wasn’t about “one” particular student – I have a handful in this situation (each with their own stories and levels of homework completion) – but all very bright (honestly I think they’re misplaced, but as seniors it is impossible to move them up a level). Very little of the homework I assign is review problems. It isn’t 1-31 odds. They are investigative tasks that lead into the next days class discussions. We then do the practice, extension, and synthesis in class.

    I think my tweet was more about what is the purpose of school. I’m still trying to reconcile my own thoughts – and figure out how that works in the larger picture.

  6. As you pointed out, it comes down to what grades measure. Grades, as they are now, are often poor indicators of learning. When we use grades to punish it lowers they’re value. Doing your homework is basically about “doing what you’re told.” You get the grade if you do what you’re told. I am teaching more than just math, I’m teaching my students to challenge authority. I’m teaching them to stand up to pointless illegitimate requirements that are enforced just because. If student gets the concept, they get the grade, period. If they’re not getting the concept, then we need to act with academic interventions.

    Ideally, we should move towards standards based reporting. Did student get standard 8 (exceeds, meets, doesn’t meet, no measurement). In that case you could have a standard for timeliness or class conduct etc.

    Ask your students, I find that a lot of the time we talk philosophy amongst each other but let’s ask our clients for their point of view. I’m often surprised at the well reasoned and insightful answers I get.

  7. I am curious if your view on homework has changed at all since this post. Is homework something of a life skill grade? When you think about the problem solving classes you implemented so wonderfully recently, does this change your thinking?

    Working on developing my own homework policies,

    Joan

  8. I personally assign homework as one way of making parents aware of how their child is doing in my class. Each page will reflect a skill that we are currently working on. I inform parents that their child should be able to complete it without assistance (although some may need the questions read to them). If they can’t manage on their own, that is likely the same experience I am having with them in class.

    The only mark I assign where homework is concerned is based on completion. This mark is then considered when completing the ‘learning skills’ section of their report cards, typically under ‘responsibility’. Removing marks from the grade itself gives an unrealistic portrayal of a student’s understanding of content knowledge.

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