Homework Crisis

If my WordPress stats reveal anything, it’s that the blogosphere likes me best when I’m in reflecto-panic-crisis mode. Well, thanks to a post from John Scammell over at Zero-Knowledge Proofs, I’m back at it. The subject this time: Homework.

I’ve spent a lot of this school year weighing the usefulness (or lack thereof) of my various classroom practices. I lecture too much, my students spend far more time doing more “exercises” than “problems,” my assessments need some serious work… The list goes on. In recent months I’ve thought occasionally about the effectiveness of my homework policy. John’s post has me thinking about it again, and this time I don’t believe I’ll be able to rest until I’ve sorted out what my approach should look like and how I’ll get there.

In the Past…

In my first year of teaching, my homework sins were many. (1) I tried to grade it all myself. For about two weeks, anyway. Then I tried to grade 5 problems per assignment, all myself. Still terrible, and now for twice as many reasons. Eventually I “outsourced” homework grading to the students themselves and a TA. Better in some ways, worse in others, but still broken, because… (2) I would allow the start-of-class homework discussion to last 15 to 20 minutes (out of a 45 to 50 minute period). Horrible. Shamefully horrible. There was then never enough time to address new material, which meant I could expect widespread struggles on the next homework assignment, which meant another long homework discussion to start class the following day, and on and on. For me, it was wash, rinse, repeat at least 150 times per semester. (3) “Preparing students for the homework” became the driving force of all my instruction. Which was weird, because I was the one who selected the homework, but then once I did that I felt like I was no longer in control. The assigned homework was in control. When we weren’t prepared for the sometimes well-selected, sometimes poorly-selected assignment, I felt like the day was lost. I would occasionally send kids home to suffer through the assignment anyway (lots of frustration and tension and guilt mixed in with that approach). Other times I would postpone the assignment (which was always received with loud applause from students) and consider myself a failure—at least for the day—because the lesson didn’t “work” and we were “falling behind.”

In the Present…

It would take thousands of words to describe all of my imperfections as a teacher. But I could probably use almost as many to describe the ways I’ve grown over the past nine years. I may not be particularly good at this teaching gig, but I’m better than I used to be.

I feel like I’ve successfully addressed the major issues outline in (1) and (2) above by streamlining our in class “homework check” routine. Of the many things I’ve tried over the years, I’ve been reasonable happy with two approaches: Hard copies of solutions (one paper per pair of students) or slides of solutions, with either method placed right at the start of class. There have been advantages and disadvantages to each approach, with each growing larger or smaller depending on the particular group of students, but the common result has been a start-of-class homework routine that usually takes between 2 and 4 minutes and provides every student with feedback on every attempted problem as “immediately” as I can manage given my available tools and my limited skill set.

Issue (3) is an ongoing struggle, and something I hope to consider further. Maybe it’s related to what I discuss below, maybe not.

Still in the Present…

For all the improvements I’ve realized, there are still some glaring weaknesses in my current approach to homework. In my honors classes, almost all of my students complete the assignment each night, but some of them spend a ridiculous amount of time on it. Is this the most effective way for them to learn? Is this the healthiest way to spend their evening? Is there a way to transform what I do in the classroom so that they end up learning and practicing at least as much as they do now, but without my stealing so much of their non-school time with school-related things? (If you think the answers are not “No, no, and yes,” you are hereby required to explain in the comments.)

In the Future…

Should I do away with homework all together? Posts like John Scammell’s make me think I should. But then most of my classes don’t have the dismal homework completion rates that John and many other thoughtful teachers point to as one advantage of the no-homework approach. Will I use Dan Meyer’s 2007 approach? Or his 2008 approach? (Anyone know the latest thoughts out of Camp Meyer?) And while we’re linking to blog posts about assigning or not assigning homework, are there other posts I should read?

In all likelihood, my course responsibilities for next year will include AP Calculus AB, Honors Precalculus with Trigonometry, Honors Algebra 2, and Honors Algebra 1. In these classes, the homework completion rate is through the roof, plus or minus 3%, and (as I’ve shared above) I think many of the students benefit from the practice. It would be tempting to say that my homework policy is “good enough” for these classes. The students will do the work, they’ll remember to bring it to class, they’ll grade it efficiently, I’ll assume they’re getting the feedback they need to draw conclusions about their strengths and weaknesses, and that together we’ll be able to decide how to proceed from there.

One of the classes I don’t expect to teach next year is regular Algebra 1. This year’s section of Algebra 1 has been my most challenging ever. Among other things, my homework completion rate has been discouraging and not at all like the majority of my classes. I would guess that less than 50% complete the assignment each night, and for those who do only about 20% (or less) benefit from the practice. For a class like this, my current homework approach isn’t working. They need (and deserve) something better, something more thoughtful, something less frustrating, something more effective, something like what John Scammell describes in the post I mentioned above.

Does the fact that they aren’t served well by my current homework system mean that my other more compliant classes would also be better served with a different system? Or does the high completion rate mean I should leave things the way they are for these classes?

Should I have one approach to assigning homework for all of my classes, irrespective of the habits of an individual class? Or should I tailor my policies to the tendencies of my students, and define effectiveness in relation to the particular set of students?

Clearly I need some help sorting all of this out. Thanks in advance for anything you can offer in the comments.