Thursday, December 2, 2010

Meaning first, homework second

I have stopped assigning daily required homework to my students.  Over the last 4 years of my teaching career, I assigned daily homework, and at the start of each class I would "check", or assess, the completion of their work.  When I started to think about it, what I was doing could be considered malpractice. 

The students would open their work booklets to the assigned page and I would walk up and down the rows and either give the students a 100% or a 0%.  It is ludicrous to call this true assessment.  I was grading their work ethic more than their actual knowledge of math.  Almost every student's mark was being either inflated or deflated due to their work ethic.

I have had the discussion that daily homework teaches good work habits and/or develops positive character traits.  After reading many articles and research I have yet to find one piece of evidence that supports this claim.  Another argument is that homework "gives students more time to master a topic or skill".  I have read reports from researcher Richard C. Anderson that claims "the actual learning that is occurring depends strictly on time spent learning the concept".  However, when Anderson completed further research he found that this claim also turns out to be false.

A colleague of mine used the example of reading to illustrate the need for daily homework.  Anderson found that when children are taught to read by focusing on the meaning of the text (as opposed to strictly memorizing the phonetic sounds of the words), then the learning completed by the reader does not depend on the amount of instructional time.  His research also carried over to math, which showed that the more time spent on completing math facts only increased achievement if the achievement was based on low level thinking and strictly recall as opposed to problem solving.  The truth is that when creativity and higher level thinking is involved, the more hours spent are least likely to produce better outcomes.

Another colleague used the idea of sports to prove that homework is a necessity.  Of course it makes sense that if you practice a certain athletic skill the correct way you will improve in that area.  However, using sports to promote homework in class is using petition principii, or more commonly known as “begging the question”.  A proposition which requires proof is assumed without proof; we are assuming that an intellectual skill and an athletic skill can be classified in the same category.

The majority of people that I have encountered that are supporters of daily required homework fail to look at the tasks from the students’ point of view.  Most “drill and practice” assignments actually do the contrary to students’ learning, and actually “drill and kill” any interest in the subject area.   Also, when students are struggling with a concept, asking them to complete questions on this concept will become frustrating for them and still no actual learning will occur.  I have realized that I need to stop treating my students with the notion that “if I give them more to do, then they will know more”.
In my classes, I challenge students in meaningful contexts and provide them with questions that are similar to the ones in class.  I do not require my students to complete these questions, I do not grade these questions, and I do not force my students to do work that is not important to them.  The meaning of the math is what I put as a priority in my class, and home work as second.


  1. Hey Dave! Enjoyed this blog! I totally agree with you about the homework. My daughter, as you know, has a learning diability and it is such a struggle for her to do homework no matter what time of day when she gets home from school. She falls apart! Her doing or not doing homework does not seem to make her learning any better or worse. It is just more pressure on her after she has 'kept it together' for the entire day. She is over whelmed and over stimulated and the last thing that is beneficial for her is homework! I wish all the teachers would learn your concept and adopt it for 'normal' kids and for ones that have troubles learning things in school. Her doing math and spelling drills is not going to make it easier for her (or for me as her mom who has to deal with all the meltdowns!)

  2. I agree with Dave to an extent. Homework is sometimes harmful to students but it all depends on the level of learning the student recieving the homeork is at. A student with a LD may find homework as unbeneficial to their learning experience. However a student participating in an academic course, such as math 31, need prectise outside of the classroom whether they know it or not. assigning homework is great incentive for the student to get this practise and achive a greater understanding for the material. when it comes to taking homework in for completion, I disagree. In highschool i would work my ass off to complete the homework assigned the previous day and was pissed off when classmates would copy from the back or from peers and recieve the same score as i did. eventually i found myself doing the same and it wasnt untill during my first year in college that i realized that if i would have carried on doing the homework i would be much better off right now. The idea of marks for completion distroyed any modivation i had to continue working hard during that course. In my opinion howmework should be given out consvervatively and be taken in for full marks everytime.

  3. I am a teacher with 120 precalculus students and 60 calculus students, all of whom I see on alternating days. I KNOW that better results would happen if I assigned homework very conservatively and graded it all---how on earth could that possibly happen? With 90 students a day if I spent only 10 minutes on each student's work, it would be 15 hours. Even if I do this only once a week, the idea is ridiculous.In public education both the student and the parent must take a great deal of responsibility for their learning and adapt the teacher's instruction to fit them. When I make an assignment, I am making the same assignment to the very bright honors student and to the poor kid who got pushed into honors by an aggressive parent. I can't help that. They have to modify what I give them to fit their needs.However, I do know that if I never expose even the brightest kids to a style of thinking (induction for example) and give them time to practice, they won't just "osmose" that learning. To the student who just previously made a comment, I try to make my students realize the benefits of homework early on, but for some kids maturity just takes time. Try thinking seriously of being in charge of the math education of 180 different people and see what plan you come up with. Nothing fits perfectly.

  4. I am not in the habit of giving homework, I always allow for time in class for students to complete any assignment, that way if they are struggling with a concept they can come to me and ask questions. If students do not use their time effectively though, I cannot reward them by allowing them to not complete the assignment, nor do I want to penalize them and take an unfinished assignment in. Some kids need more time to complete tasks, and some kids can finish tasks quickly.
    Practice only makes perfect if the student is practicing the skill perfectly. I read this somewhere and it really makes sense. So even though athletes may need to practice a skill to get it perfect, if they are practicing it imperfectly they will never master it perfectly.
    I think for all subjects things are different. How does the English teacher not assign homework, like independent reading of an independent novel? You have to give the students some responsibility, but where do you draw the line. Where does education become the students responsibility to learn and the teachers responsibility to lead them to that learning?

  5. I am with you-read my blog entry at about student homework personality types.