Making Homework Problems Matter

The topic of math homework is controversial and enigmatic. If you are like me, never quite satisfied even after thirty years of teaching, you probably research, tweak, and change your homework practices every year in some way. Some teachers with whom I have had this conversation assess homework for completion only, others grade homework partially for correctness and partially for completion, while others do not count homework and count only assessments. When class points or weights are given for homework, I have seen it valued from zero points to ten and apportioned weights from 0% to 50%. Given the constraints of time, both in class and outside of the school day, teachers I have known often do not look at homework. Instead, they have their students self-check and self-assess, offering students the responsibility to make corrections.

All this said, I am not writing this blog to offer my preferences, opinions, or judgements about best practice for homework, but I will explain that I have thoroughly studied student textbook-based homework problems and assignments, and I have purposefully analyzed student work on these problems over the course of the past six years. After observing and analyzing student work that ranged from complete and careful, to skipping or shoddy or copied (this was shockingly running about 50% of students), I became extremely concerned about how many of my students were missing opportunities to learn, apply, and extend math concepts. Too many students were skipping, half-trying, or failing the most important, robust, and challenging problems – and it was a pattern. I was naïve in my thinking that when we went over homework in class and I highlighted these problems and told my students to spend time working on them and checking them, that they would use my advice and work extra hard. And, though I believed my students and I had invested the time needed to build good relationships, many continued to ignore my support efforts and turned in their work unfinished or uncorrected. Furthermore, they regularly never really experienced the most important problems in the sets.

So, over time and in reaction to these noticings and through my analysis of student homework, I changed my practice in a small, but important way. I decided to take the best and most challenging problems out of the homework and place them into teamwork and classwork. No longer was I going to leave it to chance that only 50% of my students would attempt or experience these pivotal problems. I now make sure every student in my class experiences selected robust, meaningful, and challenging problems. I have converted them to team whiteboard problems, Chalk Talk, or hot potato problems. Since I have made this change, ALL my students are involved in solving (and in the conversation) some of the most important and challenging problems that half of them used to skip and barely value and experience. I have learned to replace the homework problems with a little more repetition of the basic ideas from the day in addition to the review and preview spiraled problems that are manageable at home. In my classroom, the very best problems are no longer lost in homework that is incomplete or incorrect. I have especially observed the importance of this practice for the non-honors student and students most at risk mathematically. I want all students to experience the best robust problems that they might otherwise fear, avoid, or misinterpret; and through this practice, I have watched my students grow in ways they may have not if I left the homework in their hands alone.

One comment on “Making Homework Problems Matter

  1. Thanks for sharing this! I like the idea of making them into whiteboard problems, Chalk Talk, or hot potato problems. When so many teachers have a hard time getting the core problems in during a lesson, how do you find time to add the homework in? Are there strategic tradeoffs that you are making?

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