I Grade Homework

Last year, myself and a colleague jumped into the standards-based grading pool with both feet with our honors-level physics class. We appreciated that homework was for practice and should not be graded. I was very excited about this departure from the traditional model of checking homework every day and keeping track of completed homework and absences which wasted valuable class time.

At first, students attempted their homework as assigned. However, before too long, it was apparent that a vast majority of students were not attempting the homework problems before we were to whiteboard them in class. After one particularly ineffective whiteboard session, due to a vast majority of students being unprepared, I attempted to use that experience to illustrate the importance of using the homework problems as practice.

Why did this happen? Did we fail to explain our standards-based grading philosophy? No, I think students appreciated the importance of the learning activities. Students were engaged in learning activities such as labs even though they were not graded. Were the homework problems unnecessary busywork? No, this class moves at a fast pace and, for a vast majority of students, practice outside of class is essential. Students weren’t attempting just the problems they felt they needed to practice; they weren’t attempting any problems.

After this ineffective whiteboard session, a few students with whom I had stronger relationships made a point to talk to me about why they hadn’t attempted their homework. All of them said that they appreciated that they needed to practice these problems. All of them said that they knew that they wouldn’t be able to effectively whiteboard the problems without having at least attempted the homework. All of them knew that eventually they would need to practice in order to do well on the summative assessments. However, all of them also explained that not doing their homework was a conscious decision. They explained that they get home late due to soccer/marching band/play practice. They explained that they have more homework assigned then they can possibly complete in a night (another issue to address). If they don’t complete their math/social studies/other science homework, they lose points, their grade is impacted, their GPA is affected. They believe the only logical choice is not to do their physics homework.

When other classes assign points to homework, overloaded students that are grade-centric won’t do homework that isn’t assigned points.

What did we do? We started grading the homework the next semester. We reconciled this change by framing homework as both a learning activity and summative assessment. We continued to whiteboard homework problems (learning activity), but, by the end of the unit, students were required to submit their homework solutions via WebAssign (summative assessment). We used WebAssign since we were able to randomize the numerical values in otherwise identical problems. This allowed students to collaborate but not copy final values.

We haven’t satisfactorily solved the problem of homework. Our current approach is simply the best idea we have at the moment. Over time, this issue may be mitigated as more and more classes in our high school adopt standards-based grading and fewer and fewer teachers grade homework.

If you’ve encountered this problem and are taking another approach, please share! We can always make a change next semester!

14 thoughts on “I Grade Homework

  1. Sandra

    A change I am going to try this year is to give students 2 points for hw done on time, 1 point for hw a day late, and 0 points for no hw. At the end of the grading period (6 weeks), I tally up the points, divide it by the total possible, and then add 10x that to their average (all hw done on time would add 10 points).

    My rationale for this is that it turns hw into an incentive instead of pure practice (no grade) or punishment (grade). I don’t know if this will work or not, but we’ll see.

  2. geoff Post author

    Interesting idea. I’ll have to check with you to see how it works out! (Given our school’s standards-based grading philosophy, I’m not sure that approach would be permitted….)

    1. Ms. Bethea

      Hold the phone. If your school is SBG, why are the other teachers grading homework? It seems that there should be some common philosophy and language in terms of homework across the board.

      1. geoff

        My school is slowing moving towards SBG. Two years ago during institute days we began to discuss what grades actually mean, assessment for learning and assessment of learning, and alternative grading scales. Last year, a few teachers piloted SBG in their classes as the entire school refined our SBG philosophy. This year, many more teachers are modifying their classes to reflect our SBG philosophy but some are taking steps in that general direction. Next year, the plan is for all classes to reflect our SBG philosophy but we’ll see how that goes. Shifting from a traditional to a SBG philosophy appears to become an order of magnitude more challenging when moving from a single teacher, to a team, to a department, to a school, to an entire district.

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  4. Theron

    Have you considered requiring students to show completed homework problems before they are allowed to assess and/or reassess a standard?

    1. geoff Post author

      Yes, last year, we enumerated various problems for each standard that students would have to complete before they could reassess that standard. By the end of the year, we stopped doing this for a couple of reasons. One of our primary goals was to help students become adept at self-assessing their understanding. We provide a great deal of resources (extra help, problems, online materials). We felt that requiring these problems before reassessment undermined this goal in that some students didn’t need to complete the problems, some did, and some needed even more assistance. In addition, the logistics of keeping track of students completing these problems provided very little benefit for the effort required.

      We are currently not planning on requiring these additional problems before reassessment this year. We’ll see if that changes during the semester!

  5. Ms. Bethea

    I’m sitting in the airport, so I figured it was as good a time as any to respond to this post. My comments are really just to tease out your justification for grading homework and whether the outcome conflicts with your SBG philosophy:

    1) I think part of the problem was that you separated homework from the rest of formative assessment. If you don’t provide meaningful feedback that helps students understand what they do and don’t get, then what is the point of assigning homework? If they get nothing useful out of it (besides a talking down when they fail at whiteboarding), then of course they’re going to not do it. Why not include homework, along with quizzes and retakes, as a means for students to demonstrate learning (not overridding)? Since we are trying to teach students to favor learning over grades, “just practice” isn’t a good enough motivator for any kid until they’ve bought into it.

    2) Does end-of-unit homework really address the perceived problem? It makes sense to us to work on it throughout the unit, but in reality, how many are cramming it in last minute anyway (probably the same ones who placed the low priority on it in the first place)? Were student’s more prepared during in-class whiteboarding? If its due at the end of the unit anyway (after in-class whiteboarding and problem solving) isn’t the unit test a sufficient measure of understanding? Doesn’t homework just become another “hoop” through which to jump?

    3) WebAssign isn’t “copy-proof” in any meaningful sense. Randomization of numerical values doesn’t make it a better measure of understanding. If student’s are collaborating, who’s learning are you measuring really? How many are just plugging-and-chugging a formula that they got from someone else? What kind of non-numerical feedback can you offer for WebAssign problems? From my experience in physics using WebAssign, I think it actually allows for academic dishonesty. Maybe not in the blatant sense; but a student’s grade only depends on getting the right answer. They don’t have to show work, they just have to get the green check somehow. Would you give full credit to a student who on a test gets the right answer without showing their work, or through a lucky combination of misconceptions? How do you deal with discrepancies between students who “get it” on homework, but don’t get it on the test?

    4) Don’t students use textbooks and notes (and tutors) to complete homework? Is it, therefore, a fair summative measure?

    5) Whether a student completes homework should naturally affect their grades on actual summative assessments (ie, tests). Your students recognize this. Is there something you could change about the assignments themselves to make them more interesting/appealing? Or could you have students to complete problems that address those standards with which they are struggling, and make the whiteboarding separate?

    6) If you consider homework essential, and student’s refuse to do it without an explicit grade, have you considered making homework completion a standard (in combination with participation & contribution to group work)? In this case, you could grade not on correctness, but on effort and attempt.

    7) If students reject homework as a part of formative assessment, how long before they reject the rest?

    1. geoff Post author

      Ms. Bethea, thanks so much for taking the time to offer your ideas. I really appreciate it! I think you make some excellent points that explain why I’m uncomfortable with our current approach. A couple of responses to your questions:

      1) I think that whiteboarding (in the Modeling sense) with Socratic dialog (ideally, initiated by students) provides very valuable feedback to students even outside of a SBG course. However, whiteboarding problems that students have never seen doesn’t work well. You make a very good point that “just practice” isn’t sufficient motivation for most students until they’ve really adopted this philosophy.

      2) Excellent leading questions! I don’t think we’ve solved the problem. Many students do cram the homework in at the last minute. However, many students were prepared during in-class whiteboarding. The end-of-unit homework submission does just become another “hoop.”

      3) All good points about WebAssign. We also use WebAssign for reassessment. When we do, we require students to submit their work as well as their answers. WebAssign automates some of the grading but we still have the written work to consult as well to see if the students are truly demonstrating their understanding. One unexpected benefit of using WebAssign, is that students who have graduated return and share that their college courses frequently use WebAssign and they benefit from already being familiar with the system.

      4) I don’t mind students using textbooks and notes to complete homework (or write lab reports) as long as the final product reflects their work and understanding. If the tutor supports this, it works out fine, if the student is submitting the tutor’s work, not so much. But, regardless, I would rather not use homework as a summative assessment at all.

      5) I thought about this point more than any other. I think this is key. If I’m to actually address this issue, I need to structure the class and culture such that students solve the homework problems that they need in order to advance their understanding without extrinsic motivation. I’ve had the best whiteboarding experience when students whiteboard problems that they have already attempted in class in their groups. The combination of whiteboarding problems attempted in-class and having homework (associated with standards) available for students to practice based on their self assessment may be a much better solution. The challenge to this is the conflict between spending more class time attempting problems in groups and our aggressive curriculum.

      6) Part of our SBG philosophy is that a student’s grade should reflect their understanding and not effort or attempt.

      7) Good question. Interestingly, this didn’t happen. For example, vast majority of students were very engaged in lab activities and discussions throughout the year. Perhaps what I need to focus on is how did these activities differ from homework? Is it just that these activities were completed primarily in class or is there something deeper?

      Thanks again for all of your thoughts and questions. I definitely have more to consider. I have a feeling that I’ll be referencing your comments as my colleagues and I debate this policy!

  6. Kelly

    Not that you need to do this exact approach, but as an inspiration toward finding another creative solution… Here’s what I do (did last year) in my Intro Physics class (and will be doing in my Honors Physics class this year, too):

    In each unit, they get a “stamp sheet” which is titled “Class Commitment Evaluation.” At the top, there is a gray box for stamps. Intro Physics never turned in homework, we almost always whiteboard-ed all of it. At the start of a typical class, I would say “Let’s do some whiteboarding!” They would get a whiteboard for each table while I went around and told them which problem to do. Then, as they got started, I went around a second time and gave out stamps. You got a stamp for appearing to have tried all of the problems. I never checked for correctness, and they honestly could have just filled it out with nonsense (but I doubt they ever did… why go to that much trouble when you could just as easily do the work at that rate). If it didn’t seem like enough of a meaningful effort, then no stamp.

    Here’s the thing… the stamps count for nothing! I even kept telling them as much (they still thought they counted for something, no matter how many times I explained the opposite… who can understand teenagers??). Still, almost every student did almost every homework assignment. This had never happened for me before!! The other person who teaches with me did the same thing. He told me later that he thought it wasn’t going to work at all (I’m incredibly lucky that I work with someone who will try my crazy ideas, even if he doubts them), and then proceeded to go around telling people how amazingly it DID work. Kids who would never have done the homework he way we had taught before now did every assignment.

    So the first component of this approach was that they knew their homework would be checked every day. They knew they would be having a conversation with their teacher every time they didn’t do it (and an email to their advisor, or a “special comment” if they made a habit of it… although that happened maybe once or twice total). That seemed to be enough like “my grade counts on this” because it didn’t make the homework invisible. There was no possibility of them sneaking by without having done it, or getting lucky that I didn’t notice. The second part was the peer pressure. No one wanted to have fewer stamps than anyone else… that would be embarrassing! And the kids who always got every stamp liked to broadcast that fact, too.

    At the same time, this process took almost no time (essentially zero class time because it happened while they were working on their whiteboards) and was very practical for me to implement. At the end of the unit, they filled out the rest of the sheet (questions like: If you are missing stamps, explain. Rate yourself on your participation in group work, on your positive attitude. What is going well? What is not going well? What’s the best or worst part of class?) and turned it in with their test. So I also got a bonus of a snippet of feedback for ME out of it.

    I thought they might think the stamps were too grade-school for them, but even seniors liked them.

    Anyway, that’s just the way I thought of to remove the grade from something that should be for practice, but still have the structure of accountability which teenagers need (from the ones who wouldn’t do it because they’d rather play video games to the ones who wouldn’t do it because it looks hard to the ones who have an English teacher who thinks theirs is the only class that needs to give homework).

    Good luck with finding the balance in your class this year!

    1. geoff Post author

      Interesting idea! Perhaps the key to why this worked so well for you was the teacher-student connection represented by the stamp: “They knew they would be having a conversation with their teacher every time they didn’t do it.” Last year, I started collecting lab reports rather than having students turn them in at the front desk. I was surprised how many students turned in lab reports when they were due because of that brief personal interaction.

      More to consider!

  7. Spencer

    I made the jump from your twitter 🙂

    My own thoughts on the subject:

    I believe that there is one factor that is missing from the equation here. Grade-oriented students typically only prioritize one thing over immediate point value, and that is how they perceive the teacher will grade them in the future. For this reason, I’ve noticed that high-performing students often copy homework for a class where they knew points would never be given for the assignment they are copying.

    Not only is this factor one that appeals to grade-oriented students, but it is one that has a secondary effect among teachers who establish a particularly strong caring persona around their students (which you do). If students know that you will be reviewing their work one-on-one, they will be hesitant to let you down simply because you have given them the trust to complete it. The combined factors of trying to not “let you down” and a hesitancy to hurt their future grade-influencing credibility will cause an assignment to be completed — even without point value.

    Have you considered listing a set of problems that you consider “important”, and not placing a definite number on how many each student is required to solve? Try saying something along the lines of, “I won’t tell you how many of these you need to solve, but the average student solves -insert a slightly deflated figure here-.”

    This creates a setting where it is easy to become an “overachiever”, which provides positive reinforcement for the student in question to continue to working problems. Also, without a set number of problems to complete, the emphasis is now on quality of solutions rather than quantity. I probably never did more than one to three completely worked out problems per chapter, but it was enough to create a strong enough conceptual understanding for the exams.

    This technique would be dependent upon two factors: First, the persona of the teacher (one would never do optional work for a teacher who either seemed distracted from learning) and the ability to do a one-on-one in class review with the student of their accomplishments.

    Just a thought… enjoy the class of 2011!

    1. Spencer

      Ah, and I am aware that this is somewhat similar to SBG, but the difference lies in the one-on-one review of work and the emphasis on “optional problems” rather than “objectives”. We see “objectives” as being fuzzy things that are taught in class, whereas “optional problems” are a chance to really shine and be recognized.

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