No More Credit for Homework

As a previously shared, I am not making many changes in Honors Physics this semester. However, we are making two significant changes related to homework. Despite my strong belief in standards-based assessment and reporting philosophy, I have always provided some credit for completing homework. I’ve previously shared my attempt to justify this policy.

To minimize the overhead of checking homework and discourage blatant copying, we use WebAssign for homework. It worked well and certainly didn’t require much effort once I had created the problem sets. However, at the end of this semester a huge problem hit my colleague and I like a brick wall:

You get what you reward.

We rewarded a student submitting the correct answer for 80% of the homework problems in WebAssign and that is exactly what we got.

The behavior that we were unintentionally rewarding began to become clear when I would help students outside of class. The dialog would go like this:

S: “Mr. Schmit, I have a question about a homework problem. Can you help me?”

Me: “Of course! Let me see your notebook and what you have so far.”

S: “It is problem number 38. I’ll show you in the text.”

Me: “Okay, but let me see what you have written down so far.”

S: blank look

Me: “Let me see your sketch, diagram, list of givens, equation with variables, substitution of values with units, …”

S: blank look

S: I just solve the problem on WebAssign.

Me: blank look

S: I just type the numbers into my calculator and enter the final answer in WebAssign.

While I don’t have this conversation with every student, it is not at all uncommon. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, the students are exhibiting the exact behavior that I’m rewarding.

So, this semester, no credit for homework. None. I will still create homework assignments on WebAssign since students do like to check their answers or to ask for another version of the same problem for practice. This change will at least stop rewarding the behaviors we don’t want.

While hopefully students’ experiences during the fall semester will be sufficient to encourage them to adopt robust and organized problem solving methods, I realize it won’t for everyone. So, the second change that we are making is that before reassessment a student must show me clear, detailed, and robust solutions to the homework problems related to that standard.

Yes, I realize that many of you have been doing exactly this from day one. I’m a bit slow to catch on as it took me two and a half years. Better late than never.

As a humorous endnote, one student solved a circular-motion, car-on-banked-curve problem on the semester final exam without showing any work at all. He wrote a note about how he did the whole thing on his calculator and didn’t expect any credit. He also noted how it would be quite ironic if he got the answer wrong. He didn’t.

5 thoughts on “No More Credit for Homework

  1. Kelly O'Shea

    I’m excited to hear how their approach to practice problems changes when you stop giving credit for it. My experience last year was really good (especially with students who wouldn’t do the homework at all before). I started having them show up with work to show me. And they wanted to know that they understood what they were doing, not just that they had the right answer. I think you’re right on the money here with the way you stated that idea that you get what you reward. When you reward understanding, they will seek that. When you reward right answers (as many of their teachers have done before they ever get to you), they will seek that.

    1. Keri

      the follow-up question then is how do you grade/assess their organized problem-solving capabilities in a simple, easy to understand manner?

      This is an honest question…My students can now organize their problems, but still don’t get why, except that I require it.

      1. geoff Post author

        I have no intention of directly grading their organized problem-solving abilities. I think organized problem-solving abilities will lead to increased understanding and problem solving ability. I will have the opportunity to provide them feedback on this when we review problems together (both individual and when preparing and presenting whiteboards).

        I think that if I present students with sufficiently challenging problems, organized problem solving techniques become more of a necessity to work towards a solution rather than a requirement that I impose… .

  2. Doc MO

    I like your story but don’t get your humorous anecdote. Why do you think the student chose to show no work? Protesting against the “stupid” show your work policy? Didn’t really understand the problem? It’s the most interesting thing I read today… What do you think us going on?

    1. geoff Post author

      This student definitely understood the problem and how to solve it.

      When the class was reviewing for the final exam and solving long, complicated, chains of problems (; we were focusing on rigorous problem solving techniques. The student, who didn’t really need much review at all, saw it as a challenge to try to do each step solely on his calculator. I suppose the challenge of trying to keep everything in his head and in his calculator was a fun exercise for him. I would rib him about using paper and pencil when he made a mistake and he would share all his correct answers. Since he had extra time on the final exam, he chose to solve some extra problems and do one of them completely on his calculator and make a point to share it with me.

      Sometimes I like to solve things in my head just for the challenge and fun of doing so even though it would be easier to write down each step. I think he was doing something similar.


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