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Archive for the ‘Homework’ Category

In my last post, I speculated that there were three reasons I read educational research.

  1. I encounter it (via Twitter, blogs, or in journals) and I’m curious, so I read it.
  2. I deliberately seek it out to confirm a bias. (Don’t judge me. We all do this.)
  3. I’m genuinely interested in what the research has to say on a certain topic, so I search for it.

Since biases are fun, let’s look at an article I dug up for the second reason. I’ve made my views on homework pretty clear on this blog in a couple of posts. Here’s a study I found on the subject of homework. Unfortunately, it failed to confirm my bias.

Are We Wasting Our Children’s Time By Giving Them More Homework?

The study is by Daniel J. Henderson, of New York and was published as IZA Discussion Paper No. 5547, March 2011.

The abstract reads:

Following an identification strategy that allows us to largely eliminate unobserved student and teacher traits, we examine the effect of homework on math, science, English and history test scores for eighth grade students in the United States. Noting that failure to control for these effects yields selection biases on the estimated effect of homework, we find that math homework has a large and statistically meaningful effect on math test scores throughout our sample. However, additional homework in science, English and history are shown to have little to no impact on their respective test scores.

Yikes. Math homework has a large and statistically meaningful effect on math test scores throughout our sample? Uh. Oh. I guess I’d better read more than just the abstract and see if I can figure our what is going on. The math used in the study is complicated. That might make it tricky to read.

Here’s something I wonder about. Page 9.

…higher able students benefit more from additional homework.

Perhaps higher able students are the only ones who actually do the homework, because they’re the only ones who are capable of doing it.

Later, on page 17.

Taking the Peabody Individual Achievement Test in math as our benchmark, the gain from math homework (1.77 points) corresponds to one-fourth of the raw black-white test score gap between the ages of 6 and 13

My question would be: Can we be sure the gain on that test is solely attributable to homework? Maybe we can. I’ll admit to not fully understanding the tables in the study.

Here’s a finding on page 19 that I am glad to hear. At least one of my biases was confirmed by this study.

The teachers Treatment of the homework (whether it is being recorded and/or graded) does not appear to affect the returns to math homework.

 

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I did a bad thing. I was snarky to a pre-service teacher on Twitter. At the time, I didn’t know she was a pre-service teacher, and she asked a loaded question. That question was about homework, which is something I have strong opinions about. None of that excuses my snark.

I’ll elaborate on my Twitter responses in a more respectful tone. If she’s not still mad at me, maybe she’ll read this.

The question was:

When HW isn’t graded most students don’t do it. Wondering how this affects the development of their study habits for college – any research?

Her question is one that I hear frequently when I do workshops on formative assessment. Many teachers more seasoned than her assume that if we don’t grade it, students won’t do it. I have strong opinions on homework of any kind, and even stronger when we talk about grading it. A long time ago I explained why I hate homework.

In most classrooms the purpose of homework is to practice. This article seems to suggest that practicing is useful in math (and not particularly useful in any other subjects). Practicing in math is like practicing in basketball. Some players are so good they don’t need to practice. Others could use more practice.

After 18 years in the classroom, my observation on homework is that the students who don’t need the practice are the ones who diligently do every single question I assign. The students who could really use the practice rarely do the homework.

To address that many students weren’t doing homework, I came up with numerous elaborate grading systems for homework. None of them worked. Some really good math students still didn’t do the homework and ended up with a lower grade than they deserved. Some weaker students got their parents, their tutors or their friends to do their homework and ended up with a higher grade than they deserved. I became highly reluctant to grade anything I didn’t see them do in front of me.

As I learned more about assessment, I began to question the appropriateness of grading practice, whether it was done in front of me or not. Practice is just that. It is to prepare for the big game. We don’t assess athletes or musicians on their practice, only their final performance. In math class, that means assessing students after they have completed the learning, not during.

Given the three things I’ve addressed here – that practice in math is useful, that I am reluctant to grade things I don’t see them doing, and that I am reluctant to grade practice at all – where does that leave me? It leaves me with a very different kind of classroom than I used to have.

I used to “teach” for 80 minutes and then assign 60 minutes worth of homework that most of my students didn’t do. Now I talk less and build more time for practice (in the form of formative assessment strategies) into my lessons. At one time I was collecting some of my favorite strategies to do just that. Check out the embedded formative assessment category on this blog for some practical ideas.

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I can’t believe I’m about to wade into the homework debate, but here goes.

When I became a consultant, they spent a great deal of time teaching me how to coach and facilitate.  One thing they taught me was to be up front about my assumptions and biases.  So here’s three pretty important ones.

  1. As a kid, I hated doing homework.
  2. As a teacher, I hated chasing kids to get their homework done.
  3. As a parent, I am learning to hate fighting with my kid to do her homework.

A few years ago, while tutoring a student, I came to the realization that most of the math homework we assign is a waste of time.  Her teacher had assigned her questions 1-15, parts a, c, and e.  She did 1a and knew how to do it.  I suggested that we move on to #2, but she was the kind of kid who did every question assigned, so she did 1c and 1e even though they were exactly like part a, but with different numbers.  It occurred to me at that point that I needed to look at how much and what kind of homework I was assigning.

I started paying more attention to which students were completing what homework assignments.  Some kids did it all, and some kids did none.  The problem is that the students who needed the practice, didn’t do the work, and the students who didn’t need the practice, diligently did every single question I assigned.

At about that time, some teachers in my department were complaining about how kids didn’t do homework.  I threw out the idea of just not assigning it at all to alleviate everyone’s (teacher, student and parent) stress.  That suggestion didn’t go over well.  In my classes, I consciously started giving less homework.  My thought was that if we assigned 4 useful questions and the kids did 3, we were way better off than if we assigned 20 rote practice questions and the kids did 6.

I also started differentiating my assignments.  Kids who needed practice got a manageable amount of practice.  Kids who needed deeper thinking got richer questions.  As a kid, I hated it when I got done an assignment, only to have the teacher give me more of the same.  I learned not to get done.  We do that to our strongest kids.  Instead of giving them better assignments, we just make them do more work, and because they’re good kids, they tend to do it.

Another change I made was to move away from giving my class practice time at the end of the lesson.  I tend to talk less than most high school math teachers.  In an 80 minute block, I try hard to keep lessons to no more than 40 minutes, so that kids have at least 40 minutes to work.  I used to give that work time at the end.  Kids were tired after a 40 minute lesson, and it was difficult to focus them on the practice questions.  I started breaking my lessons into smaller sections, so that I’d teach for 10 minutes, and then assign 2 question, then teach for 10 minutes and assign 2 questions, and so on.  By doing this, the kids really felt they had to do the questions, because it seemed like part of the lesson.  As such, I assigned far fewer questions at the end of the lesson.  Most kids had nothing to take home at all, which I felt good about, and I’m sure they felt good about.  More importantly to the people who will suggest kids need lots of practice to be successful, my student’s grades didn’t suffer by doing less homework.

If I get brave later on, I’ll add a post about how I feel about assessing homework.

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