Erika Koenig, Stanley, WI, firstname.lastname@example.org
Our math department has attended CPM summer workshops each of the last five summers. A common discussion topic among teachers at these workshops is, “What do you do about homework?!?” Our math department is always very excited to share what we do, as it works quite well for us. We have been surprised that many teachers will tell us that what we do will not work, even though it has been our department procedure for several years. Others are insistent that homework must be graded in order for students to value it even as they lament the low homework completion rate in their classes.
Our high school math department has not graded homework for several years. We believe that homework is practice and should not be assessed. We also believe that homework completion and homework discussion are essential for success in the CPM courses. If these two things are essential for student success, we must a) make sure that students complete the homework, b) give them time to discuss homework, and c) help them develop the skills to discuss it effectively. We feel that we have both a department-wide and school-wide structure in place to help students complete homework and discuss it effectively. The rest of this article explains the procedures that are in place and how we use them to facilitate student learning through homework completion and discussion.
In my classroom, students spend the first five to 15 minutes of a 65-minute class period discussing homework in their teams. (Our math classes meet for 65 minutes each day, but most only meet for 24 weeks of the school year.) Students are usually instructed to start with the questions that caused them trouble and then check every problem if there is time. If they have different answers than their teammates, they are encouraged to have a deeper discussion about that problem to try to figure out the correct answer. I do not usually give them the correct answers unless their group cannot reach an agreement on their own, or unless I hear them agreeing to an incorrect answer. By not providing them with the answers initially, it leaves the discussion open-ended and encourages students to re-evaluate their work on all of the problems.
As we all know, there are days when we feel the lesson will take the majority of the class period. If I think the time for homework discussion will be in limited supply, I might direct students to start their discussion with either problems that are key to understanding what we will be studying that day, problems that are a review of key topics, or problems that provide an essential preview to upcoming topics.
While the students are discussing homework, I walk around the room and check to see if students have the work completed. If they have everything done, I record a “+” on the grade sheet for that day. If they have the assignment started, but not completed, I record a “–” on the grade sheet. If they do not have the assignment done, a “0” is recorded. If I just recorded this information and did not follow through, I doubt that students would be motivated to finish the homework; many students will choose whatever path is easiest. Therefore, our math department believes that we must make it harder for students to fail to complete the homework than it is for them to complete it on the day it is assigned. We require all students to have each assignment completed. They will be required to turn any – or 0 into a +.
This is where the structure of our school day helps. Our school uses a “5 + 1” trimester schedule. Students take five classes per day and have a 30-minute resource period at the end of the day. If students do not have homework completed, I request their presence in my resource period that day. If they finish the assignment during resource, I change their 0 or – to a + and all is well.
If they do not finish the assignment in resource (or do not come to resource), they still have the option to show me the homework before school the next day. If they do not have the work done by the start of school the next day, they advance to our second tier of intervention. We currently have a 50-minute lunch period in our schedule. We consider this long lunch period to be a privilege earned by students for doing what they are expected to do each day. If they do not complete homework, they can be assigned to an Academic Loss of Privilege (ALOP) study hall that meets during the first 20 minutes of lunch. So, if students do not complete homework by the date it is due, and do not complete it in resource or show they have completed it by the next morning, then they are assigned to ALOP.
If they still do not complete the work, the cycle repeats the following day. Eventually, a student with missing work would be assigned to a Behavior Loss of Privilege study hall (BLOP) that meets during the first 40 minutes of lunch. They can also be requested after school for an hour as we have an academic late bus that will take students home three days per week.
If the teachers are consistent in following this system, the students quickly realize that it is much easier to complete the homework on time than it is to give up their lunch hour or time after school. When a student comes to class without work done, their teammates are usually quick to point out that they just made their lives more difficult and that they should have just done the homework in the first place. The encouragement/pressure from their peers is often far more effective than if I told them the same thing. In fact, I just asked my Algebra 2 students why they consistently have their homework done. One of the students said that the feeling of letting their teammates down and sitting awkwardly while the group discusses homework is a bigger motivator for them to complete their homework than the other levels of intervention.
I realize that students miss out on some great homework discussion and valuable learning time if their work is not done when it is discussed in class. To help with this, I always positively suggest that a student who is missing work will just have to work extra hard during the discussion time to make up for not being prepared. They usually do this as they realize they will be required to complete the work anyway. Attentiveness during the discussion time makes it easier for them to complete the assignment later in the day. This keeps them engaged during homework discussion time and allows teams to benefit from the ideas and opinions of all group members.
While completing the homework is important, I feel that valuing the work and the learning process is even more important. I recently surveyed the students who had just completed Algebra 2. They believed that 20 – 30% of their learning in the course took place during the time they spent doing and discussing homework. It was obvious that they did not just view homework as an exercise to complete or a hoop to jump through. They truly valued the experience.
While this system is not perfect, it works quite well in my classroom. I currently see about 90 students per day. On a typical day, I have two students who do not have the homework assignment completed. I often have days where every student has the homework done. The greatest number of incomplete assignments I have had in one day this year is six. We do have more students with missing work at the start of a semester, but the homework completion rate improves rapidly as classroom routines are established and expectations are explained and enforced. The high level of student engagement and the learning that inevitably follows reinforces our opinion that taking the time to develop good homework discussion procedures is worth our time as a math department.