In the first installment of our smart homework series from author & teaching consultant Rick Wormeli, he made the case for take-home assignments that matter for learning and engage student interest. In Part 2, Rick suggested 13 guiding principles to help teachers create homework challenges that spark deeper learning. In this final article, Rick suggests some good ways to assess homework and manage the workload.
These articles are adapted with permission from Rick’s seminal book about teaching in the middle grades, Day One & Beyond: Practical Matters for New Middle Level Teachers (Stenhouse, 2005). Rick continues to offer great advice about homework, differentiation, assessment and many other topics in workshops and presentations across North America.
by Rick Wormeli
Fresh approaches to middle grades homework have many benefits, but how does all this play out as we manage homework in our classrooms? How do we assess homework effectively? How do we handle the paperwork? How do we guard against homework becoming just busywork again?
Here are some ideas:
▶ For big projects with multiple weeks of student responses, such as a science learning log or a reader’s response journal, skim every page students have written, but have students select one entry for a letter grade by placing a star on the intended page. The entry should demonstrate outstanding thinking, science protocol, plot analysis, personal response, or whatever you’re emphasizing with the unit. If you’re worried about having a large enough sample, grade two or three entries.
▶ When checking a list of problems, sentences, or answers to questions, have students work in groups of four or five to confirm answers with one another. If someone gets the wrong answer and doesn’t understand why, the rest of the group explains. If the student or group is stuck in understanding how an answer was achieved, they identify that one problem/sentence/question to the teacher when she calls the groups back to the whole class. The teacher reviews only identified problems.
▶ While groups are meeting to review homework, the teacher circulates from group to group, recording evidence of successful collaborations (to be shared later with the whole group), answering questions, correcting misconceptions, facilitating student conversations, and identifying areas to reteach. The great thing about this method is found in the value of conversation, not just the assessment the teacher does. Students who “talk math” (or English, history, science, art, PE, technology, drama, or music) learn those subjects.
The peer connection works, too. It’s humbling, but we’ve all had times when we can’t get through to a student, then a classmate says practically the same thing and the frustrated student experiences an epiphany.
▶ Don’t grade everything. Some assignments can be marked with a check or a zero for having done it. Spot-check problems two, nine, and seventeen because they represent different concepts you were worried about students understanding.
▶ Keep the student’s effort in doing the homework from diluting the grade that indicates mastery of content. That is, separate work habits from the letter grade if you can. Even though I know that good work habits usually yield high achievement, as a parent I don’t want my son’s grade to be based on anything but mastery of content and skills. If the grade’s validity reflects good effort but not mastery, then my son isn’t held accountable for learning, I don’t have a valid judgment of his learning, and he doesn’t have the required knowledge.
In the real world, we do not pay a carpet layer for the job until the job is done, regardless of how many hours or days it took, or how hot it was. The degree of his effort is not relevant, just that the job is done well (the standard of excellence was achieved). High-tech-industry workers may work all night long preparing a proposal for a client, but their efforts are irrelevant to the client who accepts and reviews all proposals equally that cross her desk by 10:00 a.m. the next morning.
Revising and Redoing Homework
Good classrooms often model the senior craftsman or mentor approach. Students attempt the achievement (performance task) of the master craftsman, then are given advice on how to improve. They revise and try again, and again they are given advice on how to improve. The process is repeated until mastery is attained.
The teacher is an expert and a coach. Students are not penalized for multiple attempts and revisions, or for not understanding the first time around. The focus is on achieving the standard of excellence. The feedback to the student is clear: If they don’t achieve, they are not given master craftsman status (an A), nor can they set up a practice. They have not yet met the rigorous criteria (standards) for mastery. We can see the revision of important homework tasks in the same way—students do it until they get it right.
Consider the reflections of middle school educator Nancy Long: “We have experimented with dozens of rubric styles over the last few years, and my favorite still is the one that lists all of the content criteria and all of the quality criteria on the left side and has two columns on the right side: YES and NOT YET. Check marks are used in the appropriate column to show which criteria have been met and which still need work.”
Nancy continues: “I try to schedule deadlines for assignments far enough ahead of the end of the grading period so there is time for everyone to get the papers back and do over what was not right before I must assign a grade ‘in concrete.’ . . . (like) in most things in our adult lives, we can mess up and still get another chance to get it right without too large a penalty!”
Another successful educator, Bill Ivey, says this about redoing homework assignments:
“It is exactly what we want our children to do. We had an English teacher who, by taking her sixth-grade class carefully through draft after draft, helped them create poetry that was more powerful than many of the poetry contest winners at our high school, where the poetry program is considered to be quite strong. The principle here can apply to any subject and any learning.”
Punishing Students Who Don’t Do Homework
We sometimes hear in the media about students who can pass a course while turning in no homework. Certainly if one of my students never does any homework, yet gets straight A’s on all tests and projects, then homework serves no purpose for that student.
Homework’s objective is to be instructional, not punitive. It would be wrong to fail a student for not doing homework when he had mastered all I had to teach. It would, however, indicate that I must not be doing my job very well. If my course is too easy for the student, then I need to make it more challenging for him or pursue placing him in a more advanced course.
Some argue against assessing homework in light of out-of-school pressures affecting a student’s ability to do schoolwork. We need to remember that our first task is to teach so that students will learn. Punishing a kid who cannot complete an assignment due to something beyond his control is abusive. We can’t just shrug our shoulders and say that a child has to do the homework and if he doesn’t, that’s just tough, regardless of the child’s situation.
We can work with families to find a satisfactory way in which to complete the work. I had a student who worked approximately four hours after school every day of the week in order to help support his family. Yes, I could have told him and his family that it is illegal to work at his age. Yes, I could have told him and the family that school is his job and it should come first. But food, medicine, and shelter were more basic needs. Completing a worksheet on objective pronouns pales in comparison.
If the student masters the material, then why should I fail him for not doing homework in the midst of such struggles? We should do the most effective thing for students, not the easiest thing for teachers. Many of our students live in harsh realities. Our compassion and alternative structuring of homework assignments will prepare those students for adult success far better than the punishment for not doing a set of 20 math problems ever will.
Is homework a necessary evil?
Some middle school teachers and most students perceive homework as a necessary evil, but it doesn’t have to be. Let’s give it the vitality it deserves and elevate it to its intended purpose: a highly effective instructional tool. We can perpetuate complacency with homework, or we can change our practices to reflect new student needs and new possibilities.
It’s troubling that many of today’s homework assignments and practices parallel those from the turn of the last century. Today’s middle schools require innovative and developmentally responsive homework based on what we now know about the human brain and young adolescents. One of the pluses of teaching and using these sanity-saving, creative approaches is that we get to experience the inspiring products our students create.
▶ Bonus idea: Homework reprieve
If you’re looking for ways to reward and motivate students and integrate homework into the regular work flow of your classroom, try a “Homework Deadline Extension Certificate.” I used these every quarter in my own classroom. Students really compete for them.
On the day an assignment is due, students can submit the certificate instead of their homework and they are automatically allowed to turn in the assignment one, two, or three days late, according to your comfort level, for full credit. If we reward those who’ve earned these certificates by extending the deadline but not voiding the need to complete the assignment, we haven’t diminished the assignment’s importance. (Make your own certificate.)
Of course, students learn to be judicious in their use—if the assignment was to study for tomorrow’s test, it won’t help them to use their deadline extension certificate. If they’re working on a complicated project, they’d be wise to have their certificate in reserve.
Rick Wormeli was among the first National Board Certified teachers in America. His education career spans 35 years – teaching math, science, English, physical education, health, and history and coaching teachers and principals. He is a columnist for AMLE Magazine and a frequent contributor to ASCD’s Education Leadership magazine.
His books include Meet Me in the Middle; Day One and Beyond; Fair Isn’t Always Equal: Assessment and Grading in the Differentiated Classroom; Differentiation: From Planning to Practice; Metaphors & Analogies: Power Tools for Teaching Any Subject, and Summarization in Any Subject, plus The Collected Writings (So Far) of Rick Wormeli: Crazy Good Stuff I Learned about Teaching Along the Way.
He is currently working on his first young adult fiction novel and a new book on homework practices in the 21st century.