What’s the Best Way to Give Math Homework?

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As a teacher I have always struggled with assigning homework. My first year, I mainly assigned homework because I thought that was what you were supposed to do. I soon began to realize that the homework I was assigning was not having the desired effect.

So I began to assign homework infrequently or not at all. However that didn’t feel right either, because I knew from personal experience that learning requires time, effort and practice – all things that homework could potentially provide.

So I went back to assigning homework and checking it. Checking the homework consisted of walking around the room to see if my students completed all of the assigned problems. It began to bother me that a student could earn a perfect homework grade without having completed a single homework problem correctly.

The wrong impression

It wasn’t that I minded giving the student the grade; it was that I felt like I was giving them the wrong impression – the impression that they had grasped a concept when they had not, or the impression that I simply didn’t care if they did the work correctly.

Not to mention the parents. As a parent, if I see that my child has a 100 homework grade for “simplifying expressions,” then I will probably think that they have mastered that skill. Then again, homework is literally asking a student to practice a new concept, and should you punish a student for not “practicing” correctly?

The other problem with putting a grade on homework is that it often discourages students from asking questions. Once the homework grade went in the gradebook, students didn’t seem motivated to ask questions around the homework topic, even if they didn’t understand the material.

Not to mention that much of the time students copied other students’ work without trying to work the assignment themselves.

EdCamp brings a possible solution

All of these different ideas were percolating in my mind, when I attended an Edcamp workshop this past Spring. One of the presenters, Sara Baragona, talked about a new way that she handled homework.

She started the presentation by stating that she did not check homework. I was immediately intrigued. She said she assigned “suggested problems,” and instead of checking for completion she gave a homework quiz. The quiz related directly to the homework.

Her routine consists of spending a few minutes answering questions related to the suggested homework problems at the beginning of class and then giving the students a short quiz with one or two problems.

Well, I was determined to try this in my classroom. I felt like it addressed all the misgivings I had regarding the way I had been assigning and checking homework.

So I assigned my students suggested homework problems and told them that instead of checking their homework I would give them a short quiz very similar to the homework assignment. I think they liked hearing that I wasn’t assigning mandatory homework; they weren’t as thrilled with the quiz part.

The day of the first homework quiz, students still offered to show me their homework. I explained that I would be giving a homework quiz instead. After a brief five minute question and answer session I gave my students their first homework quiz.

The Good: More ownership of learning

Since we’ve begun to use homework quizzes in lieu of checking homework, there have been some ups and downs. On a positive note, students are much more likely to ask for help with their homework. In that sense, I think this method has shifted more accountability to students.

I don’t officially “check” homework, but I do walk around informally and look at the students’ work, and it seems as if most students are working part or all of their suggested homework problems. Also, I hear much more discussion about homework among the students.

Students are working with their classmates to understand the material. The immediacy of the quiz has motivated my students to ask questions when they don’t understand a concept instead of simply being content to copy other’s work or just write something down.

eighth-graders-circleIf a student understands a concept thoroughly, they won’t be bored or demoralized by repetitive homework, but if a student needs further practice the homework proves useful.

It is up to each individual student to decide whether or not they believe it is necessary for their growth as a student to complete the homework. So there is the added benefit of forcing the student to evaluate their comfort level with certain concepts and skills.

Not so good: Dealing with absences

Dealing with absences has been a struggle. At the beginning of this endeavor, I told my students that they could drop one homework quiz grade per nine weeks, and I explained that I would not be giving make-up homework quizzes. It would be a logistical nightmare to try to give make-up homework quizzes.

So what happens when a student misses more than one homework quiz? I didn’t think that would happen with the frequency that it has. I suppose when you factor in sickness, school events, etc., it’s not that surprising. Which is why I am so grateful to have access to an IXL subscription for my students. IXL is an online educational website that allows students to practice math content from pre-k through pre-calculus.

IXL

IXL

It turns out that there is an IXL option that aligns with most of the content covered in my homework quizzes. So I allow students to substitute a designated IXL for the homework quizzes missed due to absences. I also let students replace any low homework quiz grade with a correlating IXL.

I feel that this is an equitable trade; the IXL activities generally take at least 30-45 minutes for a student to earn a grade of 90 or better. I allow the students to decide how much time they want to invest in it. If they stop at 60, that is what goes in the gradebook.

The grading issue again

That brings up grading again. The typical homework quiz (the one they do at the beginning of class) consists of one problem with multiple parts. In the beginning, I was spending a lot of time grading the quizzes. then I settled on a simple rubric style system that seems to be working. Students’ quizzes are given a number ranging from 0 to 4, (a 4 is worth 100 points, a 3 is worth 75 points, a 2 is worth 50 points, and so on).

The only way a student can earn a 0 is to turn in a blank quiz. A 1 indicates that student has a little understanding, a 2 indicates a student understands some of the concept (partial), a 3 indicates that a student understands most of the material with only small misconceptions, and a 4 indicates complete understanding.

math-prod-struggle-360This process has greatly decreased the amount of time I spend grading homework quizzes. I do struggle sometimes trying to decide whether to give a student a 2 or 3, or a 3 or 4. However, I comfort myself with the fact that I am giving students useful feedback and it is better than just walking by to see if they wrote something down on a piece of paper.

Also, I am very intentional about how I name the homework quizzes, so that when students look back at INOW (our gradebook) they can see which concepts they struggled with, so that they can focus their efforts. I think it gives parents better feedback as well.

Reflection

All in all, I am satisfied with how things have gone. I know some students would prefer to go back to the old way, but many students are glad to have the option of whether or not to complete the suggested homework problems. Grades were pretty dismal at first; the first homework quiz had an average of 66. On the last one I gave, the average was 80.

Regardless, this endeavor has made me think long and hard about the best way to help students learn and how to provide them practice and feedback. I hope with time I am able to tweak some things and continue to make improvements.

I would love to hear how other teachers feel about assigning and grading homework and what methods you’ve tried.

Michelle Russell

Michelle Russell (@michel1erussel1) is a math teacher at Florence (AL) High School, where she serves as the Academic Leader of the math department. She began her career as a student teacher in middle school and has taught students from 7th to 12th grade. For the past nine years, she's taught high school math, including Algebra IB, Algebraic Connections, Pre-Calculus, AP Statistics, Algebra with Finance, and Algebra 2 with Trigonometry. She is currently involved in the Laying the Foundations initiative and the Mathematics Design Collaborative. In her free time, she enjoys reading blogs and tweets from other math teachers.

38 Responses

  1. Lane Walker says:

    In an order to be able to spend more time developing analytical problem-solving skills, I had to find a way to almost eliminate the need to spend time on procedural homework problems during class. This is how I did it: https://lanewalker2013.wordpress.com/2016/09/07/i-stopped-wasting-time-answering-questions/

    • michelle russell says:

      Thank you for sharing! I love your idea of responding via Internet. That could actually be the next step for us!

  2. Sharon Hessney says:

    How do you deal with students who ask BIG questions on the homework, which turn the learning back to you and take up class time?

  3. michelle russell says:

    Thank you for your comment, that is a really good question! Honestly, I haven’t found a perfect solution. I am careful to let students know that I am only answering the questions that came up when they did the suggested homework assignment, not reteaching. Also, I only allow 5-10 minutes for homework questions. The homework quiz will cover material that the students worked on in class the previous day, and were given a detailed key for the suggested homework assignment, so the 5-10 minutes is generally sufficient. And the homework quiz doesn’t have to be final, if a student does do poorly, they have the option of completing a correlating IXL to replace the quiz grade.

  4. Colleen Everett says:

    I have used the grading of HW process for the past few years now. I truly believe it works for students across the board since there are those students who need to do very little (or nothing) and still ace the HW quiz, while others, as long as they do the HW and any questions are addressed prior to the quiz, they should do well too. I struggled with the grading piece….a never ending process. I like your numbering system. I might try that. I also will do different day quizzes (I teach multiple bells of one subject). Something I do with the absent student, I let them know that the score they receive on their next quiz, will back track and become the percentage score on the missed quiz. Since the material is cumulative, I feel very comfortable doing this and students seem to think it makes sense too. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Michelle Russell says:

    Thank you for your comment! I really like your idea of back tracking the quiz grade!

  6. Becky says:

    I do this second semester in Calculus but never thought about it in my other classes. How long do you give them to complete the quiz?

    • michelle russell says:

      Thanks for your question! I usually give students 5-10 minutes. The quizzes are 1 or 2 problems, often with multiple parts.

  7. Beth Swain says:

    I really like this idea! I teach geometry to 8th graders and could see this working really well. I would love to see a sample homework quiz.

    • michelle russell says:

      Thank you for your comment! I would be glad to share one of my homework quizzes with you, but honestly the quizzes are nothing fancy. I pick one or two short problems that are very similar to the suggested homework assignment.

  8. Mary Lou Kandigian says:

    I have been doing a similar thing in AP Statistics and non-AP Statistics with high school seniors. Students are given suggested exercises and they choose how many, if any, to do. I also provide online quizzes they take on their own time which don’t count for a grade but their performance gives them immediate feedback on critical concepts. I have a flipped classroom so students are expected to watch my online lessons prior to coming to class. They are required to post a question in Google Classroom where i post the online lessons. They can post a question they want answered or, if they feel they understand all the material, they can post a potential quiz question. I love reading and answering these questions and answering them online saves class time. I can see the students who are truly engaged and those who are just going along for the ride. Grading was taking up way too much of time so now I grade fewer things than I have in the past. I may collect classwork which I’ll review, make comments on, and hand back the next class. It’s amazing how much time is saved when you don’t have to struggle with what grade to give and then enter those grades in a grade book. Students are getting the feedback they need without the stress of a grade. I thought they would object to this but surprisingly they haven’t. They have taken responsibility for their own learning which is my goal.

    • michelle russell says:

      Thanks for your comment! I really like your idea about online quizzes. I have never had the opportunity to try out a flipped classroom, but it sounds like you have a great system worked out.

  9. I evolved to the same program: hw but not graded. Frequent quizzes. Test. Repeat. Over several years of teaching.

    • michelle russell says:

      Thanks for your comment! I agree with you, I think frequent quizzes is the key. I read a book last summer, Make It Stick, by Peter Brown, that really emphasized frequent quizzes. I’ve made an effort to incorporate that into my classroom.

  10. Beth Hines says:

    I did this with an Algebra 1 looping course (select students that failed 1st sem. immediately tried it again second semester). It worked Very well. Since this was a high percentage of unmotivated learners with poor student skills, I also added a class work piece. This consisted of 1-2 problems over the new material that students had to try on their own before they left the room. The idea was to get that first question asked. It also showed understanding before students tried in their own at home.
    Here is how my class flowed:
    Homework check (we still graded but I took no questions on unattempted problems-students were expected to come in before due date)
    Quick questions over graded homework (2min)
    Homework quiz
    New notes and guided practice (homework assigned)
    Classwork

    The pace was difficult to keep up with but I saw the same benefit to the frequent quizzing. My loop group was capped at 15. I assumed this method would be unmanageable with a group of 30. You are making me rethink this!

    That group had many absences. Some would stay exempt or I would create an overarching quiz to replace them all.

    We are newly MDC. I see that in your bio. Do you do homework quizzes daily? I’m wondering how the two methods work together. Good luck to you!

    • michelle russell says:

      Thank you for your comment! I think we have had some of the same experiences. I taught a Power Math class for several years. I just wish I had worked out a system as good as yours. I typically get in about 2-3 homework quizzes a week. I don’t usually assign homework on Friday, so we don’t have homework quizzes on Monday. It just seems like I’m only able to get in 2 or 3 quizzes a week.
      Regarding MDC, this is our 2nd year and I have been able to make the two methods work together. I actually have really enjoyed being a part of the MDC initiative and I feel like it has really improved my teaching practice.

  11. Michael says:

    Put the makeup quizzes on Google Classroom using Forms.

    • michelle russell says:

      Thanks for the suggestion! We use Canvas for our learning platform, but I would love to learn more about Google Classroom.

      • Todd says:

        Google Forms is separate from Google Classroom. You should be able to use it with whatever platform you choose. There is an extension for Google Sheets called Flubaroo that will auto-grade the quizzes too. When a Google Form is created it will create the Google Sheet to go with it.

        I use it on my Friday quizzes but I like the idea of homework quizzes. Great read!

  12. Steve says:

    I have tried the mini-quiz method as well. I think everyone pointed out the negatives well (time spent grading). I have tried making 3 grade categories, HW ( Which consists of the quizzes, not the actual HW itself. I call them daily assessments), actual quizzes (usually covers 1/3 to 1/2 of the unit), and tests. The grading piece is a bit of a nightmare with 35-40 kids in a class. I love the immediate feedback. Making and copying the quizzes gets annoying, because my state keeps changing the curriculum surrounding common core, so I never re-use them. I have a hard time not answering questions, but I should probably give them 5-10 mins in their group to work together, less than 5 mins asking me, 5 mins on the HW quiz. That is a good chunk of time, but might be worth the investment if they all actually do the HW, instead of copying answers.

    • michelle russell says:

      Thanks for your comment! I agree that it can be difficult to limit the time spent answering questions, giving them time to work with their groups could be a good solution. Some days, I do allow my students time to do that, and usually it results in pretty good math conversations.

  13. Nancy Kwik says:

    I gave up collecting homework this year. Instead there is mandatory practices which I assign by the unit (2-12 problem set). I create a video that answers the questions with multiple strategies (similar to grading homework in class). It is now the students responsibility to practice and grade. All grades a summative now and reflect what the student understands. I do allow retakes/test corrections but the student must show me the completed practice set when rescheduling a retake/test correction. It has opened up enough time to incorporate math talks and mathematical discourse in the class hour.

    • michelle russell says:

      Thanks for your comment! Very interesting!! I think it’s good for the students to have the responsibility to practice the problem set you assign. I also think allowing retakes can be very beneficial. Am I understanding correctly, the only grades in your grade book are test grades?

  14. Bobby says:

    You say ” Then again, homework is literally asking a student to practice a new concept, and should you punish a student for not “practicing” correctly?” but then you are grading them on a quiz based on that practice. What if they really tried, but practiced wrong? If they only get a few minutes to ask questions, should they be punished for not getting it by then?

    Don’t take those questions the wrong way, I think the way math homework is assigned and assessed is a huge problem in education and you’re proactive approach is refreshing. I don’t know the answers to the questions I asked, but I feel like they should be thought about so we can keep trying to improve on our practices.

    • Steve says:

      Agreed. Students doing HW and assessing / not assessing it is the never-ending problem in math. To combat this problem, I have also tried a 1 day delay on the HW assessments. ie Wednesday’s quiz covers Monday’s HW.

    • michelle russell says:

      Thanks for your comment! I think you pointed out some very legitimate concerns. I did think about several of the things you mentioned. As far students practicing wrong, I provide them with a detailed key of all the suggested problems, not just the answers but the steps involved. So if they are practicing wrong hopefully they can look at the key and make adjustments. Also, the quiz doesn’t have to be the final grade, the student can complete a correlating IXL and replace the quiz grade with the score they earn on the IXL activity. I think one of my goals was to provide my students some useful feedback on the standards and it can be challenging to do that! I really appreciate you pointing out all the pitfalls, honestly, this is an area I have really struggled with and it helps to look at it from all sides.

  15. Julie says:

    After reading many of these posts, I agree that HW should be assigned on a mastery of the standards rather than assign every student the same quantity. My suggestion when class first starts is to have students in groups of 3-4 and have them communicate about the “suggested” HW problems so students are helping each other work through while just the answers may be posted for correctness. This allows for a student-centered learning environment while you take role and then circulate (roughly 5-7 minutes) to check for their understanding. Most of these students are missing the big picture, connections, real world scenarios of the mathematics and taking this day to show the relevance on the content/standard would help provide a better understanding and then at the end of the class period when the student has had another chance to practice, then give an “exit slip” or 1-2 question quiz to help identify the learning. I agree with many of the statements do feel that students learn at different speeds as you mentioned when you stated “HW is asking a student to practice a new concept, and should you punish a student for not practicing correctly”. This would at least allow for additional time to learn the content and help deepen the conceptual understanding and provide the “why”.

    • michelle russell says:

      Thank you for your comment! Excellent suggestions! I think I tried to address not assigning every student the same quantity by the making a suggested homework assignment. My goal was that my students would use that as an opportunity to assess where they were in their learning, and decide whether they needed the extra practice or not.
      I think what you recommended (allowing groups of 3 or 4 to help each other) would definitely encourage students to have some good math conversations.

  16. Geneva says:

    I started assigning an extra problem for each required problem in the set. They can do both sets for practice, but the extra one is only required if they got the first one wrong. If they’re stuck they can stop all together but since I started flipping my lessons the problem sets are done in class anyway. I’m experimenting with completion grades or grading for quality to reinforce good habits. I give mini-quizzes about once every 3-4 lessons and allow retakes until they get 9/10. There’s max points on the retakes so that they can only get a 10 on the first attempt, 9 on second, 8.5 on third. It’s unheard of to need a fourth. Test grades are final.

    • michelle russell says:

      Thank you for your comment! I especially liked what you said about “grading for quality to reinforce good habits.” That is one thing that I really think about when checking homework. I also really like your mini quizzes, with the option of retake. Great ideas!

  17. Kelley says:

    In my math classes, I grade homework on completeness and correctness. If they do only the ones they can, they will get one out of two points (50% effort). If they ask me for help and fix the ones they couldn’t get, they will get full credit. They are expected to do every problem and check every answer. I check the homework every five assignments by giving them a homework “quiz”. On homework quiz days, they get out their five assignments and I hand them a piece of paper with five questions on it – one from each assignment. I pick a problem that I feel everyone should have gotten. Or sometimes I pick a question that I have gone over in class. On the quiz paper, they copy down their work for that problem. This gives me a snapshot of effort and correctness. They always have access to every answer, so there is no excuse for not getting full credit.

  18. Jamie says:

    Do you assign only book work as suggested homework? I’m wondering how you could do worksheets and avoid making all of the extra copies that students wouldn’t use. You could post them online, but what if a student doesn’t have a printer at home?

    • michelle russell says:

      Such a good question! I do not assign problems from a book. I have printed more copies this year than I comfortable with. Since this was new for my students, I wanted to make it user friendly for them. I actually printed the HW problems on bright yellow paper. However, most assignments fit on a half of a page and I have a fairly small class load this year. In the future, I plan to put the assignment online for students, they will copy the problem on their own paper and work it out.

  19. michelle russell says:

    Thank you for your comment! I like your system, getting 1 out 2 for doing the ones they can, and allowing them to recover the other point by finishing the assignment. I also like that you check every five assignments, that seems manageable.

  20. Lori says:

    I’d love to hear about some of your favorite math blogs. I’m new to math curriculum (but a long time teacher in another field), and I’m interested in learning about the current challenges and ideas that are working.

  21. Madeline says:

    Love your article. What would be your recommendations for Elementary Level students, specifically second, third and fourth grade.

    Thanks

  22. Nishi says:

    In a class of 40minutes duration it is not possible to give sufficient practice to students on a new concept. I feel that out of 6days of week hw involving practise of concept could be given on two days and it should be marked by the teacher (my studentsgroup is class 6to8)so that teacher can decide whetherto what extent student has unders told the concept. A quiz can be used to challenge the intellect of students after the foundation is laid.
    I mean it is my viewpoint.

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