Homework Checks or Frequent Math Quizzes?

A MiddleWeb Blog

Last year I wrote about a new strategy of not checking homework but assessing understanding through short quizzes. I thought this might be a good time to follow up with the results of that endeavor.

So, we are halfway through our second 9 weeks of school, and this is the first year where I started out not checking homework. In August, I carefully explained to students that there would be suggested homework problems and that even though I would not check their homework, there would be frequent quizzes to check their understanding.

The initial response was, “yay, no homework,” which quickly turned to “why does my grade look like this?”

The suggested homework problems usually number five or six, and I have never assigned more than ten. I post the solutions, complete with accompanying work, on Canvas for students to access. I do this so that they can refer to it if they get stuck while doing their homework.

I spend the first few minutes of the next class addressing any questions students have concerning the latest homework problems, with the understanding that I won’t just rework every problem. The quizzes are very basic, nothing tricky, and very much related to the homework.

Just a note on grading: in our school system quizzes count the same as a daily grade (30%) while tests count 60%, and benchmarks count for 10%. So the impact on their grade is not over-large, but it is enough to get their attention.

Minor Adjustments

I have begun to allow students to retake quizzes in addition to the option of completing a corresponding activity at IXL. I resisted doing this initially because I thought I would be overrun with students wanting to retake their quizzes, but that has not been the case. In fact, the requests mostly come from students who earn a good grade to start with but want an even higher grade.

I’m not going to argue with that reasoning, so for those students the retake option has been beneficial. I need to find some way to motivate all my students to take advantage of this opportunity.

Sharing the Results

I want to share as honestly as I can what the results have been in case others are also trying to find the best way to address the homework issue. At the first of the year it seemed to be working very well. Initially students were doing well on their homework quizzes and seemed to enjoy having some choice regarding their homework.

However, as the year has progressed, students are encountering more difficult material. Couple that with field trips, sickness, and absences, and the quiz-or-homework option is taking a toll. I have begun to hear more complaints about the homework quizzes.

My gradebook is not inflated with grades from homework checks as it has been in the past. Students no longer receive a 100 just for completion, without regard to quality or content. Grades this year seem to align with their progress and understanding much better than they have in the past. In fact, often a student’s quiz grade will be within a few points of their test grade.

How the Students Feel

On the flip side, many students are not happy with their lower average due to frequent quiz grades. To gauge more accurately how my students feel about the homework policy, I gave them an anonymous survey so they would feel free to share how they felt about the homework quizzes.

I braced myself for some strong comments because I have recently received some pushback from students regarding their grades. I made sure that the students knew the responses were anonymous (Google survey) and I had no way of knowing who submitted what response.

I was really surprised with the responses I got. There were students who said (about 16%) that they would prefer to have their homework checked in the more traditional way. However, the majority of students stated that they preferred homework quizzes to homework checks. I have listed of few of their comments below:

  • “I feel as if they are more efficient.”
  • “I would rather have homework quizzes because quizzes can bring my grade up and help me know what i need to improve on.”
  • “They help me a lot, and if you couldn’t do the homework the night before you don’t have to get a complete zero.”
  • “I like it more because you can’t just copy hw and get the grade, you have to do it yourself because there will be a test on it.”
  • “I like the homework quizzes, I think that it helps me to do well on the test.”
  • “i like them because if i already know the work i dont do the homework.”

I asked for suggestions for improvement, and I have listed two that resonated with me.

  • “i don’t think the quizzes should be counted as a grade because we may or may not understand the material just yet. it takes some longer than others to understand it”
  • “more time to learn homework before getting the quiz”

I feel these comments are valid. I realize some students will need a little more time to understand the material. As I mentioned earlier, I do allow retakes this year, a student can come to my room during our “Boost” time and retake the quiz to improve their grade or they can complete a corresponding IXL. But, I can understand a student becoming demoralized if they repeatedly have to retake a quiz or complete an IXL.

My Thoughts

I don’t miss the time I spent walking around the room looking at homework, I always felt like that was wasted time even if I put a bell ringer or an assignment up for them to do while I checked it. The time I used to spend checking homework is now used for giving the homework quiz. The quizzes themselves take around 5 to 10 minutes, and it typically takes me about 15 minutes to grade a classroom set of homework quizzes, and I give 2-3 homework quizzes a week.

The homework quizzes have really helped me be aware of students’ misunderstandings while we are still in the unit. For instance, I recently became very aware that a lot of students are missing problems requiring them to use the quadratic formula because they don’t use parentheses, which causes them make a sign error.

In the past, I knew, in a vague way, that some students would make a sign error when using the quadratic formula, but now I have very explicit evidence and I know exactly which students are having this problem. So, for me, that knowledge is a very good payoff for my time.

I am also finding that the homework quizzes are helping my students diagnose the areas they need to improve. Immediately after the students take the homework quiz, they often ask me to work the quiz problem(s). I hesitated to do that at first, but I find myself doing it more and more.

And while I am putting the answer on the board, the students are really engaged, they are on the edge of their seats, and you can hear them say “I got it!” or “I got to that part, then I didn’t know what to do.” Whatever they say, I had found it hard to get them to pay that much attention before.

A case in point: recently some students did not label a, b, c correctly when using the quadratic formula. It was so interesting, right after we took the quiz on the quadratic formula and I worked the problem on the board. Two students shouted at the same time, “I did everything right except label a, b, and c.” They looked at each other and laughed and basically said, well at least we won’t do that again. As a follow-up, neither of those two students made that mistake on their end of the unit test.

In Conclusion

As a result of this new homework policy, I have seen the advantage of regular, low-stakes quizzes. I always intended to do this in years past, but I always let the time crunch get in the way.

This year, since I haven’t been checking homework I have time to give the quizzes and get the quick feedback. As a result, I feel like I know so much more about my students this year. Regardless of what I do in the future, I will continue to use frequent, low-stakes, formative assessment.

For some students, I really think homework quizzes have helped them grow and learn more than if I had checked homework the way I had done in the past. I also think it is helping them take some ownership in their learning. They have to decide if they need the practice or if they have mastered the concept.

However some students, specifically students who are hard-working but struggle in math, are becoming discouraged. Students who are used to getting credit for just writing the problem can feel like they are being punished when their work is being graded for accuracy.

For those students, it’s going to be my job to work to bolster their confidence and give them the support they need to be successful. That’s going to involve some one-on-one help and encouragement.

So, that’s the good, the bad, and the ugly, and I’m not sure what I’m going to do next year. I will finish out the year with my current method and compare how my students do on their end of the year test before I make a decision. I’ll be sure to share what I find out!

How would this approach work for you?

Michelle Russell

Michelle Russell (@michel1erussel1) is a math teacher at Florence (AL) High School. She began her career as a student teacher in middle school and has taught students from 7th to 12th grade. For the past 13 years, she's taught high school math, including Algebra IB, Algebraic Connections, Pre-Calculus, AP Statistics, Algebra with Finance, and Algebra 2 with Trigonometry. In her free time, she enjoys reading books about math education and following other teachers on Twitter.

15 Responses

  1. Ana says:

    Just curious how many questions per quiz you give and if they are multiple choice or short answer. I teach languages and my concern is always the amount of time assessing particularly for writing based tasks.

    • Michelle Russell says:

      My quizzes are generally one question, possibly with multiple parts. I generally don’t give multiple choice questions because I want to see their work. I plan the quizzes so that it will take students about 5 minutes to take the quiz and it usually takes me 10-15 minutes to grade the quizzes.

  2. Krista says:

    Great idea, but I do empathize with those students who are getting dinged by quiz grades bc they don’t master the material as quickly.
    My son’s HS math teacher last year had a policy that your final exam score would “reset” all quizzes with lower scores. So if you got a B on the final, your quiz grades that were lower than a B would be changed to B. His point was that he wasn’t concerned about how quickly you learn the material as long as you got it in the end, but the ongoing quiz scores helped the kids know where to focus their studying.
    Oh, and it only worked in a positive way- the final exam score was not used to lower any quiz scores.
    Seemed like a fair system to me

    • Michelle Russell says:

      Thank you so much for the comment! That sounds like a great system. I have thought about implementing a similar system. From personal experience I have found that the quizzes need some small grade incentive for the students to take them seriously but replacing them with their final exam score seems reasonable. The way our grades our set up, tests count twice as much as quizzes so my thinking is that by allowing students to retake the quizzes their test scores will be higher, which will have a greater impact on their final grade. But you’ve given me something to think about. Thank you!!!

  3. Mary Katharine Davenport says:

    Do you announce the quizzes, or are they a surprise? I teach fifth grade and I’m wondering how this would work for me.

    • Michelle Russell says:

      Thank you for your question! The quizzes are not a surprise. Students know that if they have a homework assignment they will have a short quiz the following day. However, I don’t assign homework every day so we usually end up having 2 or 3 quizzes a week.

  4. Mary says:

    This sounds very interesting. I’m wondering what you do for kids who don’t have internet access to see the worked out solutions.

    • Michelle Russell says:

      That’s a great question! I try to post the solutions before the end of the school day so that they can use the school internet to access the solutions before they leave. I do sometimes forget and do not post until after school- so that would be an issue for students who do not have internet access at home. I thought a lot about your question over Thanksgiving break, and I think next year I will either have a binder printed out with the solutions for the students to access in the classroom or just post all the answers to the homework assignments to that unit at the beginning of the unit. Thank you for your question- I got me thinking!

  5. Mary says:

    Another question….do you have a solutions manual? Or are you working the problems out yourself to post? Thanks for your help!

    • Michelle Russell says:

      I actually work the questions out myself. Since I only assign 4 or 5 questions I am very intentional about the problems I use and sometimes I adjust problems from my textbook or pick from other sources.

  6. Steve says:


    I have a very, very similar system to yours. I give out homework, with answers posted, and yes, I go around and check that they did them all. I am holding them accountable, but I’m really not checking the HW, since they (theoretically) already know the answers, and I do expect that they indicate that they checked the answers.

    My ‘homework checks’ are my nearly-daily quizzes, but they also only count as homework, so very little impact on their grade but high impact as far as knowing whether they got it or not. Seeing a string of low homework checks tells me that the student needs to sharpen their engagement with the homework, which is required.

    Great thoughts! I wish I could make homework optional, but this is 7th Grade and this age group isn’t ready to be given that freedom yet.

    • Michelle Russell says:

      Thank you for your comment! Even though my students are older sometimes I feel that I am giving them too much freedom. In fact, next year I may swap some of my daily quizzes for a homework check like you mentioned. Sometimes students just need that extra dose of accountability. You got me thinking with your comment about “indicating that they checked their answers”. That’s a really good idea. I can see me asking my students to indicate changes with a different color pen or highlighter to make clear where their misconceptions where. Thanks again!

  7. Rob says:

    Hi! This is a great idea, something I’ve tried to get off the ground this year but failed. It’s my 2nd year as a teacher.

    I was wondering what you do about academic dishonesty (maybe some kids are absent) when you go over the homework check quizzes. Do you not have problems with friends telling each other the question? Or with different sections (which meet on different days) telling each other about what’s on the homework check?

  8. Monica says:

    Just curious as to your game plan for the 19-20 school year? Changes that you made — success/failure?

  9. Aaron Thompson says:

    I really appreciate reading about teachers who try something different when it comes to improving student learning as well as their own understanding of the strengths and challenges of their students. It is clear from your post you have done exactly that.

    Two ideas came to my mind while reading. First I thought what would it hurt to maybe just give the students the quiz questions as their homework to limit any confusion over what you expect them to understand on the quiz. Second I thought it may support the struggling students to use a grade threshold to determine final homework quiz scores. For example over 9 weeks challenge the students to get over 80 percent of all the quiz questions correct to earn a 100 percent in homework quizzes. Students who correctly answer 60 to 80 percent could earn a 80 percent on there final quiz grade and so on. Using number of answers correct can help balance good days with bad days and is conceptually a much simpler goal to attempt to work towards for a student.

    Just some ideas and thank you for your vulnerability in sharing your classroom experiences

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