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Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Why do homework?

“Why should I do homework if it isn’t going to be graded?”

It’s tough to give a convincing answer to that question. Typically we point out that homework helps you learn, but that answer goes only so far. We may observe that you’ll do better on tests and quizzes if you do the homework, but most kids need the more immediate motivation of a check mark on the assignment. Some will simply deny the connection, considering their assignments to be busy work; others will say they have too much on their plate and will do triage, finding time for the high-stakes work and not for the low-stakes work. So most of us give in and calculate some sort of homework grade, perhaps with a check mark or with a 0–4 system, which is what I use. Usually we base the grade purely on “sincere effort,” not on correctness of answers.

But that’s not really the subject of this post. Most of my students do their homework — though significantly more in my honors class than in my non-honors ones. (In Weston, being WestonLake Wobegon, there are only two levels of math classes, so the lower level is called “college prep.” Everyone is above average.) What I’ve been thinking about is not how many students do their homework, nor what motivates them to do it, but what they’re learning from it when they make a “since effort.” And here is the enormous difference between the two levels of classes:
  • The large majority of students in an honors class (admittedly not all, but definitely a large majority) consider that it’s their responsibility to understand the material, even if they can’t answer all the questions that very day. It might not be fair to ask a quiz question relating to new concepts presented on the homework due that very day, but it’s certainly fair to ask it on a subsequent day. Students expect to learn from doing their homework.

  • The large majority of students in a college-prep class (admittedly not all, but again definitely a large majority) consider that they have met their responsibility as long as they have put in enough effort to earn their check mark or their 4 out of 4. They do not expect to learn from doing their homework. If they go through through the motions, they’ve done enough. If several assignments in a row use the word logarithm, they feel no obligation to know what a logarithm is. This is very frustrating, both for me and for them.
I don’t know what to do about this. It would not be a solution to grade the correctness of answers on homework: aside from the fact that I don’t have the time, I also don’t know who actually did the homework. If I make it a high-stakes task, rampant cheating is encouraged: in addition to old-fashioned copying, Weston students will get help from their parents, their tutors, or their mannies. I want to encourage cooperation and getting help, so criminalizing it is not the solution even if it were to work. Somehow I have to be able to convince kids that it’s in their own enlightened self-interest to do the homework thoughtfully and to make sure that they learn what it’s trying to teach. Any ideas?

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