When the homework hardly counts

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(Returning to the homework thread for newbies and anyone else who cares.)

A few posts back, I suggested that teachers who were not getting homework back should check to see if the homework’s level of difficulty might be the culprit. Especially if you are not creating your own homework, that homework may be based in an administration’s view of where students ought to be at, rather than where those students are actually operating. While some children who can’t do their homework will seek help, many will not. Adolescents especially may simply stuff offending papers in their locker and go home to play Call of Duty Ghosts™ with friends.

Let’s say that students overall seem able to do that homework, though. They simply did not do it. What’s the next step?

Asking students never hurts. You might have them write a paragraph explaining why they did not do their homework. Did they forget about their homework? Were they too busy with other homework? Were they babysitting siblings? Out with their parents at a baseball game? Did they start gaming with friends and never stop? Did they spend the evening on social media? Did they decide that one assignment was unimportant? That all their assignments were unimportant?

My school last year made homework grades virtually irrelevant in the larger scheme of things. Those grades counted for 0% of a report card grade. Report card grades were taken entirely from tests and quizzes. Frankly, I don’t think I would have done homework in those circumstances. I know one of my daughters did not do homework in a high school math class when that homework only counted for 5% of the grade. She figured she could do without that 5% and still get her “A”. (She’s in a doctoral program in math now.) One major reason for homework completion that could be affecting your class: Students don’t think the homework will affect their grade. Or affect their grade enough.

We were involved in a funny fiction last year. Teachers were pretending that homework counted as part of final grades but, in fact, a student could do no homework without losing points toward their final grade. We had been instructed to give homework a 0% weighting in the weighted average that resulted in the final grade. We were allowed to bump students up if they came within 2% of the next grade, but we were not required to do so. That bump was discretionary.

An example may help may this clearer. Using the standard grading scale in which 90% to 100% is an “A”, 80% to 90% is a “B”, and 70% to 80% is a “C”, I had the option to push Maggie from a “C” to a “B” when her overall average amounted to 78%. I could choose to leave Maggie at a “C” if I chose. Homework completion was expected to be part of my decision. If Maggie had been turning in most or all of her homework, she would presumably be bumped up to the next grade. Homework had some effect, but only in the margins.

The school had a plan in place to encourage homework completion. Students who failed to do work could be “zapped” and sent to an afterschool program where they would finish their homework. That program encouraged homework completion — but not homework quality. Zapping was also a fair amount of work, especially when calls home were added to the picture. You can’t keep students after school without warning parents.

I’m cynical enough to suspect that some teachers might have assigned less homework after awhile in order to avoid zapping students. Other teachers shifted homework to classwork, starting and even finishing the work during the class period. Because we had block scheduling, that strategy had a fair amount to recommend it. Teachers could see students going off-course and correct problems on the spot.

Oops, drifting into history here. If you are a new teacher, you don’t need my history. You could probably use advice. If your school has decided to use mastery-based grading with limited or no weight being given to homework, your school has given students an excuse not to do homework. How will you get that homework back then?

You can use classroom incentives. Hand out a treat or treat coupon in return for homework: Ten coupons equals an Ironman™ eraser, five are good for three Jolly Ranchers™. I have gotten a lot of mileage from Jolly Rancher coupons. I suggest coupons, with candy handed out at the end of the day.

Praise good efforts lavishly, as long as you are not embarrassing students. Watch your students’ reactions. Some kids love to be the center of attention. Others loathe it. You can praise shy students one-on-one. Let students know you appreciate their efforts.

Start homework in class. If a student expects homework to be fast and easy, that homework has a greater chance of being completed. A head start makes homework seem more doable.

Emphasize the importance of homework in the learning process. How do students file knowledge in long-term memory? They work with that knowledge. The more points a student plots on the graph, the more likely that student will remember how to plot points when given graph paper the following year. A short lesson about short-term and long-term memory, combined with critical thinking questions, may work for you, at least with some students. Do doctors need to remember many facts about diseases to do their jobs? Can they just look up diseases on their phones? How can they remember the symptoms of diseases?

Call home. Depending on your students’ ages and homework loads, you might create a homework log for parents to check nightly. If students write down the homework in a log and parents check that log, homework completion should go up considerably.

Try to give homework regularly. If you don’t want to give homework daily, then try to create a routine. If students know they always have a weekly packet to do, that packet is more likely to get done. You can ask at the start of class, “How are your packets going? Are there any questions?” Then give coupons for good questions. You might establish a time at the start of class specifically for questions.

Good luck with this piece of the teaching puzzle. Again for new teachers, don’t take homework completion problems personally. Perhaps Mr. Smith last year never cared if the homework came back. Homework completion will be heavily affected by both history and peer behavior.