When I talk to teachers about standards-based grading, the issue of homework inevitably comes up. Even if you are not heading down the standards-based grading (SBG) path, you might find yourself asking questions like,
- What is the purpose of homework?
- How should I grade (or not grade) homework?
- What does quality homework look like?
Homework is a tricky subject. As teachers, we know how important it is for students to practice what they are learning and we are ever aware of the limited class time we have to provide those opportunities. We also know that our students have a full schedule of classes, are involved in extracurricular activities, work after-school jobs and may not have a strong support system and structure at home. That leaves us with the difficult question of “what do we do about homework?”
When dealing with homework in my class, here are the guidelines I follow:
I only give homework if it is meaningful practice that we started in class
This guideline really has two components. The first is homework must be meaningful practice. This means that I assign enough questions to cover the full range of problems for the specified learning target and no more. I make sure students have the opportunity to start this practice in class so they can work with their peers and ask questions. Students can then feel confident finishing their homework on their own. If both of these guidelines are met, my students rarely have homework. They usually finish their practice in class.
I hold students accountable for the homework skills
When students come into class the day after homework was assigned, they know we will be whiteboarding the assignment. This means that each group will be given a problem to work out on a large, 3’ x 2’ whiteboard. Each group will then be asked to present their work to the class. I make sure to ask each student about a step of their group’s problem. The goal of this is not to embarrass students or to catch them not doing their work, but to get students thinking and verbalizing their problem solving process. As the teacher, I am able to question different students at different levels based on my prior knowledge of the student. If a student cannot answer a question, I can gently scaffold my questions so they are not embarrassed but they are also not off the hook. I build this culture of questioning into my classroom from day one so students are used to speaking in front of their peers and they are okay with making mistakes. When using this approach, it is important to reinforce that homework is practice and sometimes we make mistakes when we practice, it is part of the learning process.
I do not grade homework
If you know anything about SBG, this is probably the statement you were waiting for. I did not give this guideline first because I think it is important to evaluate how you assign and go over homework before you think about how to grade (or not grade) it. As I mentioned above, homework is practice, and practice is a time for students to make mistakes. I want students to feel safe attempting a problem and possibly not getting it right on the first try, which becomes more difficult if a grade is looming over the assignment. Looking at homework through the lens of SBG, I want my grades to represent what my students know and can do. Homework is not valid data. If I am going to set the high bar of 'grades are based on mastery of the learning targets', I want to make sure I am collecting valid data to make a fair assessment of my students. Homework is completed outside of my class where I have no control of what resources students use to complete it. At best, a student consults their class notes or a peer to help them complete the problems (as they should!). At worst, the homework answers are simply copied from a classmate during study hall. In either scenario, the homework is not a valid assessment of what that student can do on their own.
I give a lot of optional homework
In my first guideline, I noted that I rarely assign homework. I also recognize that some students need more practice to master a skill than others. I always give my students access to extra practice problems of which they can complete as many as they need. I also give students the key to check their work. I want students to be able to reflect on their own learning and use the resources they are given most effectively.
When I moved to a SBG system, I was forced to rethink how I approach homework and I have been adjusting my classroom based on that cognitive dissonance ever since. There will always be students who do not do their homework. I do my best to speak positively about homework in my classroom and let students know that teachers assign homework as a learning tool, not a punishment. I hope I am teaching my students responsibility by providing them the feedback to reflect on their learning and the tools they need to reach their goals. The bottom line is, I choose to hold my students accountable for learning and use homework as a tool to support them when needed.
As with everything in education, and specifically SBG, this might look different in different classrooms. I have seen teachers use homework as a requirement for reassessments, issue discipline for missing assignments and pull students in during resource periods to complete homework. The heart of all these actions is the same, homework can be an important part of the learning process but it does not need to be an important part of a student’s grade.