The Homework Debate

Posted by on Feb 29, 2016 in High School, Middle School | No Comments

mayvangMay Vang

Math Teacher at Capitol Hill Magnet School

St. Paul Public School

CONNECT Committee Member

How does anyone tackle the homework debate without going in circles or feeling like it is a losing battle? I have dealt with my accelerated course, Accelerated Algebra, which goes through 8th and 9th grade MN math standards, differently from my grade level course, Algebra 1, which is 8th MN math standards only. Was I fair in my decision-making and treatment of students in the different math courses? Did I do more good than harm to their perspective on math homework and math in general? I’m not sure. Perhaps this debate of mine will spark some discussion and discourse among all of you.

I was planned and thought all summer on how to give my students my choice and differentiate homework for my accelerated students. I wanted my high fliers to feel that homework is worth their time, and I wanted everyone else to feel that homework is doable. Peeling through problems in the textbook and researching online, I came to the conclusion of dividing homework into two types. Students got to choose between homework that I labeled as “Meets” and “Exceeds”. The meets problems were ones that all students should be able to complete after the lesson as practice towards mastery. The exceeds or challenge problems are more about applying the concepts beyond what is learned in class, using more higher thinking skills. As part of the buy-in for homework, I assigned ten meets and five exceeds questions per section three to four times a week and hardly anything over a weekend. Students chose to do one of the two or both sets of homework.

I took a different approach with the Algebra 1 students because they had skills that were below or well below grade level with a history of failing math, incomplete work, and bad attitude about math. After a presentation by Sara VanDerWerf at the spring 2015 MCTM conference, I took on ther idea of daily homework. She said that she established that expectation because students had too many excuses about not doing homework. She wanted to eliminate the “I forgot” excuse. She wanted to get to the bottom of why her students were not doing homework. So, I adopted that same expectation, and my students wanted to fight me on it. They moaned and groaned for about one week until they realized that daily homework was doable. I assign them 4-8 problems, depending on difficulty of the concept. I assigned them homework to complete over the weekend, before a test, and even after a test. I don’t allow them to take a break from math.

Where am I with these two different approaches to homework? Homework completion and attitude about homework in the accelerated course did not change much. It makes me feel like the effort that was put into finding the “perfect” problems and combing through every assignment has been futile. Assigning less and more purposeful homework hasn’t proven to change the minds of non-homework doers.  I was, however, pleasantly surprised by the number of students who choose to complete the exceeds problems versus the meets problems.

In contrast, the daily homework in Algebra 1 has proven to me and to them that they can step up to high expectations when asked to do it without excuse. Even when they don’t get it, they report and show that they have tried and are willing to work to understand it. They got used to thinking and doing math and that not doing it was a foreign idea. The success in homework completion, more positive attitude, and passing grades has made me feel that I have made the right decision for them. Not all students have kept up with homework completion as this school year has gone by, but it does not change my expectations. I will continue to assign daily homework but have also provided the opportunity for students to catch up.

In both courses, homework is worth 15% of their final grade, so the numerical worth is not much. But for one course, they have started to see the value and purpose of homework, while I have yet to change the mind of many others in the other course. So did I make the right decision with both courses or should I change my approach to the accelerated course?


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