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Homework Objectives

2018-12-12

What is the point of homework? I was chatting with my coworkers the other day and learned they were spending long hours grading homework. I asked them why, and we had a fascinating conversation. It turns out they were spending ten times as long on it as I was, because they felt like it was somehow proper or necessary, but on later reflection we agreed that oftentimes it isn't.

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Practice

The first and most common objective of homework is to practice something. Students studied it in class, and you want them to get some reinforcement, so they do some drills at home. Suppose they are learning to spell some words, and their homework is to write each word five times. The next class, you show up, and collect the homework. Here's an important question: Should you carefully check that they spelled each word correctly? In my view, no. Most of the time you don't need to check so carefully. If you're smart, you'll have a spelling test in class, and tests are the place to find out exactly how good their spelling is. When you're grading their homework, you can take a quick look, see that they did it mostly correctly, and give them an A. Remember, if they were supposed to practice by doing their homework, and they did, even if they were wrong in certain places, then they did what you asked, so give them the A already.

I sometimes feel weird writing "100" or "A" on something that might have errors, so I instead draw a star or use a "Good Work!" stamp to indicate it was done well. Conversely, if students skip sections, copy, or are obviously careless, I write "0" or "25" or "50" and a note explaining why.

Preview

In college you were probably assigned to read some pages before coming to class. It's possible to use homework as a way to preview a topic, or to get students' minds primed so you can jump into it quickly in class, either for a project or a discussion. In many junior and senior high schools, this is probably less effective than in college, because some students don't care about your class. You can give it a try, but have a backup plan in case things fizzle out.

Fun

Sometimes we assign homework mostly because it's fun, or at least we hope students will feel that it's fun. If you ask students to make an exciting video about something, you'll be surprised how much energy they might put into it.

Pace

I don't assign much homework, and most of what I do assign is stuff that we started doing in class and we ran out of time. By making it homework, I'm encouraging students to use class time efficiently. If Jane was focused and finished the paper in class, but Jimmy was sleeping, then Jimmy has to finish up at home. Jane feels happy because she can take it easy later, and Jimmy still learns whatever I wanted him to learn.

Check Answers in Class

Suppose your students do a homework assignment with three parts: a true/false section, a spelling section, and a paragraph writing section. In class, before you collect it, ask them to correct the first two sections themselves. You can say the answers aloud or write them on the board, and students can see what they did right or wrong much faster than if they had to wait until you graded it. Also, if they have questions about why something is what it is, they have a good chance to ask you. Since they can't reasonably check their own paragraph writing, you'll have to handle that later.

You might worry that students will cheat, and either they'll write down the correct answers when you say them and pretend they finished it at home, or they'll pretend an answer is correct even when it's wrong. In my experience, this doesn't happen very often. You can easily see if they are holding a red pen or pencil, and even if they grade their homework erroneously, that won't help them when similar questions appears on the test later. Ideally, your tests look similar to your homework, and you can tell your students this, which should help them focus on properly identifying and understanding mistakes.

Don't Fix Everything

Suppose your students did the above homework, and in the writing section they each wrote a paragraph about their favorite breakfast and why it is or isn't healthy. You're now grading the writing section. Many teachers have a strong urge to fix all the mistakes. This is wrong. It's wrong, and the reasons it's wrong are cool to think about.

First of all, you're a teacher and you're busy with many tasks. If you want to provide detailed writing feedback with lengthy corrections for hundreds of students on a regular basis, you probably can't do that in your working hours. So then you're taking things home and working overtime, for which you almost certainly don't get paid. That makes your life suck, so don't do it. But you might object, and you might say something like, No, no, I agree my life sucks right now, but it's for the good of the students! I have to help out the students, so I'll do it anyway. OK, it's good that you care, but if you really believe that, then it's your duty to go to the boss and tell him you need fewer classes or an assistant so you can handle all of the writing. Don't overwork yourself on a regular basis when the problem is the lack of adequate staff. After all, whoever replaces you in the future might not put in those hours, and if you can fix the problem properly now, future students will benefit too.

Even if we ignore that, and you're OK with doing a ton of unpaid overtime, it's still bad to correct all the mistakes, because it destroys motivation. Imagine Joe writes his paragraph, hands it in, and gets it back with 28 mistakes noted in red pen. What will Joe feel? I imagine he'll feel pretty damn awful, like maybe he sucks at doing English, like maybe writing is pointless because he'll never get rid of all of those errors. Also, if he has 28 mistakes and you corrected all 28 of them, it really doesn't help anyone, because he's not going to read all of it. Understanding why something is wrong takes some time, and Joe might look at the homework for a minute or two, but that's it. So don't correct everything. Choose some mistakes that you think are the easiest to fix or the most important and correct those, and you'll help Joe focus that minute or two on something small and comprehensible.

Sometimes you don't want to correct mistakes at all, because you could just underline them instead. If you find five relatively simple mistakes and underline them, you can ask the student to figure it out on their own. If they already studied that spelling or grammar point, and they can do error correction themselves, it's a great learning opportunity and a useful life skill to develop.

Depending on the circumstances, you could respond to the content and not the delivery. If students are writing about their healthy breakfasts, you could correct the spelling and grammar as described above. But instead you might want to focus solely on the content. You could read their paragraph and put a comment at the bottom such as, The example you gave of bananas with high vitamin value was great. Nice job! and be done with it. This would show the student that you really care about their thoughts, which would raise their motivation for that type of work. It turns out that writing things, even if nobody corrects the mistakes, helps people get better at writing. So although sometimes you definitely want to proofread and mark things up in detail, you certainly don't have to do it all the time, and some of the time you don't have to do it at all.

End at the Term End

Suppose you collect some homework in the last class of the term, right before winter vacation. You could mark it up, grade it, and hand it back in January, but why? If the term test is done, the odds of students caring much about homework they finished a month prior are relatively low. In a situation where you can't return the homework in a prompt fashion, you don't have to return it at all. If it's something special, hold onto it until January, but if it's a fairly standard assignment, just enter the grade in your grade book, drop the paper in the shredder, and enjoy the holidays.

Goals

In summary, when you're grading, decide what you think is important. Once you know what the main objective is, you'll get a good idea of what to look for on students' papers. This will allow you to quickly focus on a few key areas, give students suitable feedback, and finish everything in a professional fashion.

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