Thursday, August 18, 2011

Homework as a motivational Tool! (Homework Rules Part II)

There is another way to think about [student] motivation - not as a cause, but as a consequence of achievement...     Dylan Wiliam (2011)

In my previous blog, I suggested that as the school year begins, and the homework begins, make sure you collaboratively develop  homework assignments with other teacher colleagues and peers from the same grade level or course. The lack of coherent team driven homework assignments is a great inequity creator in your school on a weekly basis, if you do not do so.  

I also promised that in Homework Part II, I would review the Five Hallmarks of Good Mathematics Homework Assignments and provide a few (high school) samples for your review and use. The source for these Five Hallmarks comes from an Educational Leadership article on the Five Hallmarks of Good Homework by Cathy Vatterott, in September of 2010. 

Question: Can daily mathematics homework assignments motivate student learning? 

She provides sound advice for the mathematics community, as homework is such a vibrant aspect of the lifeblood of the daily work and expectations with students. From my perspective, daily homework is an essential aspect of the formative assessment and learning process with students. Yet homework in mathematics is generally so discouraging and so de-motivating for students, they fail to often complete the assignments or complete the assignments with much success.

Thus, assigned daily homework needs the same consideration as any assessment instrument or tool used during a unit or chapter of instructional learning targets.  Can Homework, be a motivating teacher tool?   

Hallmark 1: Purpose
Does each homework problem assigned connect to a specific purpose and learning target? Why is each problem in the assigned homework set for that evening? Let the students know! When students receive all assignments in advance of the Chapter, it shows planning for student practice that has a purpose. In mathematics, homework practice should be tiered for repeated practice during a Unit. 10 problems for the same learning target in one night, is not as effective as 3 problems on that learning target assigned over a period of 4-5 days. 

You can click here for a scanned example of the Geometry Chapter 4 homework assignment sheet given to students by the teacher team in advance of the chapter. Notice how all problems assigned have answers provided as well. This team understands that the purpose of homework practice is to formatively learn from mistakes ( I did not get the right answer) while practicing. Keep trying the problem solution path until it matches with the correct response. Students cannot do this if they have to wait until the next day for answers to the "Even" problems assigned.

In fact, the practice of failing to provide answers to homework practice contributes to students waiting to actually do the work, until the teacher shows them the next day. It is a de-motivating factor.

Hallmark 2:  Efficiency
Ask yourself, is this homework assignment filled with busy work, or is it really essential to student demonstrations of understanding the learning target? Mathematics homework cannot wear the student down and reflect an inordinate amount of time that fails to deliver a meaningful return for a reasonable amount of student effort. Consider a 3:1 ratio of time. As a teacher, if you actually did the homework - showing all of the work required and completing all problems and tasks assigned - how long would the assignment take you? Consider a 3:1 ratio - if it takes you 20 minutes it will take the students at least an hour or more. My experience has been that mathematics homework that takes most students more than 35- 40 minutes, will have diminishing returns. 

Think less is more. Assign fewer problems, but expect more in terms of cognitive demand and demonstration of understanding on those practice problems. You can click here for a scanned example of the Algebra Chapter 9 homework assignments given to students by the teacher team in advance of  the unit or chapter. Notice the careful selection of problems as well as directions for computations issues. This team has thought out their expectations for homework, quite carefully

Hallmark 3: Ownership
When possible give students some ownership in the homework assignment tasks. This can happen by giving them choice in selecting problems form different sets available or by allowing them choice about the best way to master a learning target - which problems do the students think they need to do for additional practice before the quiz or test? Students could make this choice based on the results of self-reflection regarding current learning target strengths and weaknesses identified in class. This allows for some actual differentiation in the assignment - especially when the assignment is review in nature. 

Note too that assignments cannot be vague such as "Study for the Test". In Mathematics, this has too broad of a meaning for students and leaves them guessing. Effective teacher teams, will agree on the exact process students should follow when studying for a test, and work with students to develop effective preparations plans that they own. 

Hallmark 4: Competence
Everyone reading this blog has an area of no talent or incompetence. You may not be able to sing, or play tennis, play the piano, or cook, etc. And it is rare that you actually practice (much less practice every day) in that area of 'no talent'.  The same is true for students in mathematics. If they think of math as an area of no talent they rarely will be motivated to complete a math assignment.  They do not feel competent in doing so.

If the assignment is not doable for them, they will get discouraged and shut down. And no system of grading will overcome this frustration and fear for the student. They just won't run to practice an area of 'no talent'. Thus, creating learning conditions in class for successful formative and guided practice, and checking student readiness for successful independent practice (homework) on the  complex tasks within the assignment is crucial. 

Hint: Do not assign homework that the students are not prepared to do successfully. Or, significantly cut back on the assigned problems. There is no law that requires mathematics homework be assigned every night. 

Hallmark 5: Aesthetic Appeal
Students need mathematics homework assignments that are motivational, meaningful and visually appealing. This means assignments given out of the textbook supplemental worksheets, etc. should not be used. Many of you know that I am a writer of mathematics textbooks grades 6-12. And I would never use the lesson practice sheets for homework assignments as they violate most of the Hallmarks discussed here.  There is no room for students to show their work, there is often a lot of busywork. The problem (or math task) set often does not align with what I exactly taught that day, and there is rarely a sufficient set of high cognitive demand task. This is not the fault of the publishing company per se. The practice worksheets were not meant to be used for student independent practice on their own. Or to be appealing, because to save space, problems are jammed to close together to show meaningful student work.

You can click here for a scanned example of the Geometry Chapter 7 homework assignments given to students by the teacher team in advance of  the unit or chapter. Notice the esthetic appeal of the assignment sheet itself as well as the nature of most assignments being created by the team.

As your teacher team creates students homework assignments for each Unit in the 2011-2012 school year, think of ways that you can be creative with the daily work that students must do. Remember that the purpose of homework, is student formative practice toward the expected learning targets. 

And as Dylan Wiliam said at the top, does the homework you assign actually result in student motivation - not as a cause (I need to be motivated to do my homework) but as a consequence (The homework is assigned in such a way that it results in my being motivated to keep trying). 

Ask your teacher team - Does the way we assign homework, and the tasks that we assign to be done - motivate students to want to learn mathematics - even if they think it is an area in which they have 'no talent"?

1 comment:

  1. Timothy,
    I just found your site and read the rules for HW. Good to know that I am already doing this and giving my students a calender of when we quiz and test. Glad to know I am on the right track.