Don’t grade homework

So you’ve got a new-fangled excel sheet or an old-fashioned mark book. You want to record assessment evidence in it so that you can track progress. Should you record grades, levels or marks for homework? No. Not even if you break it down into quite specific skills or tasks? No.

It doesn’t tell you much

The thing is, you cannot control the conditions in which homework is completed. You might grade two pieces, using the same criteria, but the first piece has been completed by the student on her own whereas the other piece has been completed by a student with considerable help from a parent, friend or maybe even a voice from the internet. You are not comparing like with like.

It’s worse than that

Additional resources that a child might draw upon at home are not randomly distributed. The children who have parents who take an interest, who fill the house with books and who are educated themselves will provide a homework advantage when compared to the children who have none of these things at home. If you grade homework, you are grading a student’s home-life.

Should we abandon homework?

I don’t think so. Bad homework of the ‘finish off what we were doing in class’ kind is probably pointless, but good homework can make use of distributed practice and interleaving. It can reinforce learning. It can help with the goal of overlearning or mastery where students still practice something that they can already do in order to make it automatic. So homework can have a significant role.

So what should we do?

Set worthwhile homework, paying attention to the cognitive science that tells us what might be most effective. Take your markbook and record whether homework has been completed or not. That is all. Don’t spend time assessing it or providing detailed feedback. Set homework that students can mark for themselves or that a peer can mark. I provide numerical answers to maths problems for my students but then insist on seeing full working to ensure that they tackled the problems themselves.

Chase those students who have not completed the homework and ensure it gets done, either by use of a sanction or by providing a space where the students can complete it such as a homework club.

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11 Comments on “Don’t grade homework”

    • gregashman says:

      Thanks. That’s a useful link with lots of ideas for making homework more effective. We probably disagree on the feedback aspect. If a teacher teaches a class three times per week and has four classes of 25 students then that’s 300 pieces of homework to provide feedback on. Whatever the advantages to feedback, I don’t think this is efficient. I remember Wiliam saying something along the lines of ‘why provide instruction, one-to-one and in writing’? If we use this assessment information to grade students or make inferences about what they have learnt then my argument about home background applies.

  1. Stan says:

    Greg,
    Do you have a view on using sites like Khanacademy.org and aops.com to assign and track math homework. Both have free problems with instant feedback and teacher reports.
    Once you are not assessing homework there seems to be less reason not to assign it from free online sites that do the correction and automate the reporting.

    Stan

  2. David says:

    I would say that may be this is true for math (and I just had a similar conversation with a math teacher) but I’d disagree for humanities classes. All of the factors you cite are true in terms of inputs, however, if an assignment (say a longer reading and a reflection) is designed properly and used often enough, then one can see a student’s progression in terms of writing, thinking and processing. Combine these with content assessments in the form of tests (which ought to have essay components).

    I teach in a Jesuit school, and one of the main factors separating Jesuit pedagogy from other institutions is reflection. Giving students the opportunity not just to demonstrate mastery of the material but also for thinking about the content and writing about it in his/her own words helps place the material in the long term memory (if reinforced by repetition and reference).

  3. Chester Draws says:

    It’s the opportunity cost of marking and checking homework that bothers me. If I spend 10 minutes in class sorting out who has done it and what to do with those that haven’t, then that is 10 minutes lost to teaching. Inevitably 10 minutes at the start of the class when they are freshest too.

    As for marking and returning, I haven’t got time for that.

    I set homework when I think the skill we are doing is important and needs extra time that I haven’t got in class. Mostly the students realise the importance, and do it. Because I don’t set it every day, often not for weeks on end, they realise it isn’t a chore I do because “it’s good for them” but a thing that sometimes actually needs to be done.

    Punishing them for not doing it is a waste of everyone’s time. If the punishment is severe then it just sets up false incentives to copy/cheat/lie. I’d rather they didn’t do it and tell me honestly than have to try and judge which ones actually did it properly themselves. I ask if they do it. If they don’t they get something like “well, that’s going to leave you further behind” and we move on. Some of them catch up later anyway, which they don’t do so willingly if they’ve been punished.

  4. Horror of horrors I don’t always think it’s a bad thing for kids to use homework to finish classwork off. I agree relying on this every time probably smacks of laziness, but there are times when there are few sensible alternatives. Kids don’t all work at the same pace, but if they are studying for an exam they all need to have covered the same material and, ideally, practised as much as each other. You try day-in-day out teaching a lesson where all the kids start written work in a different place and you’ll quickly go insane..


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