Dealing with the fear of being a boring teacher.


Riled Up: Stop Grading Homework, Please

Stop grading “completeness” for Pete’s sake. How meaningless do you want your final grades to be? Little Johnny doesn’t understand crap, but he sure can copy. That’s a solid “B” in some classes! Yeah, “B” for Barf.

I’m taking this to the streets: No more grading of homework. Stop It. Please. There, I said it, and I’ll say it again until the entire world gets it. I know that I’m not a pariah here in our little world of edu-bloggers, but out there in the vast expanse that is secondary ed there are many who think I’m a quack. (and I do love ducks)

I just spent my at-home time this morning at about 3,000 K reading about teachers who are struggling with homework in their classes. They want to count it for points, but yet they have this nagging little troll (probably me) in the back of their minds saying something like, “You’re punishing your students unfairly for practicing, of all things! You are creating a culture of cheating mixed with a healthy dose of anti-intellectualism.” Not to be crass, or anything.

So, here’s the deal: I want this thing to get bigger. I know that there’s a core group of us who have tried this system and have seen the benefits — the almost miraculous changes in classroom character — that this brings. I want to bring this to those of us who are not blogging. By definition, those of us who are blogging are taking our professional development into our own hands. What about those of us who don’t spend all hours of their day pouring over GoogleReader just hoping that Kate Nowak or Dan Meyer has posted something new? I’m not saying that these non-bloggers are a part of a uneducated mass waiting for us to enlighten them, but I am curious as to how the bravery to ditch homework grades will ever manifest without a support structure as awesome as all of you who read and comment here.

Here’s my plan. I’m modeling this off of the way that it was done to me. A great educator came into my room and started asking questions about what I do. He posed this interaction as a great opportunity to learn from each other and he was right. He asked me what I thought different classroom practices meant to myself and my students. He focused on all types of graded work (assessments) with simple questions like:

  • What does it mean to give homework a grade? (That it’s not practice, it’s a test.)
  • What message does that send about the purpose of homework? [ Get it right or pay the price :(  ]
  • What do you want a quiz to mean to the students? (To tell them where they are)
  • How do they react when you hand one back? (They shove it in their bag after maybe reading the score)

That was all it took for me. I realized my assessment practices were broken.

I would suggest these kinds of conversations with colleagues. I’m not asking you to cover up your revolutionary ulterior motive, but you must remember that no one will make a change unless they see a need for one. Kindly prod towards these motives. If your colleague appears to be still in the Freudian rationalization stage, perhaps it’s time to let off. If they start saying things like, “Yeah! Hey? Shouldn’t they be doing homework because it makes them get better at something?” You’ve got them. Go for the kill. Recommend some great reading. Here are some points, if you’d like. There are plenty of other people writing on this subject that I will also link that the bottom of this post:

Homework is Practice:

Most teachers will agree with this idea. Homework is practice. Some “homework” teaches new material, which just makes the situation that much worse. Why are you grading a student’s first attempt at understanding something? Shouldn’t this be an opportunity for feedback? Grading homework is like a professor giving a summative quiz at the end of every lecture based on the material s/he just talked about. How do you feel about that?

If you really believe that homework is practice, then students should get to decide how much they need to do to master a topic, when they need to do it, and how they want you to give them feedback on it. I have students that are equally successful doing about 5% of the problems I “assign” as other students that do every problem and ask for help outside of class. How is that bad? It’s not; “fairness” be damned.

Graded Homework Breeds Cheating:

I know we as teachers don’t like to talk about this, but it’s true. Anytime you give points (or money) for something, people will find a way to skip the process to get the reward. So, stop giving the reward so directly. Stop grading completeness for Pete’s sake. How meaningless do you want your final grades to be? Little Johnny doesn’t understand crap, but he sure can copy during lunch. That’s a solid “B” in some classes! Yeah, B for Barf.

Instead, adopt a practice of controlled in-class assessments and feedback. Give the students a chance to practice the idea, and then you can give feedback to each student about how they need to close any gaps. Then give an assessment of that idea to let the kid know where their practice has gotten them. Since you’re already using Standards-Based Grading (right?!) these are indexed by idea, and the scores are dynamic based on future assessments. Now the students can see how their practice has correlated with actual ability, and they can form ideas about their own study habits without you giving out secret-magical-flying-pony points for copying during lunch.

Assessing for Learning:

Ditching the homework grades frees up a lot of your time. It also places a really large weight of proper assessment on your shoulders. How do you know what each student knows? Are you assessing it in multiple ways? Are you assessing the things you actually want these kids to know? These are all the right questions teachers should be asking. When homework becomes ungraded practice you end up with students and teachers really thinking about the road to understanding, instead of the road to more points. Want to know more? Just Google “Standards-Based Grading.” Or you can read my stuff on it.

Links For Further Reading:

  1. More from Cornally on homework.
  2. A new blogger dealing with the same issues: A Drop in the Bucket.
  3. The man himself weighing in on not grading homework: Matt M.F. Townsley.
  4. The obligatory Dan Meyer link.
  5. Alfie!

What’s It All Mean, Basil?

I’m asking for some sanity here. I’m asking for us to stop playing games with our students. I’m asking us to stop hiding behind minus-ones, and to come out in front and say, “Hey, Johnny, you suck at factoring. Here’s how you can get better, and I promise your grade will reflect your improvement.”

I suppose you could just continue on saying, “Hey, if you copy, and cobble together just enough random practice on ideas you may or may not understand, maybe the magical grading fairy will come into your room at night and leave that ambiguous “B-” you’ve been waiting for!”

I feel like the Lewis Black of grading right now. Sorry for all the yelling. (Kind of)

Edit – 4-20-2013: There are some seriously awesome conversations happening on twitter and in classrooms about not grading homework. Essentially, the sides boil down to those who feel that students aren’t mature enough to handle choosing homework vs those of us who know this, but believe students are to experience that as a necessary part of the maturing process. I’d like to point out an enormous caveat: none of this works unless you classroom is >50% inquiry-based, standards-based reporting, and dedicated to parsing feedback with students in small groups; otherwise, continue grading homework and pretending that memorizing algorithms is somehow mathematics.

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Shawn Cornally • April 27, 2010

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