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Homework Is Broken. Here's How We Can Fix It.

What? Did you just read that correctly? How can homework––the pivot point around which math classrooms spin–– be broken? A few years ago, I probably would have felt the same, but after thinking about the purpose of homework and how students regard it, I knew that I needed to make some changes. And so many positive things have happened in my classroom as a result! Ready to take the plunge with me? Read on…

What is the purpose of homework?

This might seem like a question with an obvious answer, but my research showed me that it really isn’t. We as teachers know that students need to practice the skills they are learning to strengthen the neural connections they are making and to build confidence in the process. A worthy goal, to be sure! Yet, is that what happens when we assign those problems? In my classes, I saw many students using resources like Photo Math or Slader to find answers without even trying the problems first. The recent advancements in AI tell me this tendency is likely to escalate. Even when the students tried the problems themselves, they often consulted each other for answers or reinforcement, partly to avoid the struggle of not knowing an answer immediately. So I shouldn’t have been surprised that when I would ask them questions about a certain topic we had learned, the result was often a scramble through notes, half-hearted attempts to answer, or sometimes blank stares. The practice wasn’t meeting the objective I’d hoped. Something had to change.

Who is the homework done for?

The answer seems obvious, but after reading Peter Liljedahl’s book, Building a Thinking Mathematics Classroom, I discovered that a strange dichotomy occurs. Teachers want to believe that students are using homework to check their understanding. However, students perceive homework as something they do for the teacher or for a certain grade. The end result of this is that students see homework as an obligation, not an opportunity. They are not accepting the challenge to actually discover where their weak spots are and to remedy them because they’ve never had to address those issues before they’ve never seen that as their role or responsibility before. In essence, the onus of learning was sitting squarely on my shoulders as the teacher, not on theirs as the learner.

So how can we fix this?

To begin, I eliminated the word “homework” from my teaching vocabulary and instead started talking about “checking your understanding” or “strengthening those connections in your brain”. The practice moved from textbook problems to an online platform that focused on fewer, deeper, and more conceptually-oriented questions. Most importantly, I stopped awarding points for the practice and instead implemented mastery checks where students could show me the results of their practice. Finally, I asked students to reflect on what areas they felt they had mastered and which ones needed more practice. Suddenly, the learning was on the students’ shoulders and I was there to support the journey.

I won’t say that this transition has been an easy one. Old habits do die hard and many students were very comfortable with mindlessly doing 30 problems that were almost identical and getting full credit for it. However, once it became apparent to them that they were in control of their learning, a subtle shift occurred. Students started taking ownership for their practice and did not expect a grade for it. They regard mastery checks as an opportunity to “show what you know”, but also realize that if their practice wasn’t sufficient, they can ask for a mastery check redemption (as long as certain expectations are met). Finally, they are now beginning to appreciate that the study of calculus (or any subject) is a journey and one that they control.

Medic to the rescue!

Once this idea blossomed in my mind, I was thrilled to see that Calc Medic (and Math Medic) was already a step ahead of me. Every lesson already has a Check Your Understanding built right in! This is where students go after the Activity to see if they can apply their new learning to different problem types and scenarios, demonstrating that they really understood the concept. It can also serve as a springboard that lets them know where further practice is needed. The questions promote broad thinking and really get to the heart of what we hoped our students learned. I now use these questions regularly to determine what was learned and my students are getting much better about identifying (and then remedying) their weak spots.

In closing, I know that this transition has been one of the most profound I’ve made in my teaching career. Rethinking homework, its benefits, and its possibilities have opened a new world in my classroom where students can verbalize what they know and what they are still working on. It’s refreshing and rewarding to know that we are all in this together.

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