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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Homework, Extra Credit, and What Do Grades Really Mean Anyway?

When I was in the classroom, I turned the ideas of "homework" and "extra credit" on their heads, at the suggestion of my students. (I asked them about this when I was working on my National Board Certification.)

Instead of requiring every student to do every homework assignment, I started administering mastery pretests on items that lent themselves to it. Any student who could score 80% or higher on the pretest did not have to do the “homework” assigned on those concepts. They could do it, if they chose to, for “extra credit.” Homework completion in my classes shot up dramatically.

Any student who opted not to do “homework” assignments in areas where there was no master pretest available (answering reading questions, for instance, when we read a full-length text of some kind) was not penalized with zeroes on the homework. I hate the case of the kid who can score 100 on the tests but gets a C in the course because he doesn’t do the homework (which, in his case, would be busywork, would it not, if he can ace the tests already?). However, if the student scored lower than a C on the test or major project, who had chosen not to do the “homework,” I would then contact the parent(s) to notify them that the student could have done the homework in order to boost his grade, but chose not to. (Again, this was suggested by the students.) I never had to call a parent about this. And I didn't teach only "advanced" students; most of my classes were, by my own choice, at-promise (at-risk) kids, when I taught on the high school level.

Students who chose to do those “homework” assignments were awarded “extra credit” if they scored well, and we ignored the score and did “retakes” if they did not do well. Students had to conference with me in order to win a chance for a “retake.” Homework completion among my “iffy” students shot to the ceiling.

Finally, at the request of the kids, who were middle schoolers at this time (I later returned to high school teaching and employed the same methods, with the same excellent results), I provided all the “homework” up front in advance, so they could work at their own pace, much like a college syllabus. The students took responsibility for organizing their time and worked ahead when they had a busy stretch. This from 12 and 13 year olds, heterogeneously grouped, 16% special education, urban junior high school.

I loved being in parent conferences when other teachers complained about students not doing homework, but the parents would say, “Well, he says he never has homework from Mrs. B, but he does stuff for her class almost every night.”

I did not have a lot of luck influencing other teachers who asked about my methodology, because there is a curious persistence by classroom teachers of punishing “lazy” students with zeroes, administered with extra zeal when those students ace the tests. There is also an odd commitment to trying to make everyone do the same thing at the same time.

In my professional opinion, school grades should be based purely on what students know and are able to do, as described in the curriculum frameworks for the course, whether that is a public school state curriculum document or the Advanced Placement handbook. Does a "zero" really mean that the student knows and can do nothing relative to a standard? And how does one justify a "zero" on a homework assignment when the student scored 90, 95, or 100 on the test for that unit? Maybe it means that the homework is boring and doesn't help the student advance his understanding.

It was a tremendous step forward for me as a teacher when I started holding up a mirror to my teaching practice when students did not do an assignment and asking myself what could I have done differently. Asking them how to make it more interesting was even more helpful. Sometimes it has nothing to do with their interest or engagement and everything to do with the timing of when it was given to them, or the shortness of the deadline. Newark Mayor Cory Booker asks a bold question in the documentary film The Lottery: What if, instead of making time the constant and achievement the variable, we reversed it and made achievement the constant and time the variable? Without realizing it, this is exactly what my students advised me to do. And we did it, with excellent results. My kids scored the highest in the state on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) 8th grade English exams for three years running.

I understand the desire among teachers to build "work ethic" in their students; I simply question their method of doing so. The old saying is that the definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing over and over, yet expecting a different result.

1 comment:

  1. I love your approach to outside of class preparation.
    When I taught French to seventh graders, 37 years ago, I didn’t pretest my students because none of them came with any French instruction/experience background. I required no daily written homework, except after a student failed to receive an 80% on the quiz, which was given to determine if the student had learned and retained the content. And students were then able to retake the quiz to demonstrate learning. I did, however, work with the students on different learning strategies for retention at the beginning of the school year, and revisited these processes throughout the year. This approach, I found minimized “attitude” toward outside preparation and increased enthusiasm for learning.

    Diane L.M. Wittig, Ed.D.