an interesting article from the marshall memo
(Originally titled “Making Homework Central to Learning”)
In this Educational Leadership article, University of Missouri/St. Louis professor Cathy Vatterott gives three reasons why teachers grade homework – and a counter-argument to each one:
• If I don’t grade it, they won’t do it. What’s happened here, says Vatterott, is that “teachers have oversold grades to students as the indicator of a task’s worth.” It’s simply not true that only graded tasks are worthy of serious effort – students take notes, do group work, and participate in discussions without needing grades for motivation. “These are expectations, just as, in many other countries, completing homework is an expectation,” says Vatterott. “The belief that the carrot of a grade entices students to complete work is an illusion, one with roots in behaviorism and a negative view of learners. At its core, it negates students’ intrinsic drive for mastery and implies that homework is inherently distasteful.”
• Hard work should be rewarded. Again, this is a behaviorist approach, and it has the effect of inflating students’ overall grades by adding in activities that don’t truly reflect learning.
• Homework grades help students who test poorly. Struggling students can rack up points for doing homework (whatever the quality) even if they can’t demonstrate mastery on summative tests. This argument reveals three problems with many schools’ overall grading systems. First, averaging grades makes it more difficult for teachers and students to zero in on learning problems that need to be fixed. Second, including homework grades conflates practice and mastery [see previous article]. And third, depending on homework grades usually means that teachers aren’t using other forms of assessment that would more accurately measure students’ understanding and proficiency.
What is the alternative? Vatterott believes schools need to shift to seeing homework as a means to learning as the end. “It’s not about homework’s value for the grade,” she says, “but homework’s value for learning. It’s not about the student’s responsibility for a task, but the student’s responsibility for his or her learning.”
What does this look like? In schools that don’t grade homework, students are still accountable for doing it – it’s marked for correctness, students get specific feedback, and there are consequences for not doing a good job (parent calls, after-school detention to catch up). Many of these schools have separate grades for academic achievement and “responsibility for learning” – the latter includes note-taking, group projects, and homework.
Here are Vatterott’s suggestions for rethinking the role of homework in the overall assessment picture:
• Evaluate each homework assignment to determine whether to grade it. Some homework assignments should be graded – for example, research papers or portfolios of work.
• Tie homework to assessments. One approach is to allow students to use homework assignments and notes during tests. Another is to write at the top of test papers the grade on the test and the number of uncompleted homework assignments.
• Focus on demonstration of learning, not task completion. “When homework is graded, teachers spend an inordinate amount of time and effort chasing makeup work,” says Vatterott. “When the focus switches from working to learning, students understand that they can improve their final grade by demonstrating mastery, not through the ‘Hail Mary pass’ of an extra-credit assignment two weeks before the end of the semester.”
“Making Homework Central to Learning” by Cathy Vatterott in Educational Leadership, November 2011 (Vol. 69, #3, p. 60-64), http://www.ascd.org; Vatterott can be reached at Vatterott@umsl.edu.