Points over Practice?

This post is written as a precursor to my session on homework at next week’s Pearson-ATI Summer Conference

practiceYou’d think by now we’d have the whole homework thing figured out. Should it be assigned? What is the purpose of homework? How much is too much? How much is too little? Should it be graded? Is it formative? What if my students don’t do it? What if only half of my students do it? Why do we continue to act surprised by the fact that some students don’t master the intended learning the first time they practice it? These (and so many other questions) fuel a continual debate over where the actual sweet spot of our homework routines is.

Is homework the means or the end? In other words, does homework present students with an opportunity to further advance their proficiency with regards to specific curricular standards or is it an event all unto itself? While some might be tempted to answer both, it is challenging to come up the middle on the means vs end discussion.

As a means, homework tends to be about practice. Inherent in this practice paradigm is the elimination of points and their contribution to an overall grade. In other words, as practice, homework is formative. As an end, homework is just the opposite; it tends to be an event that independently contributes (even in a small way) to a report grade. While subsequent new evidence of learning may emerge, homework as an end remains a contributor to what could eventually be an inaccurate grade. And that is the bigger point. Whatever we report about student learning - and however we determine the substance of what we report – must be as accurate as possible. Previous evidence (homework) that no longer reflects a student’s current level of proficiency has the potential to misinform parents and others. When homework counts, we are emphasizing points over practice.

“…but it only counts for a small percentage of a student’s final grade,” some might argue, “so it doesn’t really matter.” I suppose on one level that might be true, however, consider a scenario where someone steals a five dollars from you and then asks you to dismiss it since they didn’t steal a lot of money. Now, I do understand that making the connection between stealing and counting homework is a stretch, but my point is that if learning (and the accurate reporting of a student’s achievement) is our priority, then emphasizing points clearly misses the mark. It’s not how much the inclusion of homework impacts the student’s final grade; it’s that it does in the first-place.

Still, others may proclaim (and wholeheartedly believe) that, “…if I don’t grade it, they won’t do it.” Again, while that might be the paradigm in a classroom, we have to ask ourselves who is responsible for creating that paradigm. We must recognize that students don’t enter school in Kindergarten with a point accumulation mindset; the K student never asks her teacher if the painting is for points! So where do they learn that? Somewhere in their experience points (and grades) become a priority for the adults…so they become a priority for students. Parents and students also contribute to this mindset, but we have to acknowledge our role as well. Also, if the only thing motivating students to complete any assignment is the promise of points then we really have to consider whether the assignment is truly worth completing in the first place. Again, is homework a means or an end?

I am looking forward to sharing more on the topic of homework, practice, and assessment at Pearson-ATI’s 20th Annual Summer Conference next week (July 8-10, 2013) in Portland, OR. The session on homework entitled Practice without Points will explore the biggest hurdles that prevent some teachers from eliminating the points attached to practice work, the reasons we assign homework and how those reasons fit within a balanced assessment system, and how teachers can thoughtfully respond to the trends they see between initial homework results and subsequent assessment data. You can read more on why I believe homework should be for practice and used formatively (here) rather than being used as part of a summative reporting process.

I will also be leading a session on Effective Leadership in Assessment specifically suited for those responsible for taking assessment literacy to scale and a session entitled Infused Assessment that takes participants back to the core fundamentals of formative assessment by infusing it into already existing instructional practices rather than creating  summative-events-that-don’t-count. 

If you’re unable to attend the conference, please take some time to follow the hashtag #ATIcon on Twitter.

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7 thoughts on “Points over Practice?

  1. Trying to change the engrained culture around ‘homework’ is very difficult. That is why I am trying, (really trying but is hard to overcome over 50 years of ingraining), to change the name to “intentional practice and/or concept development” to separate it from ‘homework’ connotations. By choosing the name for the night assignment, I share with the students the purpose and context for doing this formative work.

  2. Very interesting points, I believe that homework is necessary to help a student master the subject matter so that he can demonstrate proficiency on examinations. As educators, we can not control the work habits of our students. We strive to prepare children to become valuable assets in the future economy of our nation. Some will achieve and some will not. Engraining the importance of self motivation and meeting deadlines will be a requirement for our students as adults. As you discuss finding the balance of how much homework to assign and how that work should effect the final grade is a very complicated question to answer. I am currently a student at South Alabama enrolled in EDM 310; a class dedicated on learning in the 21st century. Our class stresses the importance of making learning exciting through project based learning and using technology as a media to provide an interactive education. Perhaps, by using computer based learning ( a tool modern children are very comfortable with) we can make the assignments fun and thereby increase the willingness of our students to complete their work. Letting students have an active role in how their classroom time i used is a premise that Dr. Strange has introduced in me. I really enjoyed your blog. I look foward to more.

  3. Mr. Schimmer,
    I am Rachel Hinton an EDM 310 student at the University of South Alabama majoring in Elementary Education. This semester in EDM we have learned so much about 21st century learning and ow helpful if can be in making our students excited about learning.
    Before this class I would have probably went into teaching thinking the same way most teachers do about homework, that the students need to do it to learn or that it has to be required but there are so many different things that can be used besides homework, especially if it is going to be graded.
    I find this blog post very interesting. I agree with you 100% that homework should be only for practice and formative assessment. If the students are only worried about gettting it finished to earn the points many times they will not really be learning anything anyway.
    Thank you for a great post can’t wait to read more!

  4. Hello, My name is Miriah Grantham and I am a student in EDM310 at the University of South Alabama. I really enjoyed reading this post, you made some very valid points. I think I will use homework as a form of practice. I will be teaching Elementary students, so I think i will incorporate it into my weekly parent letters. I will send home a packet every week that explains the work that their students would be learning that week with some example problems/ questions that they can answer. The parents could check their understanding or insure that they practice if they need to improve their grade. Thanks for posting! granthammiriahedm310@blogspot.com

  5. Hi Mr. Schimmer, I am also a student in EDM310 at the University of South Alabama. I really enjoy your blog posts and always seem to agree with your points of view. Like you, I think that homework can be a source of practice for students, but is that not the keyword in all of this “practice”. When sending out homework to your students, most of the time the material was only taught recently. So let’s just say that maybe 50 percent of the students know it well enough to go home and do their homework with 100 percent accuracy, that means the other 50 percent will not grade well just because they do not learn as fast as the other students. Homework is a tricky subject when trying to figure out how you should grade students on it. I think one good idea might be giving the students bonus points on tests or just grading their completion on the homework. I hope to master these homework concepts when I finally become a teacher myself!

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