Monday, August 14, 2017

Hard Questions

All summer I have been considering the changes proposed by my principal to improve my classes.  I'm having a hard time wrapping my head around his one recommendation especially, so I wanted to open it up to the #MTBoS for advice.

The first recommendation (and this was to my whole department, not just me) is to eliminate homework.  His perspective is that since we are in a Title I school, assigning homework just widens the gap between students that have access to tutors and parents that are able to help with homework and those that do not.  I can't say that I disagree with this point.  My perspective has always been that students need to experience doing the math on their own, without me there to help them.  It is also my perspective that students need more time to interact with the material.  We only have 42 minute periods.  I can barely get through everything I have to teach as it is.  How could I possibly create more time for students to practice?

The solution I've been considering is changing the name from "homework" to "daily practice."  I don't care if students do their homework at home or during study hall or during lunch or while waiting for sports practice to begin.  All I care about is that they put forth the effort to try it.  I think if I call it "daily practice" instead I'm sending the message that math is something we need to practice daily.  Not that we have to do this at home.  Just for context:  A typical homework assignment in my class generally 4-5 questions long.  It should not take longer than 10-15 minutes to complete.

The second recommendation is to eliminate test corrections and retests.  My policy is that students may take a retest after completing test corrections.  My rationale is that I simply want students to improve.  Students traditionally take a test on the unit, and think they are done with it whether they were successful or not.  Having the test corrections/retest policy encouraged students to spend more time learning and understanding material that they found difficult.  My principal's perspective is that a student's class grade should be similar (within 5-10 points) of his/her regents score, and that allowing students the opportunity to retest is inflating student course grades.  I disagree with this because a class grade reflects a student's effort over an entire year, and a regents score reflects how a student did on a longer test under more stressful conditions on one day.

My solutions so far include intentionally spiraling quiz and test questions, having shorter quizzes more often, and adjusting percentage weights for calculating grades.  I am currently reading Make It Stick, and it sounds like more frequent quizzes with spiraled questions will solve many problems for me.  However, the thought of eliminating test corrections and retests makes me feel icky inside.  (I don't know any other way to describe it.)  I've always done test corrections.  I don't know what taking this opportunity away will do to my students, and I also don't know that more quizzes will help my students for sure until I try it.  As I write this, I am forming an idea for using the quizzes to replace test corrections - moving in the direction of a standards based grading approach.  Just for context:  Final test grades are 50% the first test score, 25% test corrections, and 25% retest score - this was my principal's suggestion a few years ago.

My questions for my fellow #MTBoS members are:
(1)  What are your thoughts on "Daily Practice" vs. "Homework?"
(2)  What are your thoughts/experiences on eliminating test corrections/retest procedures?


  1. (1) While I appreciate the distinction you're trying to draw, I worry that homework is so institutionalized for kids that they'll maybe just see "daily practice" as homework with a different name. I don't know how that relates to your principal's directions, but I think daily practice might just be homework.

    (I wonder if there is some compromise amount of homework that your principal would allow? And what if the homework was ungraded? Would that make a difference to the principal?)

    (2) Personally, I would be OK eliminating test corrections and retests, and I like your more frequent, spiraled quizzes solution quite a bit. (That's my preferred summative assessment method anyway.) I never felt entirely happy with the way I pulled off SBG when I did it, but it sounds like maybe that will work for you?

    1. Thank you for the feedback. Daily practice is homework with a different name. I don't think I would mind if my students realized this.

  2. (1) I agree with Michael that kids might just see "daily practice" as homework. In addition to his idea for ungraded homework, I have also felt successful with homework assigned twice a week (e.g. assigned Monday due Thursday and vice versa) and lagging homework behind classwork a week or two.

    (2) Is a retest the same test as the first time? I do reassessments and assess the same content with a new question. It's more work, but I trust the results more.

    1. I always gave retests with new test questions when possible, there are instances where questions had to be repeated with different numbers.

  3. I never want to forget school is a learning institution, not a testing institution. Retests, corrections, feedback before grades, etc... reinforces that learning matters, that mistakes should be analyzed, and that there is no deadline on learning. Reassessing gives kids the opportunity and incentive to keep trying. I hope you can keep it. It is the best thing I ever did for my students.

    1. I agree so much. My school is too focused on testing results, but we're a "focus" district because of test scores, so I understand why.

  4. Good questions! I also agree that it might be hard for students to differentiate between "homework" and "daily practice". That said, working with adult numeracy students, I used to call it "homefun" and I sold it by writing a one page statement for students about why I don't give them "homework", but I will give them "homefun" every night. I'm not saying you should call it homefun, but sharing your rationale with your students and laying out your vision might be worth a shot.

    I really appreciate your question because I'm thinking a lot about homework these days since I'll be returning to the classroom to teach a night class this fall (my day job is as a math professional developer). I'm trying to challenge myself to think outside the box a bit and think about other forms of homework. I'm not completely there yet, but two ideas I'm kicking around are:

    (1) Assign writing prompts for homework. Things like "One time I used math outside of class this week was...", "Something that confused me in class today was...", "Today in math class, I am proud of how I...", "One thing I want my math teacher to know about class today is...", "Use today's agenda to write a description of what we did in class today for someone who was absent". Of course it doesn't have to be these prompts but I wonder what the effect on student understanding, retention and mindset would be if I have them write reflective journal entries outside of class.

    (2) Try some larger assignments/projects that they would have more than a night to work on. Writing prompts is something I've done before, though only in class. But I'm intrigued by this idea. Here's a random example ( It wouldn't solve the students working on their own part (in fact I'd probably encourage students to work together on it or ask me questions), but they would work on it outside of class and maybe it wouldn't exactly feel like homework. That said, a lot of my students would need support on how to approach a problem that they couldn't solve in one sitting, just in terms of time management. But since many of them want to go on to college, it seems worth exploring.

    Would either work for you while also allaying your principal's concerns?

    1. There is no real difference between homework and daily practice. I'm not sure how my principal would feel about either of those options. Thanks for your feedback.


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