Simplifying Homework: Strategies for Teacher and Student Success

As a result of ballooning class sizes, shrinking budgets and increasingly rigorous standards, homework has become a considerable burden for teachers everywhere.

And while assigning and grading homework has always been a core duty of educators, its impact on students has brought the entire process under scrutiny.

As Jeffrey Schinske and Kimberly Tanner point out in a co-authored report on grades, such strict measurement can interfere with the learning processes of both high-performing and low-performing students.

Fortunately, there are a number of educators who are implementing new research and practices to improve the grading process for everyone.

Share Grading Rubrics with Students

To make grading more beneficial for students (and easier for teachers), consider providing a grading rubric along with the assignment. Susan M. Brookhart, author of How to Create and Use Rubrics for Formative Assessment and Grading, reveals that sharing rubrics with students helps clarify how they should approach the assignment.

“Over time general rubrics help students build up a concept of what it means to perform a skill well” Brookhart explains.

Assess Abilities Before Assigning Homework

Using pre-assessment strategies like skills checks and concept maps, educators can better evaluate student learning levels before assignments are given. This gives teachers insight into which skills gaps to assess (and which materials to skip), and increases the likelihood that students will perform well on homework.

Researchers Jay McTighe and Ken O’Connor say this information gives teachers insight “into how to teach, by using grouping options and initiating activities based on preferred learning styles and interests; and into how to connect the content to students’ interests and talents.”  

Let Student Feedback Guide Assignments

Former English teacher and community writing coordinator Angela Stockman notes that pre-assessments can also be used to better engage students in self-directed learning. She suggests asking students to record their initial thoughts, interests and questions about a certain topic before diving in.

The information gathered from this exercise can be used to modify the instructional plan based on what students are most intrigued by. This ensures that they’ll be interested in the material, helping them to perform better naturally.

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Use Homework Agendas

To make grading math homework easier and less time-consuming, teacher and blogger Noelle Pickering implemented homework agendas into her classroom.

After asking students to “trade and grade” one another’s work based on a simple evaluation scale, each student receives his or her assignment back. The students then record these answers on their homework agenda, which can be easily viewed by the teacher when she walks around the classroom. With this method, Pickering can offer praise to high-performing students while also offering help to those who are struggling.

Evaluate for Accuracy, Completion and Learning

As Susan Zielinski writes at the National Council of Teachers on Mathematics blog, optimal grading processes are those which account for both accuracy and completion — all while providing incentive to understand problems.

The sandwich approach in her classroom — a strategy coined by math teacher D. Bruce Jackson — presents students with both a problem and an answer. Then, they have to devise their own mathematical reasoning themselves.

After students self-grade their homework, she says, “they then have a week to ask questions, come to receive extra help, correct their work, and resubmit their work for a new grade of up to 100 percent, which replaces the old grade.”

Solve Problems Through Classroom Discourse

Another collaborative approach to grading was proven effective by a study titled Teacher Discourse Moves: Supporting Productive and Powerful Discourse. In this study, a group of teachers studied and assessed how teachers go over homework. The study found that when teachers usually go over homework, they focus on individual problems that gave students the most trouble.

However, it was proved that it’s actually more effective to talk across these problems. Meaning, students learn better when they understand the relationships between problems and can use them to conclude main ideas. This facilitates stronger understanding, is more efficient than a problem and answer approach, and saves teachers time on grading.

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Give Prospective Feedback

One study titled Effective Instructor Feedback: Perceptions of Online Graduate Students sought to determine how students perceived instructor feedback.

The research revealed that the best feedback provides constructive guidance and explicit expectations, and is applicable to future situations, among other themes.

Providing constructive guidance and explicit expectations are two theories championed by educators Victoria Smith, Ph.D. and Stephanie Maher Palenque. They note that on longer projects like essays, teachers should focus on recording more detailed, applicable feedback on the first draft rather than the last. This improves teacher efficiency while also promoting student learning, they say.

“This method should help save time later and will hold the student accountable for reading and applying their first draft feedback.”

Another of these points has been reinforced in the book Reconceptualising Feedback in Higher Education: developing dialogue with students by D.R. Royce Sadler. Sadler says that the most effective feedback is prospective (applicable to future situations) in addition to being retrospective. Comments should not just pertain to the specific assignment at hand; they should provide tactful information that students can apply to future work.

Adopt Standards-Based Grading

As education expert Alfie Kohn and author of Punished by Rewards explains, ordinary letter and number grading can actually have a negative effect on student learning.

“Kids who are graded — and have been encouraged to try to improve their grades — tend to lose interest in the learning itself, avoid challenging tasks whenever possible (in order to maximize the chance of getting an A), and think less deeply than kids who aren’t graded.”

In response to the negative impacts of such grading, Kentucky became the first state to adopt standards-based assessments. Essentially, standards-based grading evaluates student proficiency based on clearly-defined objectives in lieu of letter or number grades.  

To understand why standards-based grading can be a better choice, consider the report Grades That Mean Something. Penned by Thomas R. Guskey, Gerry M. Swan, and Lee Ann Jung, this  explains the two core benefits of standards-based grading:

“First, they require teachers to base grades on explicit criteria derived from the articulated learning standards. Second, they compel teachers to distinguish product, process, and progress criteria in assigning grades.”

Replace Grades with Meaningful Work

What if you stopped grading homework all together?

Most teachers can’t fathom this thought, especially when schools have homework policies in place. But according to research cited by Leigh Langton, there’s no clear link between homework and elementary student achievement, particularly in grades K–3.

So, to meet her district’s homework policy Langton focuses on providing meaningful homework rather than just busywork. One example of meaningful homework is what she calls preparation homework. This, she says, “is assigned to introduce students to material that the teacher will present in the future.” This familiarizes students with new material and gives them a fresh topic to work on.

Ohio State professor S.A. Barringer adds to this point, noting that forgoing grading can in fact be effective — as long as there is still an incentive to do the work and learn from it.

He writes: “The ungraded assignment must still be an opportunity to develop the desired skills in the student. Thus the challenge in an ungraded assignment is to design it so that the student feels that it is important to do, and that they learn from it.”

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Give Students the Assessment Power

Another educator who’s done away with grading is Duke University’s Cathy Davidson. The grading scholar attracted national attention when she announced that students could only attain an A if they did all the work and attended class.

In this class, two students were responsible for discussing the week’s readings and determining whether or not their peers had met the outlined standards. Davidson is a fierce supporter of her experiment, saying that this helped students become more creative and less focused on what they thought the teacher wanted.

Create New Homework Incentives

A great way to provide incentive for doing homework is to incorporate it into weekly quizzes. After eliminating homework grading, math teacher and MS Sunday Funday blogger Cathy Yenca hands out a weekly graded homework quiz based on the material covered in homework throughout the week. Yenca suggests that by allowing students to reference this homework during the quiz they will be more inclined to complete that homework and will be better-prepared for the test.

images by: Wokandapix, jarmoluk, PublicDomainPictures

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