I just received a question about how I grade homework, and I realized my answer was a bit long and might even require a blog post. So here I am.
The teacher wanted to know if I gave a summative grade (counts in the average) or a formative one (for feedback only). The short answer is that IF I ever grade homework, it’s most definitely formative.
However, my answer is more complicated than that.
The Purpose of Homework
First of all, with the great homework debate, I believe it’s very important to define what we actually mean when we use the word. Is it something students need for extra practice, like learning the times tables when they are younger? Is it work provided because of a belief that students need homework to build a work ethic? Or is homework assigned because they can’t finish their work in class, or they have to prepare for an assessment like a test?
Each of these have valid rationale behind them; however, I rarely give homework for any reason other than the latter. I teach from bell to bell, and I expect my students to give me a full period of work while they are there (something that I need to put a lot of work into in the first of the semester). I try to teach the value of hard work and practice and revision when they are in front of me for seventy-five minutes – and I’m just one of their teachers. If they are in school all day, they (just like me) need some time off in the evening to do other things.
Now, that doesn’t mean that I don’t expect some work to be done at home. If we are working on an a major writing assignment and they can’t get it all done in class, they will finish at home. In fact, I encourage them to do a lot of their thinking and writing when they are alone and not distracted by others. The same goes with reading. If students need more time to finish a section of a novel or to reach their reading goals for the week, then they will need to do some reading at home.
But I never give homework just for the sake of giving homework. I believe that students will learn a work ethic when they need to put the time in to do a good job of something (like the times I described above), not just for the sake of doing thirty minutes of homework every night.
Holding Students Accountable
But if I don’t grade the homework, they won’t do it, is a very common response from teachers. And I get it. The struggle is very, very real. However, there are ways to hold students accountable to their learning without taking in and grading homework – which, I might add, just increases YOUR work load.
I stated earlier that I work very hard at the beginning of a semester to establish my routines and expectations. One is that students will work in class and will finish work at home when needed. Do they all do that all the time? Of course not. But I have found some ways to ensure that many do, most of the time.
One thing I do early in the year, is spot checks. If I asked them to do something to prepare for class (annotating a poem or short story, finishing a draft, etc.) I will walk around the class while the are reading and check to see if it’s done. I will then record a formative grade (one that doesn’t count in their average), so parents can see that the work didn’t get done. This doesn’t require that I take it in and read it, only to note that it’s finished.
If it’s something they need feedback on, however, I do take it in and provide it. My students are aware that some of their work will be passed in for feedback only. And do they do it? Most do, because I make a big deal about how getting the feedback means they will do better when it does count.
Focusing on Process
We spend a lot of time in class on the process, whether that is the process of close reading, writing, researching, etc. Because I believe so strongly in learning how to learn, I build in time in my lessons so students can do the things they need to be successful in class. If you want a good example of this, read this post about how I teach the writing process with essay writing, or this one on the speaking process.
In each case, students had time to build their skills in class when I was there to help them. But there was an expectation that they finish their drafts or speeches at home, so they could participate in the revision process the next day. If it wasn’t done, the couldn’t participate. And, as you know, teens can be pretty highly motivated if they are left out of something.
I also put a lot of emphasis on this very important fact: I may not be grading homework, but it DOES very much affect your average. If they don’t consistently finish their work (whether that completion happens in class or at home), they aren’t building the skills they need to be successful in assessments that are graded.
Putting a lot of emphasis on the process helps reinforce this.
Responsibility for Learning
One of the biggest reasons why I don’t grade homework is because I want my students to take responsibility for their own learning. Yes, I know they need some guidance, and even lots of prodding, but punitive measures don’t tend to work.
As you know, grades don’t always motivate students, and the same ones will continue to not pass things in – or pass them in late – even when it’s really affecting their average. There can be many reasons for this, but one is that they don’t see value to the work or how it’s going to really help them.
If they know that finishing the previous night’s reading will allow them to take part in an engaging activity the next day, they are more likely to do it. For example, I will often require students to take notes as they read a novel or short story. If they don’t have their notes complete, they can’t participate in the group discussion or activity we are having. They stay at their desk and complete the work. Once they do, they are welcome to join.
When this happens several times, they soon learn that completing the work is an expectation – and a requirement for participation in the activity the class is doing.
Check out more blog posts on this issue:
6 Ways to Get Students to Read
Getting Your Students to Actually Read
Three Keys to Classroom Management in Secondary
I know this is a very contentious issue and I’d love to answer any questions you have, so please leave them in the comments!
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