My Goal this year: Making homework work for seniors.

This year, I  will teach two sections of AP Statistics, as I have since 1997.   I feel confident in providing good activities for kids, setting appropriate standards for the students I teach, modeling the kind of writing/ reading/ thinking from my students,  and  closely monitoring their work and providing good feedback.  I always know that more can be done on all of these fronts, but feedback from students suggest that things are “working.”

In the feedback I received from students in AP Statistics last year, one of the least helpful tools for helping them learn were the daily homework assignments.  I  thoughtfully picked good problems, and didn’t overwhelm them with too many.  Assignments were, for sure, time appropriate.  But I want Daily Homework to be a better tool for their learning.   

What I don’t want to do right now:

  • Lament the effort level of students, and say, “none of them see the value homework.”  If that is true, then it’s my job to select better tasks, or make the connection more clear for them.
  • Blame myself for “not being tougher about homework.”  I don’t think that’s the issue.
What I do want to do:
  • More precisely identify the role of daily homework as a tool to help seniors achieve my goals for them in AP Stats. In particular, what’s the evidence that doing these problems helps them be more successful on the things I want them to do at the end of the course?  
  • Find better ways to bring that connection to the surface for my students.  Show (don’t tell) them how it’s important.  
Why it’s different for (my) seniors in AP Stats than other classes:   
  • I notice that in AP Stats,  there are  fewer “typical problems,”  and more problems that require unpacking of concepts in new, different contexts. In other courses like precalculus and algebra, most students more easily see the “problem types” that  are likely to emerge on assessments.  in AP Stats,  the  reinforcements of concepts tends to look more different from problem to problem.
  • In AP Stats, students struggle more to communicate their understanding clearly – especially when using verbal arguments. They “get it”  in their head, but falter in communicating their understanding with correct precise language. What makes these problems “hard” is in providing clearly communicated evidence.
  • I think seniors (by this time) tend  do the business of school very well.  They work for what pays off.  If they don’t get “paid” for it, they are less likely to do it. “Payoff,”  however, isn’t just about grades: it’s also about getting clear feedback about whether they meet expectations.

Other things I noticed about how we deal with homework:  

  • I and the students tended to not discuss these questions in class in a  meaningful way. We devoted more time to “higher stakes” tasks. We both are complicit in treating homework as “practice you should do at home.” But then what’s its value?   I think that nearly all work requires good feedback. It’s hard for kids to do this alone.
  • I relied on students consulting solutions manuals as a tool for self-assessment and checking their own understanding.  If you teach seniors, you know the mantra:  “You’re all mature enough now to know use homework as a learning tool.  Here are the tools. Now be mature folks and do it!” This might work for some students, but I get it when they don’t buy into this approach.
  • Some students  who completed the daily assignments did one of two things:  they tended to do the assignment “halfway,”  or  practically transcribed their solutions from the student solutions provided in the back as a means of “getting the points for homework.” Later assessments reveals that they did not understand what they wrote.
  • Many of my best learners in AP Stats would do what I hoped for:  they used the problems as a gauge to assess their understanding by doing them, checking their work, and then raising  / asking questions  about their work and the online solutions. But these conversations tended to happen in office visits with me, and involved students who tended to take longer getting the  important ideas.
  • My senior students in AP (nearly all seniors)  tended to “rally”  for things that were graded, and not spend as much time on  things that didn’t result in a grade book grade.  Indeed, daily homework was worth, at the very  most, only 5% or 10% of their grade. Because many of them were very quick studies (and truly could get the important stuff without more time /effort on problems),  this approach worked for them on more high-stakes assessments. But I think some opportunities are being missed by not  making all students “check in” on their understanding more frequently.
What I plan to do:  more homework  ‘quizzie poos’
In my precalculus classes, I use short 5-10 minute  “quizzie poos,”   or  “diet quizze poos”  if they are not put in the grade book.   They are short quizzes that give me (and them a gauge of how well they understand the material.  I don’t do this in Stats because I  am very focused on gearing them up for the deeper  “turn in”  problems.  But I think I’ll change that.  I’m writing 1-3  multiple choice questions based on each homework assignment, or finding ones from a set of AP Statistics Flash Cards.   Quick checks,  individual accountability,  generates possible discussion, 7 minutes maximum,  instant feedback.   Will I “grade” them?  Maybe.  I will certainly  want to see how they are doing on them.  Plus, I want them to see how they are doing.   It’s nothing flashy or terribly innovative, but I hope it’s effective.  Let’s see how it goes.
What do you all think?   Am I making too much of this?  What should I be looking/ watching for in my students?

About roughlynormal

I have been a math/statistics teacher for 20 years. I currently teach at a college prep school in southern California. I also coach teaching fellows for Math for America - Los Angeles chapter. I love my career, my colleagues, and my friends & family.
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12 Responses to My Goal this year: Making homework work for seniors.

  1. Corey Andreasen says:

    I think the best way to make homework productive is to discuss as much of it as you can afford to in class after they’ve done it. I don’t count homework as any part of a grade. But I do record it and I give them feedback, either myself or by having my student assistant (who has successfully completed the course) give written feedback on how to improve their responses.

    • roughlynormal says:

      Oh, to have an assistant! That would be nice!

      I think your comment about feedback is key, Corey: grading is secondary, feedback to me and the kids is primary.

      That’s why I’m aiming for these short quizzes, multiple choice. A student’s written work (especially if too reliant on a tutor or solutions manual) can often obscure their real understanding. But it’s tough to consistently succeed on, say, 10-15 MC questions per unit (given 1-2 a day) without really “getting” what the HW is designed to help you get. It also “calls out” those who are simply writing down answers, without really understanding them. Plus, they can generate good questions / comments as well.

  2. One thing to consider is doing weekly rather than daily homework. It is often harder to schedule a little time every day than a block once a week. Also, with weekly work you can assign a smaller number of harder problems, which will provide more realistic feedback about how students do when challenged.

    • roughlynormal says:

      Thanks: I already have this part covered though. I have a series of hard deep problems (“turn ins”) that assess students deeper skills, and those are very effective, in general. Thats’ not what I’m trying to address. I’m trying to “bridge a gap” between the basic understanding and the deeper understanding, and I want to use daily homework to get there. The big issue for me is in making a more explicit connection between “daily maintenance” of key ideas and better success on these hard problems for the “B to B-” kids. The strongest students either a) already do the daily work meaningfully, or b) don’t need to because their thinking / communication skills are already excellent. The “OK, but not great” achievers could be achieving better success with a bit more accountability and feedback that they buy into.

      • I understand the desire here, but the effect of daily homework is often to make the B- kids fake it and to stress out the A kids on days that they don’t have time for the daily work—thus being ineffective for both groups. I’m not sure what the solution is for the B- kids, though.

  3. roughlynormal says:

    Exactly – that’s the typical effect… Hence the HW quiz…

    If they know that they are expected to succeed on 1-3 MC questions based on the concepts for the assignment, then all students are held accountable for the things I value. The B- kids get a clear message of what’s expected, and they need to succeed. The A kids might get to breathe a bit: focus on stats homework when they need to.

  4. Can you replace the daily homework with a daily quiz? Tell the students a week (or more) ahead of time what they need to have read/mastered for each day, and quiz them on it. The A students can read a couple weeks work and then put their attention on other things, while the B- students can do the barely-in-time learning that they are used to. Having a weekly challenge set that is graded would also be useful.

  5. roughlynormal says:

    Well, yes: that’s what I’m suggesting: an almost-daily HW quiz. However, there needs to be homework problems for them to work on, in order to practice / cement the understanding / skills they are developing in the class. I can’t just say “study for three questions” without giving some resources to practice the thinking / sills that I expect of them every day.

    Students always have a detailed, thorough assignment sheet with topics discussed in class, relevant hw problems, and die dates of any “turn ins,” quizzes or tests. They get this at the start of every major unit.

  6. Dr Nic says:

    We are developing an online statistics learning centre, beginning with the New Zealand Statistics and Modelling course and eventually adapting for AP statistics. It would be mainly quizzes, so that students get the practice they need to understand statistics. (I have a blog post talking about the need for practice in learning stats). The advantage of the online format is that they don’t get the answer until they have attempted the question, and we will give directed feedback. I am a College statistics professor, so the Approach will be from the tats viewpoint rather than the maths viewpoint. We will also have forums for students to ask questions, and eventually activities and games. we will report back to teachers on class and individual progress.
    What do you think? Do you think that would help your homework issue for AP stats?
    You can see my work at my Atmypace YouTube site or my blog.

  7. Chris says:

    You sound like you could use a student’s perspective.
    Yes, daily work can be considered a good thing and it can be considered a useful tool.
    I see where you’re coming from on that HW can be a very good study aid and can be used to cement the concepts, but I can not agree on the thought that HW is necessary. Homework doesn’t make the students smarter. If it does anything at all it’s making us stupider. It’s killing our critical thinking skill. Your basic homework assignment is pretty much reading something, copying something from the reading down, and handing it in for points. That doesn’t make you smarter. That doesn’t make you more intelligent. Being able to regurgitate facts will not in anyway make you smarter. It may make you appear to be smarter but it only appears that way to the people like you. It won’t help you in your job, it won’t help you talk to your professor in college, it only helps you in one place, homework.
    People will present the argument that homework is a vital part of the school’s curriculum. Then change your curriculum. Doing homework doesn’t prove anything. It just proves that you’re naive enough to question why you do the things you do. If you took a step back for five minutes and seriously analyzed your school’s curriculum, or asked yourself how homework benefits you, excluding that it gave you the points to pass your class, I am confident in that you’d find that it doesn’t.
    Homework proves nothing.
    Granted, this is coming from a disgruntled student, who’s sick of the way things are today.
    But I have checked, and rechecked my idea, done various studies using my fellow students as a form of guinea pigs, and all my research has shown that, at the very minimum, doing homework in MY high school, does not help the students.
    Assessments show progress.
    Tests and quizzes test your knowledge.
    Not homework.

    Please, feel free to argue with me over this, feel free to counter my argument, I hope that you do. I honestly don’t want to be right here, because if I am, our high schools are making this generation more and more stupid every year.

    • roughlynormal says:

      Thanks, Chris for your feedback. I do appreciate it.

      I don’t think I disagree with much of what you say. I am not convinced from my own experience (I was a student too) that all homework was useless. Some was, for sure. But much of it wasn’t. This was especially true in my college-level courses.

      In high school, I think I was similar to you and many of my students: I “rallied” for tests and quizzes.

      But that’s why I’m trying to re-think the homework question…

      I am not as convinced as you are that all homework is unhelpful.

      I DO agree with you on this: If there’s no authentic payoff to doing the homework, then I agree that teachers are “off base” by requiring it for points.

      Two questions:

      What kinds of studies are you doing with your fellow students? Tell me more.

      Can I use your reply as the basis for another blog post?

      Thanks!

      • Chris Joslin says:

        I just ask them a series of questions based mostly on whether or not they believe that the homework they do actually helps them increase their knowledge or gives them any greater understanding of what they’re trying to learn.
        Like, an example of a little quiz I gave my fellow students was:

        1) Do you think doing daily homework helps you on the chapter’s tests?
        2) Would you rather do more homework, or more assessments, and why?
        3) Does homework help you study or make you more knowledgable on the subject you’re working on?

        I give it to them in the morning and ask them to either hand it back to at me the end of the day or email it to me as soon as they can. I usually get a pretty good amount of responses, some students are so naive to the point that they won’t even believe the points I’m making or the reasons I use to back them up. And I do see your point with that SOME homework can be useful. But another point I’m making is that I can’t see any of the students taking anything out of it. They just keep copying and writing it down.

        Oh yes. Please do, spread it around, get the word out.
        I would love for you to spread that around as long as possible.

        I guess what I’m trying to say is that you shouldn’t give homework a point value.
        Talk about it in class, go over it in class, discuss it and study it, but don’t grade it.

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