4-Steps to Making Homework a Learning Opportunity

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Is your homework helping students learn?  Have you given up on homework because you think it has lost value? After 17+ years of teaching and many homework iterations, I have finally found a way to make homework an effective learning opportunity for my students.

Step 1 – Rebrand Homework

The majority of students view homework as “work” and not as a chance to “learn.”  Instead of doing homework to reinforce what was taught during class or to learn something they may have missed, most students do homework just to get it done.  To help them view homework differently, I changed the name “Homework” to “Learning Opportunity.”  I have to give credit to Stanford Professor Jo Boaler for this suggestion.  In her book Mathematical Mindsets she discusses the pros and cons of homework.  She believes, among other things, that if you are going to give homework that it needs to be an opportunity for students to learn.

When it comes to the name change you may have the same reaction that some of my students did which was “Come on, it’s still homework.”  When I get this comment from students, I say that this is an opportunity to learn because missing out on this chance could affect their ability to understand the material and therefore make it difficult to show understanding on any future assessments or related problems.  Rebranding homework is easy because if you believe that it is in fact a learning opportunity, you can sell it to the students.

Step 2 – Choose Wisely and Less is More

Back when I was a student in school, my math homework consisted of assignments like “Page 24 #2-42 even.” Clearly my teacher thought tons of practice of the same type of problem was the best way to learn. I am embarrassed to say that for the first 12 years of teaching, my assignments also looked like this.  I finally realized that I needed to carefully choose richer, more interesting problems and I keep the number of problems low; always less than 10 but more often in the range of 3 to 5.

Step 3 – Students Learn More with Immediate Feedback

In 2009, I started using a free online program called ASSISTments with my students. When students do their learning opportunity, they show their work on paper but they enter their answers into ASSISTments and find out immediately whether they answered correctly or incorrectly.  I coach the students that if they answer incorrectly they should rework the problem and try answering again.

Here is what it looks like for the students on ASSISTments.

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ASSISTments produces a report that I view before students come to class the next day.  This report allows me to view which problems gave students the most difficulty so I can focus my homework review on what the students need.  This makes the time spent at the beginning of class more effective.

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There is research that shows immediate feedback makes a difference for student learning.  The results of a study conducted by SRI International shows that students learn significantly more when they receive immediate feedback on their homework.

You don’t need to use ASSISTments for students to receive immediate feedback.  There are many great tools that are available.  I use ASSISTments for a few reasons.  First, the math program that my district uses (Illustrative Math) along with many others are already built into the site.  Second, it allows me to edit any problems, including the Illustrative problems.  Third, I can select any of the problems that are already built into ASSISTments and create my own set of problems.  Fourth, I can build my own problems.  Fifth, is Step 4 below and for me this is the game changer.

Step 4 – Instant Video Help for Students that are Struggling

ASSISTments has a feature called TeacherASSIST that allows you to embed help videos for your students and have it delivered automatically to your students when they need it the most. I have it set up so that when a student has unsuccessfully attempted a problem three times he receives my help video (three attempts is the setting that I prefer to use but teachers have the option to adjust this setting). I know that Khan Academy also offers videos but I have found that they are too long and students rarely watch the whole thing.  ASSISTments allows me to deliver my videos to my students using the same process and language that I use with them in my classroom.

Here is what it looks like for the students.

Making the videos is not as time consuming as you might think.  I use a whiteboard app called Explain Everything to make the videos, then I upload the videos directly to YouTube from the Explain Everything app, and finally I embed them into ASSISTments.  The whole process takes about 3 to 5 minutes per problem and since I am not assigning a lot of problems I am done in less than 20 minutes.  The best part is that these help videos will stay associated with the problems on ASSISTments so when I assign the same problems next year I won’t need to make new videos again.

This is what it looks like to make a help video and upload to YouTube:

This is the process to embed the video into ASSISTments:

Earlier this year at the open house/back to school night I was explaining ASSISTments, immediate feedback, and the explanation videos to parents.  When I was done a parent raised his hand and said, “Well this explains the conversation I had last night with my son.  When he had finished his homework I asked him how it went.  My son said ‘there were a couple of problems that I had trouble with but Mr. Burnett helped me.’ To which I replied ‘did you talk on the phone with Mr. Burnett or was he here? How did he help you.'”  Bingo!!  This is exactly what I was hoping would happen.  I helped my student when he needed it the most.

 

Conclusion

To make this work, you need to change your mindset about homework.  Changing the name and selling it to the students is a great start. Choosing a small amount of problems that the students find to be interesting will help them stay engaged.  Finding a way to give students immediate feedback helps students learn more.  Lastly, giving students help at the moment that they need it improves understanding and helps them stay on task.  All of these taken together have made homework a learning opportunity for my students.

 

Andrew Burnett – 7th Grade Math Teacher, Newton, MA

I can be reached by email at burnetta@newton.k12.ma.us or on Twitter at @andburnett123