I was recently asked, along with several other educators, to comment on a post dealing with grading homework. The premise on which we were asked to comment involved a teacher grading homework and giving a zero as a grade to those students who did not do the assignment. This is not an uncommon practice amongst educators. I employed this strategy myself for many years. It was and probably still is an accepted strategy, but after decades of teaching, I have grown to a point where i am not a big believer in giving homework. I stated my homework philosophy in this post, Hmwk: Less Value or Valueless?
If homework is to be given by a teacher, students need to believe that the teacher will value their efforts in completing it. Homework requires a sacrifice of personal time on the part of the student. If students observe that the teacher is not at least checking homework, they will not spend time, which is important to them, doing the assignments that are not valued. A mistake often made however, is that rather than assess the work, the teacher records a zero, or a failing homework grade for the student. This would also apply to a project prepared outside of the class that was to be presented at a specific time, a deadline.
I see assessment having two functions. The formative assessment is to tell me how much the student understands, so I can decide to move forward, or if I need to, change my strategy. The summative assessment comes at the end to determine, how much of what I taught, was learned by the student. A zero for a homework grade does not seem to fall into either of these categories.
It would seem that the zero grade is a punishment for non-compliance. Maybe an argument can be made for assessing the student’s understanding of deadlines, but that might be a stretch. That may be more of a work-ethic value and I don’t know how to assess that in number terms. The issue is bigger than zero for a grade of non-compliance. It is a question of the relevance of homework.
If the grade is an assessment of the work, and the student’s understanding, but it was not done, how can it be assessed? If the homework is more important to the teacher than it is to the student, who benefits? The zero seems more like retribution for not finding value in what the teacher values, or has been told to value. It’s more of a control thing, and not an assessment thing. If a student consistently performs well in class, how is it that when assessed on the same skills performed outside the class in the form of homework, the work gets a zero? It is a power issue.
Maybe we need to change the emphasis or at least offer an option for change. We could give control to the students, by giving them a homework opt-out option. Of course the ultimate control would need to be given to the parents, but let us consider this option. Students, with parents’ permission, could opt out of a homework grade for the year. The teacher would give homework assignments to the entire class, but would only be required to assess the work of those who have opted in for it. Students who have opted in, get a homework grade as an extra grade in their overall average. Every student will be given an opportunity to do the assignments, but, the only grading the teacher needs to do would be for those who opted in. If, as the teacher would hope, the homework makes a difference, it should be evident to all in the grades of the students who have opted-in. The opt-outs could still do the work, but it would not be assessed for a grade. Additionally, if opt-in students miss a specific number of assignments, they would be opted-out and parents would be informed. The group choosing to do the homework is now perceived as having the advantage in grading, making it very desirable for all. Of course that only works if the homework is relevant and if it does make a difference. There is a very good possibility that homework may make no difference at all in the students’ learning. In that case, those who have opted out, have not been harmed at all.
I believe homework should be given as infrequently as possible, and only if necessary. It should take no more than brief period of time. If homework is given to students, it must be valued. Their efforts outside of the class should be recognized. If we consider the schedules of our students and value down time, homework becomes less important and class time becomes more valuable.
This topic of homework is often a huge magnet for teachers’ comments on a blog post. For some reason educators feel a need to defend or attack the homework issue as a matter of professional pride. I await those comments.