Graded Homework & Taking Risks in Learning

I continue to think about students’ fear of mistakes, how teachers exacerbate the problem, and what we can do to promote taking risks in learning. Specifically, I’ve been mulling over whether or not homework should be graded.

What is the purpose of homework? Homework is often assigned to get students to complete readings ahead of lecture, gain first exposure to concepts outside of class, or prepare them for discussion or other classroom activities. Sometimes homework is designed to follow up the lesson, to reinforce and practice concepts explored or taught during class. Teachers may assign homework to encourage students to routinely engage with course content, facilitate learning the material in manageable chunks, and minimize cramming. Last, homework is also assigned to help teachers answer this question: How well are students understanding and learning?

Why do teachers grade homework? I believe many teachers grade homework because they assume if it isn’t graded, students won’t do it. There is some truth in that, but I am starting to think this is an assumption that warrants testing. (That’s a subject I’ll address another time.) Another reason homework often “counts” is to send a signal to students: this matters; learning this is important; you should attend to this.

Homework that’s graded can provide valuable feedback to students about their learning. Auto-graded scores are convenient for the teacher, but impersonal. Detailed feedback helps students but may be unwieldy for the teacher. How much feedback is best? What kind? How often? When? I wonder if we spend too much time deciding what to ask students to do for homework and too little on feedback.

I’m thinking about the cases where students submit an assignment, the teacher writes comments throughout, but the student never sees or benefits from them because the work was due at the end of the term. Here, teacher feedback is only for grading, not for learning. Even when an assignment is submitted in the middle of the course, if students aren’t going to be using that knowledge/skill going forward, they will be more interested in the grade than the teacher’s feedback since there’s no opportunity to apply the feedback or demonstrate improvement. It’s the grade, not learning that’s emphasized.

On what basis is homework assessed? Perhaps this is a more important question than whether or not homework is graded. Homework is often evaluated with respect to accuracy. Grading homework on the basis of correctness, like the decision to make it worth points, sends a couple of messages to students. One is that the teacher expects you will work hard on the assignment. Another is that you should be able to do this homework without error at the time it is assigned.

That’s a key drawback of grading homework. Teachers expect students to demonstrate mastery on the homework, instead of using the homework to develop mastery.   One student put it this way:

I think it is interesting that different environments are more

encouraging of mistakes than others. At a dance convention,

one of the instructors told us that if we were going to make a

mistake, to be “strong and wrong.” In other words, to be

confident in our choices whether or not they were “correct.”

Making a mistake in dance often makes way for exploration,

however in terms of academics it almost seems like mistakes

or risk taking lead to punishment in the form of the loss of

the ever so valuable point.

Graded homework emphasizes product over process. There are contexts where this is appropriate, like when the purpose is summative assessment. But that’s not typical, is it? Teachers more often view homework as a tool for learning, part of the formative process. Yet, when graded, homework isn’t about process, it’s all about product. For students, emphasizing product means it’s too risky to explore alternatives or take chances because a grade is riding on the outcome. In desperate circumstances, grading homework may encourage academic dishonesty because the emphasis is on turning in work that is “right,” not learning. It’s a conundrum. We assign homework worth points, to signal its importance and encourage its completion. But points emphasize product over process. Fortunately, there are homework assessment strategies that emphasize process and student accountability.

Good-Faith-Effort. My approach is to grade homework on the basis of a “good-faith-effort” or GFE. Each “graded” assignment is worth one point. Submissions are either a good-faith-effort, or they aren’t. Experienced teachers know what a legitimate attempt looks like, we anticipate where the mistakes will occur, and we know what is… junk. A hasty attempt, turned into the electronic drop box moments before the deadline, isn’t a GFE. An assignment that is filled with errors, but clearly shows that the student is trying to learn and understand, that kind of effort earns a point. Because the purpose behind the homework I assign is to introduce concepts (first exposure) or practice application, I expect mistakes. Don’t we learn more from our mistakes than from what we’ve done correctly?

Unlimited attempts. Online, I want students digging into the content, repeatedly and independently, to learn. I like to assign the textbook publisher’s online quizzes as weekly homework. (Summative assessments are handled differently.) Students are allowed unlimited attempts. Most really want to earn 100%. If they need 4, 6, or 10 tries to get there, that is fine by me! Imagine a student persisting in taking and retaking a quiz (with shuffled questions each time) in order to achieve a perfect score. This kind of homework advances learning. Unlimited attempts means low risk for each trial. It results in increased time on task, enhanced learning, and more student satisfaction. Win-Win!

Assessed, but ungraded, in-class assignments. Throughout the semester, my students work on practice problems and questions in class. Occasionally, I collect. I review and provide individualized feedback. I note that the classwork was submitted, but no grades are assigned. The first time I do this in the course, students are apprehensive. It’s quickly clear we are in uncharted territory. They don’t quite know how to handle an assignment for learning, but not for a grade. Some question if their work is “right” because they aren’t convinced the questions won’t be graded (they are trying to avoid a nasty surprise which unfortunately, I think some have experienced). Not everyone finishes the problems and minor panic ensues. “Now what? I didn’t finish. Will that hurt me?” I assure them it won’t.

The reduced emphasis on grades for homework and in-class assignments emphasizes learning and promotes a climate that welcomes and encourages taking risks in learning. What strategies do you use to build a safe space for learning and taking risks in learning? Please share!

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About Lolita Paff

Educator. Wife. Mother. Amateur chef. Wine lover.

Posted on September 15, 2015, in Learning, Students, Teaching. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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