Science, Education, and Science Education

classroom applications
December 31st, 2012 by Luann

This is not your father’s homework assignment.

Homework is evil. All homework. It’s a pile of worksheets; pointless, drill-and-kill busywork that overloads students brains, frustrates (or bores) them to tears, reinforces the practice of incorrect algorithms, destroys every creative cell in students’ bodies, and takes away from valuable playtime or family time. And it should never, ever be graded.

That’s the message sent by many who are trying to fix whatever’s wrong with education. I don’t buy it.



Our school is on an AB block schedule.  I see students at most 3 days a week (when we have a full week of school), so more often twice a week; sometimes 4 times in 2 weeks, and sometimes 6-7 days pass without meeting as a class when we have long weekends.  (Yes, I use electronic communication as much as possible, considering 20-25% or my students have neither an Internet connection in their homes nor a smartphone). To that end, my teacher-gut tells me that students who have deeper conceptual understandings and own their skills are the students who have stayed connected to their learning. I’ve become a fan of a few types of assignments to help students stay connected.  Some are most specifically, homework. Other assignments are directly connected to an upcoming inquiry or project lab. Other work is investigative, calculation practice, synthesis, or preparation for discussion.  Outlined below are some general types of “homework” students may expect to best support them as they learn science.

Preparation homework usually consists of one or more of the following, depending on the time interval between classes and how much a student or group can accomplish during class:

  1. 15-20 minutes between class times looking over the upcoming learning – an outline, skimming a section of text with a set of direct instructions and specific learning targets.
  2. considering where new learning will fit with what they already know and can do
  3. jotting down questions they have, unfamiliar terms, or confusing concepts to ask about.

This has come to be called “flipped” learning, especially when the preparation includes a video.

Just doing this much provides a huge advantage when class reconvenes. A student who enters class and asks “What are we going to do today?” is at a clear disadvantage, and within a few class meetings, he knows it. When students are already familiar with our work, even minimally, they jump into discussion with meaningful comments, share with their peers, and ask thoughtful questions. They’re ready for a bit of direct instruction, and a bit of group discussion, generally POGIL-style. It is at this time that students are presented with explanations of concepts and calculations in a question-and-answer class discussion, are guided through sample calculations, and try a few tasks on their own in class.  They are introduced briefly to the inquiry or project lab they will construct. They receive their next assignment, and reflect on what they learned, what they still need to learn, and devise a specific plan for attacking the assignment.  They know they are not expected to complete it for a grade, but that it will form the basis of their work next class.

As students delve more deeply into the content needed for inquiry or project-based lab work, they need to start to think. The first step is command of some practice skills, usually calculations or one-step written tasks leading to multistep problem-solving. In chemistry, commonly this first assignment takes the form of a calculation practice continuum:

  1. calculation practice continuum – tasks are labeled core skill, intermediate, or advanced.
    • core skill tasks are foundational to the content involved in the lab or project. They allow a student to demonstrate the minimum skill or understanding a student needs to complete a minimally proficient project or inquiry. (lower levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy “new” version)
    • intermediate tasks are completed by students as they transfer or apply their learning and analyze the process or application. (middle levels of Bloom’s taxonomy, “new” version)
    • advanced tasks challenge students to explore further or evaluate; create; and/or communicate their ideas. (top levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy, “new” version)
  2. The redundancy rule is invoked when the practice is distributed. It might look like a directive to start where  you feel comfortable, and when you think you’re ready, skip to the next section.
  3. Students should usually not expect to do every task, nor should they spend more than 20-30 minutes at a time with the tasks. This is tough for the overachievers, until they realize that selecting a challenge or exceeding task demonstrates they have mastered the mastery and basic skills tasks.
  4. All problems are either worked in class, checked by a student in a peer group with a key, or explained individually by me when the student is ready. This provides students with meaningful feedback about their understandings.
  5. An answer key is always available in class.

Such work helps students figure out what they know and can do,on their own, by themselves, without their group members, and what still needs their effort. In class, they can work with group members for further support, look at sample problems, and complete what wasn’t clear. They know that I am there for clarification, and as I talk with students, I gain valuable information on what I should re-teach and to whom, or who needs more practice time on which learning target. Yes, there are sometimes mistakes and misunderstandings and misconceptions. This day’s reflection includes the written identification of errors and misconceptions, and the corrected conceptions, explained.  More information on the upcoming application of this learning (usually an inquiry or project lab) is revealed, as some groups will be ready to begin.

Preparation, planning, analysis, revision, analysis, presentation, and reflection on work may be completed in class by some groups and individual group members, or may be done outside of class. Factors influencing this decision may be students’ choices of experimental design, time needed in lab to carry out their physical work, or the amount of preliminary research and trials needed, number of revisions needed, technology available, or simply student choice of work location.

Finally, each student demonstrates his own level of understanding and learning in a common assessment proficiency.

To state that “homework” is never appropriate is as dangerous as worksheet-driven assumption that learning must look the same for every student. And I don’t think I’m alone in my view – thanks, Marsha Ratzel.



8 Responses to “This is not your father’s homework assignment.”
  1. Homework, just like the formal classroom, testing & exams, timed assignments, the teacher as the subject expert and content in general, is just another target of the progressives.

    Nobody needs a PhD in education to understand that thoughtfully assigned homework can have a tremendously positive impact on learning. Too many people are running around trying to demonize everything ’20th century’, and in the process they are damaging education. They constantly reference educational ‘research’ as if it is on the same plane as scientific research – it isn’t.

    Carefully targeted homework can aid subject knowledge and enhance understanding, self-confidence, work ethic, discipline and many other assets.

  2. I could not agree more with the original post, especially the last two sentences, or the above-commenter’s thoughts on demonization. To condemn ALL homework is as dangerous or more dangerous may be worse than lazily assigning worksheets with no thought/purpose behind it. Careful consideration of possibilities is very important to the teaching process, at every step!

  3. Love how you’ve gotten your students to pick and choose where and what to work on. It’s only sensible to focus on what needs work and choose your practice accordingly. Likewise, coming prepared to class in whatever guise that takes. My question for you, though, is how long did that take to become part of the culture of the classroom?

    • VG, it takes through the first major assessment for many students, wherever that falls for you. I try to make that happen sooner than later, within the first 10-12 classes, and in the first unit that’s not a deep cognitive load so students can learn to learn science. Works much better on a day to day schedule than an AB block (of which I am not a fan, after working with 2 variations in 2 different schools.) Students are encourages to modify their preparation as they learn what works best for them. Very directed guides are offered for those who need it. One benefit is that students sharpen their skills in reading technical information text. Yes, I realize that that’s CCSS-ish, but it’s also been a goal I’ve always had for students.

  4. Wow, I really like the way you handle homework. That said, I don’t think it’s fair to lump all the reformers in with all your statements you attribute to them.

    1. The reformers say All homework is evil. Absolutes are a dangerous way to start a thesis. Off the top of my head, some reformers advocate for the flipped classroom model. Love it or hate it, in that model there is homework.
    2. The reformers say It’s a pile of worksheets; … frustrates (or bores) them to tears. Well, the reformers are right that when homework takes that format, it can be frustrating or boring to kids. The “bad practice” is another huge argument against traditional homework. You went on to describe a wonderful fix to traditional homework — a time limit coupled with problems identified by level of difficulty. (By the way, I’m totally stealing these two to publicize with my students. I saw kids last semester up till 1am struggling with a homework assignment. They lost all that sleep AND never understood the problems.)
    3. The reformers say And it should never, ever be graded. I have been a fan of the “practice shouldn’t be graded” argument but could be swayed with a good argument against. Why should I grade homework?

    • You’re right, Megan, I was a bit harsh in the stereotype I presented. Your first point brings up the most common criticism of the flipped classroom model as many see it. The model is complicated further by a lack of access to the technology, for many students (mine included.) I’m working at finding appropriate videos and animations for kids to use instead of reading, especially my ELLs and those who don’t read so well yet. But that wasn’t your point….. and you’re right. The worksheet thing bugs me, and I’ve struggled long and hard to use practice appropriately for each student. I invented the redundancy rule years ago when I first taught AP Chem. It was immediately obvious as I got to know my kids, that some needed and would do more practice, while others quickly synthesized new skills into the transfer process needed for more complex problem-solving. Glad you found something in my rambling that you could use. As for “grading” homework, it depends on many factors. I include it in the online gradebook, but in a category called “Not For Grade” and has 0 weight. So far, parent feedback on this has been good – they can see that if their child did poorly on a proficiency it was because he did not do any practice or prep. I’m currently using marks of 0-no attempt, 1-approaching, 2-basic mastery 3-exceeds but am not all that happy with the categories. Also, some lab prep or analysis is done as an “assignment,” in or out of class as the student chooses, and is graded as it falls into a category (my syllabus is here). So do some project-based proficiencies. Again, I’m not completely settled with what I’m doing, and that’s why Im putting it out here for feedback. And I greatly appreciate yours!

    • I grade every single piece of homework that I set – meticulously, and for accuracy. If you don’t, the kids either don’t do it, or don’t take it seriously. I see no other option. ‘Trying’ is part of the process, sure, but getting it right is what counts.

      • JoAnn Flejszar says

        Looking for the appropriate amount of homework. Our students have learned from middle school that they don’t have to do homework or their other option seems to be simply copy someone else’s work. I have tried not grading homework and going over the work as a whole class or having students turn in work and going over it thoroughly. Not certain which method helps students the most.

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