Should Homework Be Graded?
I received an interesting question from a teacher regarding recommendations for whether or not homework should be graded. He described a scenario in which a student demonstrates proficiency on every quiz, test, and exam but refuses to do homework each day. If, on a daily basis, the student receives a zero for not doing homework, the student would fail the class. If, on the other hand, homework is optional, he fears most students won’t complete it. So, he asked, "How should I approach homework in determining grades?"
This relatively straightforward question actually raises several significant issues such as, "What does a grade represent in our school?" "Should homework be required or optional?" "Should homework be graded?" and "Is it appropriate to give a zero if a student does not complete a homework assignment?"
In most schools, what a grade represents remains in the eye of the beholder of the individual teacher. Some teachers grade homework; some do not. Some allow students to retake a test; some do not. Some provide students with additional time and support; some do not. Some provide extra credit for tasks unrelated to the curriculum; some do not. Some consider behavior, participation, and promptness in determining a grade; some do not. It is time for educators to grapple with the question, "What does a grade represent in our school?" in a more meaningful way.
I have asked thousands of educators across North America what they feel is the single most important criterion for determining a student’s grade at the end of a course. Their inevitably overwhelming answer is, "The student has demonstrated the achievement of a clearly defined standard." If a team of teachers has clarified 1) what students must know and be able to do and 2) the indicators they will use to monitor student learning, the grade at the end of the course should be based on the student’s success in achieving the intended standard. Ironically, many of those same teachers would justify failing a student who clearly demonstrated mastery of the essential learnings because of missing homework assignments.
In his outstanding synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to student achievement, John Hattie found that homework can improve achievement, particularly for older (high school aged) students when the homework involves rote learning, practice, or rehearsal of the subject matter. He also found, however, it can actually have adverse effects unless the teacher carefully and promptly monitors each student’s work because homework often causes students to internalize incorrect responses and strategies and can actually undermine student motivation. The more complex the task or the learning, the less value homework offers. Furthermore, different home environments play a role in the varying ability of students to complete work successfully. My friend and colleague Bob Eaker elected to stop having all fifth graders in the school he was leading complete the annual homework project of building a replica of a frontier fort because, as he put it, "We discovered some Dads just built better forts than others."
Therefore, I submit the following propositions:
- Homework should be given only when the instructor feels it is essential to student learning. If, for example, the teacher believes that by practicing a skill and receiving prompt and specific feedback students will learn at higher levels, homework is very appropriate and should be assigned.
- The teacher then has an obligation to monitor the homework carefully and provide individual students with precise feedback based on their specific needs.
- If the work is deemed essential to a student’s learning, that student should not have the option of taking a zero but instead should be required to complete the work. This necessitates a coordinated, schoolwide approach to responding when students do not complete their work because there are limits as to what an individual teacher can require. The schoolwide response should be timely, directive (non-invitational), systematic (not left to the discretion of individual teachers), and should never require the student to be removed from new direct instruction. (For examples of such a systematic approach, see Whatever It Takes: How Professional Learning Communities Respond When Kids Don’t Learn by DuFour, DuFour, Eaker, and Karhanek and/or Pyramid Response to Intervention: RTI, Professional Learning Communities, and How to Respond When Kids Don’t Learn by Buffum, Mattos, and Weber.)
Let me offer two different scenarios regarding homework. In the first, the teacher is attempting to help students learn how to write a research paper--a very complex task. After providing instruction on the various elements of this task, he assigns students to complete a draft of the first two pages of their research paper. He assigns this work because he hopes to 1) determine the levels of understanding of each student, 2) provide each student with specific feedback regarding his or her initial efforts and offer strategies for improvement, and 3) identify any areas where many students seem to be struggling so that he can reteach those areas with a different instructional approach. He believes this assignment is vital to student success in this very essential skill. He does not grade this work because it is initial practice, nor does he allow a student to take a zero instead of completing the assignment. Because it is vital to learning, the student is required to do the work.
In the second scenario, a high school math teacher tells students that she will be assigning homework each day because she believes the daily practice and prompt feedback are essential to their learning. She also advises them, however, that students will not be required to continue practicing each day when they have demonstrated they are mastering the content. There will be daily homework for all students for the first two weeks of school, at which time a unit test will be given. Students who earn an A or B on the test will not be required to complete daily homework during the next unit. For them, homework will be optional. All other students will be required to continue doing their daily practice. This procedure provides an incentive to students to become proficient. Students with a B will work hard to maintain it from unit to unit; students with a C+ will put in extra effort to raise their grade. The goal for these students becomes proficiency in essential skills rather than completing homework to avoid punishment. Once again, students who had not earned the prerequisite grade would be required, not invited, to complete homework through a schoolwide system of intervention.
I contend the approach to homework of these two teachers is aligned with the commitment to learning and focus on results of a PLC. I hope more schools will begin to adapt their homework practices accordingly.