Homework vs. Practice

I had the opportunity to go to the PLCs at Work Conference last fall with some colleagues and one of the sessions rocked my math teacher world.  I have written a few different posts about homework over the years and boy have my philosophies changed from that first year when I assigned the ever famous #1-30 even book assignment.  Since that time, I have shortened up assignments, been more intentional about picking problems, and stopped assigning homework just for the sake of assigning it.  However, while at the PLC conference I had the chance to hear Tim Kanold speak and his presentation evolved my homework practices even more.


Tim argues that homework should truly be seen as independent practice.  I know as math teachers we always think of homework as independent practice but are we really treating it that way?  When a sports team or musician practices they make mistakes, receive feedback and get better.  No one bails them out by saying hey it’s ok that you can’t do that, here let me just do it for you, or nope you can’t try that again you should’ve done it right the first time.  Yet that is exactly what we do with homework.   We assign homework and then hand out zeroes when it isn’t done, go over it in class, and then put it behind us.  We give kids the answers to the homework as we go over it but never help them address or practice the skills that caused them to get the answer wrong or not even attempt it to begin with.   I always end up spending 10 minutes or more at the beginning of every class going over the homework and then answering questions about it but according to Tim’s presentation that is just me bailing out the kids that didn’t try…his recommendation was for me to give out the answers ahead of time to make sure they were making the most of their practice.  That way they could self-check, self-monitor, and self-grade as they did the homework rather than after the fact.

I decided that I might as well give that a try and immediately started providing all of my classes with the answers to the homework ahead of time.  I made it pretty clear to the kids that we would try it for two weeks and then talk about if they thought it was helping or hurting them in regards to their understanding of the material.  At first they were so excited, I think they thought “hey I can just copy down the answers and do none of the work”.  I really focused on setting the expectation of it being practice and that they were responsible for completing their own practice.  I may not be at their “practice” with them but I would certainly be watching their “game” through formative and summative assessments and monitoring their performance to determine if the homework answers were helping or hurting their understanding.

I am definitely a data driven teacher but do not have any quantitative data at this time that shows any significant increase or decrease in their assessment scores since I have started giving them the answers ahead of time.  What I can tell you is that as a teacher I have taken back 10 or more minutes of my class time by eliminating the need to spend a lot of time going over every single homework problem.  Instead, I let the kids ask questions at the beginning of class if there were any problems that they just couldn’t figure out but in general they have worked at home to refine their practice until they arrive at the correct solution.  I also have lots of thoughts from my students about whether receiving the homework answers helps or hurt them in math class.  Some of their comments are below:

  • Even though she gives us the answers to our homework we still have to show work and the answers help me check my work and see what I did wrong.  I have the choice to cheat but that won’t help me in the long run.
  • Getting the answers to the homework helps me a lot because when I am stuck on a problem that I don’t get it makes it easier because you know what answer you are working toward and when I get it wrong I can fix it on my own.
  • I love how I can check and correct my own work at home.  Also we don’t have to take ten minutes out of class to check it which is usually boring and I don’t pay attention anyway.
  • It helps me check over my work so I know I am doing it right.  Also it helps me figure out how I’m wrong.
  • It saves time in class and helps me figure it out when I am stuck on a problem.

I asked all of my classes for feedback on receiving the answers ahead of time and there were truly no negative responses in any of the classes.  Even some parents have sent messages that it helps them provide their child with more help.  It can be overwhelming for parents to try and help their child review and correct homework (I know it is for me, sometimes I am just not sure what the teacher is looking for on assignments and I am a teacher!) since they have the correct answers ahead of time.  As a parent and a teacher, I am all for making homework time as easy as I can on parents because I know for me it can be very frustrating at home to try and get it done!

For now the homework as a true practice method is working in my classes so I plan to continue it to see how it effect student learning in the long run.  Thanks Tim Kanold for further helping me develop as a teacher…I am always ready to get better!  As a side note, Tim also recommended that homework never be more than 6 to 8 problems (that was the one thing I was already doing) and that of those 3 to 5 be from the standard you learned that day and the rest from previous lessons.  As you know in my Math 7 classes we are using the Illustrative Math Curriculum and that is exactly how each of their practice sections are set up!  Having the constant spiraling back of content preplanned for me has been wonderful and has kept the “big ideas” of Math 7 at the forefront all year!  I am excited that they had the vision to incorporate best homework practices along with best instruction practices.  Using Tim’s recommendations for problem selection has been considerably more difficult in my Algebra I class as it uses a traditional text book and requires quite a bit more planning to incorporate his strategies.  I do continue to try and follow his plan the best I can!  Practicing isn’t an option for athletes, musicians, or artists and in my room it is no longer an option for mathematicians either.  Practice over homework everyday!


6 thoughts on “Homework vs. Practice

  1. I would love to know if even after you began using Open Up in your classroom if you continued this homework method. My district recently adpoted Open Up as our curriculum and I was just researching some other teachers practices.

    • I only gave them the answer. Their job was to show the steps or explain the answer etc. I wanted them to be able to check their answer but not do it for them if that makes sense. At the beginning of class I always asked if there was one they couldn’t figure out and would then work it out step by step if they needed me to.

  2. Do you just give the answers? Not a worked out solution correct? I have given worked out solutions in the past and my experience is that they copy.

    • Totally agree! I only gave the answer so that they could check their solution. Their job was to come up with the worked out solutions and then use my answers to check their work. I allowed them to ask questions at the beginning of class if there is one they couldn’t get.

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