Friday, February 19, 2010


Ah, homework!  To give it or not to give it?  If you give it then how much?  And once you've given it, then what?!

Now, because I work at a distributed learning school (online school or distance learning) really there is no homework.  Or maybe everything the students do could be considered homework?!  Anyways, a recent post by Kate Nowak started me thinking about homework again.  If you haven't read Kate's blog and you teach math, you should definitely give it a read.  In her post she describes a new system for dealing with; assigning homework, getting rid of homework checks, and doing homework quizzes.  In her post she referred to this post by Sameer Shah on his binder system.  Sameer describes a system designed to keep his students organized and motivated to do and correct their homework.  His system is also a more efficient use of his time.  Anyway, both posts got me thinking about the system that I used in my Biology 11 classes back when I was in a bricks-and-mortar school.

First off, I did not plan homework for any of the science classes I taught (gr 8 - 10 Science, and Biology 11 and 12).  I tried to give enough time in class to complete assignments.  If students didn't complete the assignments in class, well then they had to finish them for homework.  They did, of course, have to use time at home to study for quizzes and tests also.

Before implementing my system (which I'll describe soon) I was frustrated with the following scenario; students do an assignment, hand it in, there is a delay for me to mark it and get it back, they get it back (by which time they can't even remember doing the work), they look at the grade but they do not read all the wonderful feedback I've given them and life moves on.  I found this particularly frustrating when it involved lab reports; so often students have difficultyunderstanding why it was they did the lab and interpreting their data.

My system:

  • Students are given time to complete an assignment.  If not completed in class then it is for homework.

  • Next day--students take out their completed assignments and start working on the  'opener' questions that have been posted on the screen or if it is a simple assignment--not a lab--the answer key is posted and they are to start their corrections.

  • I walk around and check the assignment briefly--making suggestions to students as necessary (full sentence answers please, remember to do your drawings in pencil, oops--forgot the conclusion to your lab, that sort of thing.)

  • Each student gets a happy face stamp on their work; right side up if the assignment is complete, upside down if it is only half done etc.  This way I don't have to keep a record--you'll see how the stamps help in a bit.

  • We go over the assignment.  We do this briskly.  Students are expected to mark their own work and make corrections in a different coloured pen.  Theoretically all of the students should have a completely corrected assignment.

  • At the halfway and end points in the course (I taught semestered courses) the students were required to hand in a portfolio of their work.

  • The day before the portfolio was due they would get the list of assignments required for the portfolio.  There were usually 10 items.  For some of the items the students had a choice (eg hand in lab 2a or lab 3b, choose your best opener questions etc) and for others they did not.  The list would include the date that the assignment was assigned, the full name of the assignment, and if the assignment was a series of questions from the textbook I'd include the page numbers.  I encouraged students throughout the course to properly date and label their assignments as this would make organizing their portfolios easier.  They were expected to write out a table of contents and to number the pages of the items in their portfolios.  One of the items was to write a page long reflection of their learning (most interesting thing they learned, what they thought was the best example of their work and why, their strengths and/or where they need to improve.

  • The only thing the students could prepare ahead of time was the title page and their reflection paper (I offered to comment on their draft versions).

  • They were given time in class to assemble their portfolios.

  • They had to include the original work -- not write out good copies.

  • When they handed in their work I would mark it according to a rubric that the students were given ahead of time.

  • My stamp system (see above) allowed me to tell how complete the original assignment was.

  • Corrections needed to be evident.   If a student made a good first attempt, but got a number of parts wrong, that was ok if  they did good corrections.

With the first couple of assignments, the students did hand them in so that I could get a good look at their work and provide a lot of written feedback.  I wouldn't necessarily grade their work--just provide a lot of suggestions and get an idea on what I needed to clarify with the class.

The benefits of this system were:

  • I got to go over the work with the students right away.

  • if students were away the day that we went over the assignment, they were motivated to find out from their peers what their corrections should be.

  • my informal homework checks allowed me to talk to students and make suggestions on how to improve their work so that they were handing in their best in their portfolios.

  • students were motivated to keep their work organized.

  • students had to reflect on what represented their best work.

  • students were more likely to pay attention to the feedback they'd been given.

  • less grading and more on-going feedback.

The drawbacks of this system:

  • once the portfolios were handed in, it took a fair amount of time to mark them all .  On the up side though, the students didn't need them back right away as we had already gone over the individual assignments.

  • I had to constantly remind students that they needed to keep all of their work as it may be needed in their portfolios.  For some kids it is just force of habit to throw out an assignment once they think the teacher is done with it.

Now I need to ask myself what's stopping me from using a system like this for my distributed learning students?

What is your system for making assessment authentic?  What would you change about my system?  As always, I welcome your feedback.


  1. Wow, that's quite a system! Where did it come from? It's very comprehensive, thorough, manageable and allows for all the good stuff currently called 'formative assessment'.

    The one thing that maybe could be added, if you think you could fit it in somewhere, would be peer assessment. That's very powerful and a valuable assessement activity for most students. Sometimes they won't listen to the teacher, but the same feedback coming from a peer is acknowledged and respected at a whole different level.

  2. Hi Errin,

    I adapted this system from one that a colleague of mine used with his junior science students (grades 8 - 10). I don't think it would be considered true portfolio assessment, but it works for me ;-)

    I like your idea of fitting peer assessment in there somewhere. When I was in a bricks-and-mortar school I always had my students do peer and self assessment on their larger research projects. No reason why it wouldn't fit in here somewhere. Perhaps on the whole portfolio, or maybe just on the reflection paper (which would refer to specific assignments).

    Thanks for your comments--cheers!

  3. Hi Claire, a great description here of your system.

    This whole issue of homework is one that has long been near and dear to my heart. In fact back in the fall of 2006 one of my very first blog posts at was about setting up a no homework classroom. Generally I follow the Alfie Kohn school of thought that homework for homework's sake is antithetical to real learning. The idea that sending students home with work to do for practice for some system of the teachers rather than having them do work because they want the practice and/ or are trying to come to understand the material is in itself problematic.

    Of course I am an elementary school teacher and so one might think that there are differences in the need for homework at various levels of schooling. But as Kate Nowak, whose blog post you mention above points out "If they are such quick studies that they can learn trig without any practice outside of class, then they aren't [shouldn't be] penalized for not doing homework." (The square brackets in the quote are my addition.) Having said that, I appreciate your concern for finding ways to provide real feedback to students and also the need for authentic assessment. I think your system helps to deal with both of those issues. Generally I'm in very much favour of finding ways to help students learn about organization but I think that we need to be careful about confusing the learning of how to organize with the learning of content material. And while I like the idea of portfolios where students have opportunities to demonstrate what they know and what they've learned we need to continue to be careful that we are really having them do the work that they need for learning rather than that we need to make our system work. That's going to vary widely I suspect, from student to student.

    Anyways, a really great topic for discussion. Thanks for the post.

  4. Betty,

    Thanks for your thoughtful response to my post. You mentioned a lot of good points, but this one really resonates with me:
    "we need to continue to be careful that we are really having them do the work that they need for learning rather than that we need to make our system work"
    I have to remember that it is not about my system, it is about what works for kids.

    It was interesting reading your 'No Homework' post. As a high school teacher I am amazed at how busy most of my students are outside of school, be it involvement in sports, a job, or other activities. Now that both my own children are in school (grades K and 2) I am amazed at how busy life is for these youngsters too! Fitting homework into the mix too is challenging. Kids are in school for a substantial part of the day--school shouldn't be eating up big parts of the rest of their day.

    All the best


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