Am I Not Being Clear?

I have found myself engaging in more grading discussions, both within my school and outside of it, than ever before.  Some of these have been spurred by administrative efforts to standardize grading in my building and others by conversation between novice and veteran educators.

Earlier this week, I raised my voice in a meeting and jumped out of my seat–red in the face–to make the point that my grading system does not ignore homework or take away any incentive to complete it.  I said,

“Homework is formative practice that is intended to build skills, and therefore does not measure mastery, and shouldn’t be used to calculate a child’s grade.  I use other means, such as behavioral consequences, as motivation for my unmotivated students to complete their homework.  Giving a grade isn’t motivating those students now anyway.  Grading homework is already not working, so why not try something different?”

It’s a hard pill to swallow for a lot of my colleagues, but I think that it is a critical transition for our profession to make.  We need to refocus on the purpose of grades as measures of curriculum mastery and develop other measures and reporting methods for informing parents of character education, work ethic, behavior, etc.

To this end, I have developed a simple test for those who want to know how important it is to stop including homework (and all forms of practice) in a student’s grade:

  1. Next week, give your students a homework assignment on Monday.  Tell students that it will be graded and factored into their average.  On Tuesday, record how many students did the assignment and how many did not.
  2. On Wednesday, give your students a second homework assignment.  Tell them that whether they complete it adequately or not will be reported to their parents, but it will not affect their average in class.  Again, record how many students complete the assignment and how many do not.

Your students will fall into one of three categories:

  • Students who completed both assignments. These students will do assigned work whether it’s graded or not.  They are motivated by the challenge, by the mark reported to their parents, or by some other factor (not including grades).  Their homework completion will not change if you stop including homework in their grades.
  • Students who completed neither assignment. These students are not self-motivated and are also not motivated by grades.  Their homework completion will not change if you stop including homework in students’ grades.  They need something else.
  • Students who only completed the first assignment. These are the only students who are motivated to do their homework by the effect on their grade.  If you stop including homework in their average, they will need a new motivator to encourage them to complete it.

Based on my personal experience and anecdotal stories from colleagues, less than 15% of students fall into the third category. Moreover, these students have been led to believe that a grade is a reward (or, at least, leads to one) rather than a measurement.  These are the same students who beg for extra credit and who want desperately to know if what you are discussing will be “on the test”.  This group of students needs to learn that practice leads to mastery, and mastery leads to success in more complex subjects.

To be clear, I value the practice that homework provides.  I give homework assignments.  I grade them.  I provide constructive feedback to students.  I report the quality of homework to parents and students.  I do not factor homework into my students’ averages.

To those who would call my system flawed, I say this: If students only do homework because it improves their grade, why do only 15% stop doing it when it no longer affects their grade?  Why do 20% or more avoid doing it even when it does affect their grade?  We include homework in a student’s average to motivate them to do it, but yet many are not incentivized by this practice.  It’s not working.

Moreover, this issue gets at the heart of how confusing a student’s grade can be.  What does an A mean? Hard work and average mastery?  Strong mastery and no work ethic?  Below grade-level understanding but amazing effort?  If you can’t say, then it isn’t a useful piece of information to share with parents and students.


Disagree?  Make your case in the comments!

19 thoughts on “Am I Not Being Clear?

  1. I couldn’t agree more! Homework is for practice and should not be included in a student’s overall average. It drives me crazy when I see it included in course syllabi and in teacher grade books. Homework, when assigned correctly, should be an opportunity for a student to practice and reinforce what they have learned in class.


  2. Paul,

    This is one of the BEST posts I’ve ever seen on the reason that grading homework makes no sense.

    No joke: It’s AWESOME.

    Super well done—-I’ll be sharing this widely.

    Rock right on,


    1. Bill,

      I appreciate the shout-out! It’s funny how the stuff we write out of frustration can sometimes surpass the more “thoughtful” pieces, huh?


  3. I can not agree more. Grading homework is simply forcing students to practice……yet I find in college I sometimes need the homework grade to ease any mistakes I make on exam day.


    1. Sam,
      Ideally your grade for the course wouldn’t be based on just one measurement–the exam–but even so, what does it say about your grade that it’s based on a combination of how much your could recall/explain on exam day AND how diligent you were about getting assignments completed?

      It’s interesting to me that this is happening in the gilded halls of higher ed…


    1. Pak,

      Thanks for the Kohn reference. I am fan of his, but I often feel torn between the kinds of small-scale changes that a classroom teacher can actually effect on his own versus the larger changes that are needed on a district-state-national level. I know we need big changes, but I’m just jaded enough to feel that I’m better off doing the little things I can in my own classroom.

      Am I being too narrow in my focus?


  4. I’m taking your challenge and assigning homework by announcing in class that while it is important formative work, it will NOT be counted toward their homework stamp calendar.

    While I have concerns about not counting the students’ effort that goes into homework as part of the grade that are not related to using the homework grade as a motivator, I am curious to see if the 15% you describe holds true.

    I will return when I have the data to share.


      1. Out of our 109 students, 16 of them were absent for either the first assignment, the second assignment, or both, so I removed them from the data consideration for our purposes here. This results in a new total of 93 students.
        45 students completed both assignments, which is 48% of 93
        9 students completed neither assignment, or 10% of 93
        39 students completed ONLY the first assignment that was for credit and NOT the second homework assignment, which is 42% of 93
        This means that when it ‘counted’, 90% had their homework. When it didn’t ‘count’, 48% completed it.
        7 of the 9 who completed neither assignment went on to do the first assignment late and submit it for 1/2 credit. (I give 1/2 credit back on the stamp calendar. See previous link.)
        Both assignments required the students to use our common text, The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton, and think through some opinions before a class discussion the following day. (The first was a Paideia Seminar discussion, and the homework sheet was front and back. The second assignment was front only, but had about the same number of questions. It related to opinions and proof in the text as to if the character Johnny should be charged with murder or manslaughter for killing Bob in chapter 4. It’s followed by a “Jury Duty” activity.) I chose these two assignments because they were similar in nature for the student and in their goal for me as the teacher. Also, they were happening within two school days of each other.


  5. Stopped giving graded homework a long time ago and switched to ‘homeLearning’. The students are preparing for class, watch a video and blog up the 4/5 keypoints. Semantics? Not really, they are preparing for class not reacting to it. I never give a score, always write a positive comment on each blog (corrections are notified by email). Its straight forward, predictable(each video based on a syllabus statement), realistic (20 mins) and achievable (low-mid order thinking skills). Student blogging is tracked with Google reader so I know whose getting the work done and who needs a gentle push. Arriving in class I have already established an understanding of why homelearning has not been done, so no over reaction necessary. Kids arriving knowing what the lessons about and we can get stuck into misconceptions and higher order thinking and the application of higher order thinking straight away.…but as close as I’ve come in 25 years of teaching. Traditional homework is often either the work left over and not finished in class (and then probably higher order thinking skills required) ; students don’t have their expert teacher on hand, it takes a week to mark (if ever), students have moved on with carrying with them misconceptions.

    True most learning takes place outside the classroom but not when its in a confrontational , forced and unsupported manner.

    I’m building a teacher support site for this type of Biology teaching on which will be/ is supported by video and static html info. (Launch date July-August) And it will all be free.



    1. John,
      I love the idea of Home Learning. It is a little like some Math classes I’ve observed in which students are expected to watch an instructional video at home, or read a passage in the textbook. Class time is then spent on guided practice and explanation. My personal struggle is this: If the work is critical, you can’t assign it for homework (because they’ll need support and might not do it). If it’s not critical, kids won’t do it (and some won’t do it anyway).

      What type of accommodations, if any, do you provide for students without Internet access at home?


      1. Paul

        we don’t have Internet connection or access problems in Bangkok! The kids I teach (everyone actually) are fully armed with all sort of smarts phones, ipads, laptops etc. WIfi is on every street corner and even in the more remote areas of the country. In class we have a rule “If you have hardware bring it to class and lest put it to use”. Using the web for school work is the norm.

        I agree with your comment about ‘critical and non critical’ but then I’m on externally examined courses so its all critical.

        Some call the method ‘flipped classroom’ but that tends to put emphasis on the ‘flip’ from homework to homelearning but this takes the attention away from the cycle of instruction in class which has a very different emphasis focusing as it does on instruction and guidance in higher order thinking.

        Looking forward to further posts, John


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