Why Math Teachers Devalue Homework

A common complaint from high school math students and their parents is that homework is not counted for a large enough part of the total course grade. There are at least two main reasons this devaluation has happened; and once you know the reasons, you will hopefully understand and support the teacher.

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I started teaching in 1972 and I taught for three years before temporarily leaving the profession to work on my Master’s degree and then to raise a family. During those 1st three years, I considered each homework paper to be a study tool for each test. Consequently, I spent many hours each evening and every weekend grading homework papers. I would go through each paper in detail, checking all the work, and writing notes to each student about both positive things I saw and mistakes they were making go math grade 7. Each paper really became a study tool for the test. I literally spent every spare minute of every day grading homework. I took it everywhere I went just in case I found a few spare minutes. Fortunately, I didn’t yet have children and for one of those years my husband was on active duty with the Navy. I wouldn’t have been able to be so thorough otherwise.

This was a time period when all students actually did their homework, they showed all their work, and they all turned in their homework. As strange as this sounds, it was even more incredible that when I handed back their homework papers, the students actually read the comments I had made, and they kept their papers and used them to review for tests. Oh, for the good old days!

Now, fast forward to 1988 to my return to full-time teaching. The new teaching world I found was very different from the one I left–especially with respect to homework. I started the school year grading homework as I had in the past. I wrote notes of encouragement and corrections as needed. But my first set of shocks happened when I collected the first homework assignment. I expected 100% of the students to turn in papers; but I got only 60%-75%. As I was grading papers, I discovered that many students showed no work. Then, as I handed back homework papers, students just wadded them up and threw them away–without reading any of my comments. I was quite literally dumbstruck as I watched my hours of time and effort thrown into the trash. As a consequence of their choices, they had no papers to study when time for the test.

My second set of shocks came a short time later. Our class day had a built-in 20 minute period between 2nd and 3rd periods. This short period was to be used for club meetings, or to make up quizzes, or to make arrangements for missed work or tests. Because my school was overcrowded, my classroom was in a trailer beside the school. On one particular day, I decided to go into the building during this period. I looked into the auditorium because I hadn’t yet seen it. I found several small groups of students. As I investigated further, I discovered that in each small group the students were copying one person’s homework paper. I went out into the halls and I found the same thing. Small groups of students rapidly copying someone’s math homework. (These weren’t just my students. It was a school-wide practice.)

On that day I stopped detailed grading of homework because: (1) students paid no attention to what I wrote, and (2) I couldn’t trust that the work I was grading was done by that student.

I decided that I needed to discuss the issue of cheating with my students; and, again, I was shocked to discover that the students did not consider copying homework as cheating. Their reasoning was that the assignment was to turn in homework; and whatever it took to accomplish that was appropriate. They saw the goal to be turning in a paper to the teacher–not learning the material.

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