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Starr Sackstein believes in change, and sometimes change in education means cutting out archaic practices like traditional homework and grades.
Author of Hacking Assessment and Hacking Homework, Starr explains how to change out-of-class work so that the onus of learning and how that learning is assessed falls squarely on our most important stakeholder — the student.
Listen to Starr’s ideas for hacking homework grades in Hack Learning Podcase Episode 78. Some of what she explains is founded on this excerpt from Hacking Homework: 10 Strategies That Inspire Learning Outside the Classroom.
THE PROBLEM: HOMEWORK GRADES ARE MEANINGLESS
Learning has no meaningful impact beyond what students take away and can apply. When teachers attempt to label what they think students know, they erode the learning process by taking the importance of growth away, minimizing it into a complete/not complete category.
Along with mandatory nightly homework assignments, many schools require homework to be graded, assuming that grades are what motivate students to do the work and that grades communicate what students learned. How many times have you heard a student ask if homework will be graded as if the answer will determine how much effort will be expended?
This challenge of student commitment to a grade coupled with the practice of quantifying student learning undermines students’ intrinsic motivation. If we want to make learning student-driven and meaningful, we need to avoid practices that undermine that effort because:
• Assessment of homework is often arbitrary and nonspecific. Teachers track whether or not work is complete, issuing check minuses, checks, or check pluses, but do not evaluate students’ mastery of the material.
• Students often receive little to no feedback for their homework, as there is just too much of it for teachers to make meaningful comments.
• Students might learn skills the wrong way if no feedback is given. The traditional approach to homework creates challenges down the road, as students aren’t even aware that they are doing things incorrectly.
• Students take little to no ownership of their work, often copying friends’ assignments. Therefore, they have no idea what they know and can do, which is problematic when it comes time to use those skills in other learning experiences.
THE HACK: DISPLAY GROWTH
Since there is no proven “right way” to assess and track student learning, the most effective option is to turn this responsibility over to the students. Because learning should stem from intrinsic motivation, teachers can spend time showing students how to track the feedback and their progress from long-term learning experiences. This way students will learn to reflect on their growth, set better goals, and be accountable for their own growth.
As we stop forcing kids to comply with policies that don’t facilitate learning and start making out-of-class work meaningful, we need to help students develop an understanding of who they are as learners, so they are able to express what they know and can do.
Students can then use time outside of class in ways that best support their individual learning needs.
WHAT YOU CAN DO TOMORROW
• Stop collecting and grading every assignment. For homework that is assigned on a more flexible basis, don’t collect or grade it. Be judicious in what you are assigning; give feedback where appropriate in class when using the connected projects with lessons being taught, and ask kids to keep everything in a safe and organized place. If students are doing work electronically, they can easily store their documents on Google Drive and organize them appropriately there in folders.
• Enrich student growth with only purposeful assignments. When students ask if the homework will be graded, make sure to say that it doesn’t matter. All work that is happening in the classroom has a purpose; each assignment is intended to fulfill an objective, enriching student growth and learning in the process. Make sure students understand that you wouldn’t ask them to do something that isn’t worth their time. Be transparent in how work connects to what’s going on in the classroom, and why it matters. Don’t be afraid to let students voice their opinions. Truly listen to them, as this will help with buy-in moving forward.
• Track student progress independently. Students will need to have a space where they track their learning. Help them create this space by holding a class brainstorming session about different ways to maintain the information. Some students will prefer to write it down, so they should use the back of their notebooks and set up a page with three or four columns to prepare for tracking their work. More techy students might prefer to use a Google Doc, with a table or spreadsheet. Make sure to get access to these digital spaces and regularly check in with students who use notebooks as well.
Read the remaining chapter and nine other hacks in Hacking Homework.
Starr Sackstein works at Long Island City High School in LIC, NY as a high school English teacher and teacher coach. Starr has written eight education books and she blogs with Education Week Teacher and co-moderates #sunchat as well as contributes to #NYedChat and #hacklearning. She was a Bammy Awards finalist for Secondary High School Educator and blogger/education commentator. Follow Starr on Twitter @mssackstein.