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NYC Helpline: How To: Implement Standards, Curriculum, and Assessment

Assessing Homework  Lisa Peterson

For both new and veteran teachers, giving feedback on student homework can become a monumental task. Whether you teach five subjects to one class or one subject to five classes, the paper can easily pile up if you don’t devise systems to manage it effectively. I can’t say that I have solved this problem myself; I tend to fall behind because I try to give too much feedback. But I can share some tips that have worked for me and my colleagues.

1) Set students up for success.
Homework is a chance to practice and reflect on material learned in class. However, students may not yet understand the material completely, and they may not have anyone at home who can help them. I find it works well to create open-ended assignments that students can complete at their own level of understanding. For example, I might ask them to write a letter to a character from a book. Some students will write more sophisticated and detailed letters than others, but all of them should be successful if they put in the effort. For assignments that are naturally more specific, such as math problems, try to make sure that all the students are capable of doing at least part of the assignment. Then reward students who clearly tried to complete the assignment.

2) Give feedback on some assignments.
As much as I hate to admit it, it’s virtually impossible to give detailed feedback on every homework assignment. You will be better off if you develop a system that allows you to give regular and timely feedback. Even the most thoughtful feedback won’t help students if it’s given to them weeks later.

You can set up any number of systems for giving feedback on student homework. You can decide which assignments for the week are the most important and give feedback on those. If you teach several classes, you can give feedback on homework from each group once or twice a week, varying the days so the students won’t know when to expect it. If you teach a self-contained class, you can give feedback on homework from one or two subjects each day. You can also have students select the assignments for which they want feedback. For example, your language arts class might pick two written assignments per week for your response.

3) Let students take some responsibility for assessment.
Ideally, you want your students to be able to reflect on the quality of their own work, and evaluating their homework is a way to teach them this skill. Sometimes I have students check their own work, and sometimes I have them respond to their peers’ work. Students can easily check work that has specific answers, but they can also provide valuable feedback on open-ended assignments. Sometimes I ask students to respond to the content of the assignment. For example, if the assignment is to write a letter to a book character, the student checking the assignment could assume the identity of the character and write back. Other times, I ask students to serve as a critical pair of eyes. For example, if we are working on supporting the main idea of a paragraph with details, I might ask the students to circle all of the supporting details they can find in their own or another student’s paragraph. (I usually don’t ask them to look for errors because the interactions can get too negative.) As long as you give students specific directions, having them evaluate homework can provide them with another opportunity to practice their skills.

4) Collect homework regularly.
Students need to feel a sense of accountability, or many of them will let their homework slide. Although you can’t respond in detail to every assignment, students need to know that all assignments matter. Some teachers collect homework at random a few times a week. Because students don’t know when their work will be collected, they need to do all assignments. I personally like to make sure every assignment is graded in some fashion; otherwise, I think students who have made an effort feel frustrated. Sometimes I collect the work and provide feedback myself; sometimes I collect the work after a peer has responded to it; and sometimes I walk around the room and check the work briefly as students work on an independent assignment.

5) Use a simple point system to encourage quality.
If you are looking for effort rather than perfection, you won’t need to grade each assignment precisely. You will simply want to indicate a general level of quality. Many teachers use a "check" for an assignment that meets standards, "check +" for an assignment that exceeds standards, and "check -" for an assignment that is below standards.

I personally use a 2, 1, 0 system because I can easily convert it to a number grade. Students get 2 points if their work fulfills the requirements of the assignment with a reasonable degree of quality. They get 1 point if their assignment is incomplete or of poor quality. Students don’t get any points if the assignment is missing, is of extremely low quality, or ignores the requirements of the assignment.

I also use this system to encourage changes in students’ work habits. I take off 1/2 a point if students neglect an aspect of quality we’re focusing on. For example, in the beginning of the year I focus on correct format, so a student might get a 1 1/2 for an assignment without a heading. Once students have mastered the format for assignments, I focus on writing skills, such as punctuation and paragraphing. Students know that I am paying attention to such details, and I find that giving them this type of “nudge” on a regular basis leads to a cumulative change in work habits.

If your kids are working hard, it’s never easy to keep up with their homework assignments. However, if you keep these tips in mind and try to be consistent, you will find the process easier.

 

 

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