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March 1, 2014
Vol. 71
No. 6

Student-Owned Homework

By using homework for practice in self-assessment and complex thinking skills, we can put students in charge of the learning process.

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On a warm summer evening, watching the crowd at a street festival, I was fascinated by a toddler who was learning to walk. He was moving enthusiastically and enjoying his progress. His method was quite comical, more arms than legs, propelling himself along as if he were rowing a boat. His parents watched with delight, realizing that form and grace didn't matter, but mastery did. They were beaming with pride. No one said, "Bad baby, you're not doing it right!"
No one tells a baby how to walk. No one moves his legs for him. We encourage him to stand, applaud his first step, and tell him it's OK when he falls.
I thought of all the imperfections we accept from children as they learn to do things like feed themselves and dress themselves. We instinctively realize that messy high chairs and snow boots worn in summer are less important than mastery of the skill and the pride that comes with it. We fully understand the freedom that is necessary for children to take ownership of their accomplishments.
Yet when it comes to academic learning, we seem to discount the importance of that freedom for learners to design their own methods, that forgiveness of form and grace, and that acceptance of failure. We often forget to appreciate the inborn desire for mastery or to trust a child's self-knowledge of how to get there. And so we prescribe one method of learning, assign one task as homework, and simply require students to comply. And, voilà, learning occurs. Except when it doesn't.

Changing Our Homework Mind-Set

The requirements of the Common Core State Standards are forcing us to rethink who's in charge of learning. The new standards call for deep thinking and application of complex knowledge. These skills cannot be "taught" in the same way rote knowledge is taught—they must be developed and constructed in ways that are meaningful to the learner. To reach that goal, we must change our mind-set and overhaul the practice of homework.
The traditional focus of homework has been on working—students must complete all the assigned work (often low-level rote tasks) by a specified time, or risk punishment. Now, the focus must shift to demonstrating complex and sophisticated learning.
So rote practice is out; task complexity is in. Students don't memorize spelling words; they use them to write declarative essays. They don't read a section of assigned text; they apply complex reading strategies to a text of their choice. They don't complete 40 essentially identical math problems reinforcing the same skill; they apply math skills to new problems.
For some students, this will be a novel experience. It's as though they have been working on an assembly line, putting widgets into holes, and now we are asking them to build the car. For students who were pretty good at widgets, this shift to taking control of their learning can be disorienting. If they've been comfortable with rote homework tasks, they may not know how to tackle higher-level tasks. Given a synthesis-level task that requires thought and analysis, they may ask, "Where do I find the answer?"
This focus on learning, not working, will also change the way we view mistakes. With traditional homework practices, it's "one and done." Students have one opportunity to get it right, and if they fail to understand a concept the first time, they are penalized with a poor grade. The practice of checking homework for correctness and assigning a grade discourages students from persisting in learning (Varlas, 2013). "I didn't do it—it was a stupid assignment" often means "I couldn't do it—it made me feel stupid."
Our new homework practices must reinforce the mind-set that struggle and persistence are part of the learning process (Tough, 2012). We do this by treating homework as a way to obtain formative feedback about learning, not as a final assessment of learning. Once we remove the threat of the bad grade, we free students to embrace the struggle that is necessary for deeper learning (Zmuda, 2008). We let students know that "not getting it" is OK, that failure is crucial to learning, and that teachers will support them in the struggle. In short, we invite them to take ownership of their learning.

New Purposes, New Tasks

Homework that gives students ownership serves two purposes: to check for understanding and to practice the application of complex skills. The first purpose, checking for understanding, is so crucial that it precludes the use of homework simply as preparation (for example, reading the chapter to prepare for the next day's discussion) unless that preparation includes formative assessment.
For example, in Rachel Dohrmann's 7th grade math class at Parkway Northeast Middle School in Chesterfield, Missouri, students receive a set of notes with guidelines to accompany the video lecture they watch for homework. Students self-diagnose their level of understanding of the homework lecture, putting themselves in the red group ("I'm lost"); the yellow group ("I need help"); or the green group ("Bring it!"). Rachel provides differentiated instruction to these three groups in the next day's lesson.
At Mason Ridge Elementary School in Town and Country, Missouri, instructional coach Deborah Poslosky took the Common Core 3rd grade writing standard, "Write opinion pieces on topics or texts, supporting a point of view with reasons," and created a checklist of subskills that would demonstrate mastery of the standard: introducing the topic; stating an opinion; providing a concluding statement; using linking words or phrases (because, therefore, and so on); creating an organizational structure; and providing reasons to support the opinions. As part of their homework, students used this checklist to self-assess their writing assignments.
At Fox Middle School in Arnold, Missouri, Eva Rudolph's 7th grade math students keep an interactive record of their progress. For example, when they studied the properties of numbers (associative, commutative, distributive, and identity), students glued their class notes on the right-hand side of a notebook spread as foldables (graphic organizers in which notes about each topic are written under a flap labeling the topic). One student's class note under the flap for the associative property read, Changing the grouping of numbers in a sum or product does not change the answer. On the left-hand side of the notebook spread, the student wrote the learning goal, I can use properties to write equivalent expressions. For homework, she completed a "What I Learned" section—I learned that you can use the associative property to regroup numbers—and created a proof to demonstrate her understanding—5 + (7 + 3) = (5 + 7) + 3.

Feedback as a Two-Way Street

When students understand that learning is a process that occurs over time and homework is not a final assessment of learning, feedback becomes a two-way conversation between student and teacher. It provides an opportunity for students to think and talk about their learning and for the teacher to get inside their heads. This recurring, nonthreatening feedback encourages students to persist in learning. As some teachers say, "You just don't know it yet."
In Tracy LaRose's 7th grade science class at Fox Middle School, students have several choices of projects, such as calendars or mobiles, that they can complete to show they understand the phases of the moon. When they turn in their project, if it doesn't demonstrate mastery of this knowledge, Tracy asks questions like, "Why did you put the moon there?" Depending on their answers, she directs them to specific resources to help them improve their understanding so they can revise the project.
When Cryslynn Billingsley at Parkway Northeast Middle School introduced compound sentences to her 7th graders, they "panicked." So she created a set of notes that included definitions of complex sentences and of independent, dependent, and subordinate clauses, with examples of each. For homework, students read the notes and put a check mark by what they understood, put a question mark by what they "maybe understood," and circled or highlighted parts that were completely foreign to them. This self-assessment served as a pretest. The next day, Cryslynn grouped students based on their level of understanding for differentiated instruction. She gave a series of homework assignments on compound sentences and provided feedback until she felt students had mastered the concept.

Practice in Self-Assessment

Once we have established that mistakes in learning are necessary and acceptable, we make it safe for students to self-assess. The more they self-assess, the more they develop ownership of their learning. But many students have no experience in self-assessment, so we need to teach them how to do it and give them practice in the classroom.
For example, Cryslynn Billingsley created eight writing samples and gave students a rubric. Working in groups, students evaluated the writing samples and rated which samples were a 1, 2, 3, or 4 on the rubric. Then the groups defended their ratings. This practice prepared students to use the rubric to assess their own writing.
Part of the self-assessment process is answering the question, "How do I learn best?" Teachers need to give students opportunities to think about their learning and to create strategies that work for them.
Jeff Harding, an algebra teacher at Mundelien High School in Mundelien, Illinois, doesn't assign homework. He asks his students, "Which way do you want to learn this?" He makes a number of resources available online—video lectures, Khan Academy videos, and web-based activities. The students then choose the method of homework that they prefer. In Jeff's classroom, there is no seating chart. Students sit with peers who are working on what they're working on. Students who don't demonstrate mastery of a concept the first time they're assessed on it can take a reassessment after first completing a "reassessment ticket" (see fig. 1).

Figure 1. Students Submit a "Ticket" to Request a Reassessment

 

Student-Owned Homework-table

Reassessment Ticket

Name_________________________________ Today's date____________________
Instructional Objective___________________________________________________
What steps have you taken to be prepared for a reassessment?
Evidence (such as additional notes or extra problems) must be attached.
"Check all that apply FAST tutoring Additional practice problems Met with teacher or tutor Written summary (explain everything you did wrong and show that you can create/solve similar problems correctly)"
Date and time I would like to reassess_____________________________________
Another important self-assessment ability is tracking your own progress toward mastery. We need to give students experience in charting their progress on standards, conducting student-led conferences to demonstrate their learning, and setting their own goals for improvement.
Ashley Brumbaugh, a kindergarten teacher at Rock Island Academy in Rock Island, Illinois, has her students create data folders with graphs showing their progress month by month on the number of sight words, letters, and numbers they know and their mastery of math concepts.
Eva Rudolph gives her 7th graders two math concept quizzes a week, each covering six goals. Students keep a record of their scores—from 1(lowest) to 4 (highest)—so they know when they have mastered each goal. When they have earned 4s for a goal (for example, "I can solve multi-step equations") on two quizzes, they can skip the questions pertaining to that goal on the next quiz. Toward the end of the semester, they pick their three weakest goals and choose a homework project to complete that will deepen their understanding of these concepts.
When 5th graders at Mason Ridge Elementary School write short stories for homework, they use an interactive checklist to track their progress toward meeting the Common Core standard, "Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, descriptive details, and clear event sequences." For each component skill on the checklist (such as "I include dialogue that is meaningful and shows responses of characters to situations"), they either state evidence that they have demonstrated the skill or explain why they have not yet achieved that part of the standard. To make assessment easier for the teacher, they also highlight the part of their short story that provides their evidence. Each time they submit their story for assessment, they use a different color highlighter so the teacher can identify the latest evidence. These checklists serve multiple purposes—student self-assessment, formative and summative assessment, student goal setting, and student-led conferences.

Learning to Walk

As students take ownership of learning, they become engaged and productive. They become competent at self-diagnosis, and teachers see the evidence. As one teacher explained, "I know they are getting there when they pinpoint where they need work and use the language of the standards." When teachers hear students say, "I need to know more subordinating conjunctions" or "Integers are why I can't solve equations," they know their students are using homework as self-assessment.
If we want students to take charge of their learning, we must trust their ability to do so. That leap of faith can be scary. Just like we do when we're helping children learn to walk, we must let go of their hands, be encouraging, help them when they fall, and celebrate the small victories on the path to learning independence.
Author's Note: All Common Core standards are from National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers. (2010). Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy in Writing. Washington, DC: Authors.
References

Tough, R. (2012). How children succeed: Grit, curiosity, and the hidden power of character. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Varlas, L. (2013). How we got grading wrong, and what to do about it. Education Update, 55(10), 1, 6–7.

Zmuda, A. (2008). Springing into active learning. Educational Leadership, 66(3), 38–42.

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