This week has involved multiple conversations about
homework, in two of the classes I teach, in my office talking with our pre-service teachers,
and in my house, where my 7

^{th}grader brought up the topic. Apologies if this post is all over the place because all the conversations led me to truly think about why we assign homework.
I have been using an online homework system in math
courses for several years—in fact, I was the first person in my department to
try using one in calculus. I love online homework systems, mostly because I
hate grading. However, I struggle with
them because students are only graded on their final answer. My philosophy has always been that math is
NOT about the answer. How do I deal with
this struggle? I also include paper and pencil quizzes and tests in my courses
to see if my students truly understand the concepts and to give them feedback
on their problem solving process.

Having both parents as teachers has exposed our children to lots
of conversations about education. In
fact when we were looking at my son’s grades in his courses, he was
disappointed that he did NOT have an A in one of his courses. As we looked more
closely at his points in the course, we noticed that his homework (B average)
made up more of the course points than his quizzes and tests (A average). He said, “I don’t know why my homework makes
up more of my grade in this course. Homework is for practice.” As a teacher, my children know that I am
always more likely to take their teacher’s side if there is any sort of
complaint or disagreement. This time I
wasn’t sure what to say because my son was right—homework is to practice. In fact, I used to put the following on my
syllabus. “

*Math is very much like a sport—you improve your ability with a lot of practice.**It is not a spectator sport but rather a full contact sport.*
This brings me back to my own class, Calculus I Lab. This
week as I was grading my students’ quizzes and they were not doing well, I
realized that they may not be doing their homework to learn but rather to get
it done. So I went into class and asked
the students how many of them were doing their homework just to get it
done. There were a couple of brave souls
who raised their hand and admitted it. I
designed the Calculus I Lab course as a just-in-time review of algebra and
trigonometry skills that they use in calculus.
I reminded them that the purpose of lab was to make them a better
calculus student. So then I asked them
if they thought it was making them a better calculus student—some said yes, but
some said no. Now I need to really think about how I can improve the lab—another
summer project.

In our assessment course this week, we had planned a Homework
Debate. We assigned students into two categories—Pro Homework vs Con Homework.
Then we assigned some common readings and asked them to do some of their own
research and come to class ready to defend their position. First of all, we concluded that math majors
aren’t the best debaters, especially when deep down they don’t believe in the
position they are assigned. The students
went back and forth and rebutted each other, but in the end, we all felt like
we were somewhere in the middle and it likely would depend on our class and our
students. We wrote the following items
on the board at the end of class under Homework.

- Reasonable time for doing homework.
- Feedback (timely) is critical.
- Different forms of homework: group and projects.
- Personalized.

Later that morning one of the students from the class was
in my office and she made a comment that really resonated with me. She works as a tutor in the department’s help
center and helps students every day as they work on their homework. In our courses that use online homework, we
have put restrictions on the number of attempts the students have for each
problem. Her comment was, “Why don’t you
just give them 100 attempts?” She feels
like restricting the number of attempts puts added pressure on the students and
often leads them to cheating on the homework by typing the problem into Wolfram
Alpha or Chegg. Her comment really
resonated with me and I even passed it on to our calculus coordinator as an
idea to propose to the instructors.