5 Tips for Middle School Math
The math homework dilemma – to give or not to give (IF you have the option in your district)? How much to give? To go over it all or only review some of it? What will be most helpful to your students?
Maybe your experiences have been similar to mine: I’ve adjusted my practices from year to year, sometimes spending a lot of time reviewing homework, but other times spending little; some years giving homework related to the lesson, other years giving homework that was basic skills practice; some years lots of problems, other years just a few. There seemed to be pros and cons to each.
Thinking about this topic yet again, I decided to look for some research to see how we can help students get the most out of the homework we assign.
Research is varied, and opinions about homework are varied; there are books and articles supporting homework, and there are books and articles opposing. For example, research cited in the NCTM article Making Homework Matter to Students (NCTM, 2017), states that there IS a positive correlation between high-quality homework and mathematics achievement (Trautwein 2007 and Dettmers et al. 2010), and that students who completed their homework scored better on assessments. But the studies also showed no relationship between time spent on homework and student achievement. On the other hand, The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) in 2015 announced that homework perpetuates inequities in education and questioned whether it has any academic value. In Mathematical Mindsets, Jo Boaler states that reviewing homework at the beginning of class magnifies those inequities among students. Various other studies have found that homework has a negative effect or no effect on achievement at all.
So, research doesn't necessarily agree on the benefits of having students complete math homework – that’s not all that helpful:-) Especially if your district expects (or requires) you to assign homework.
Research does seem to agree, however, that certain types of math homework can provide more benefit to students than others. This is what we're looking for! As stated by Jo Boaler, in Mathematical Mindsets, “Research shows that the only time homework is effective is when students are given a worthwhile learning experience, not worksheets of practice problems, and when homework is seen not as a norm but as an occasional opportunity to offer a meaningful task.”
She recommends giving questions that students need to answer in a performance orientation or assigning reflection questions that encourage students to reflect on the math in the day’s lesson and focus on the big ideas, like how the ideas from the lesson could be used in life.
So, let's think about what would help our students get the most out of the math homework we assign.
1) Assign homework that has a very specific purpose
That sounds logical, but have you ever been in a hurry and assigned #1-20 on page 47, without really looking at all the problems first? I will admit that I’ve been guilty of that. With an assignment like that, students may sense that the purpose was simply to assign homework.
If we’re working on decimal subtraction, it might be better for me to assign 4 problems that require students to remember to annex a zero in the minued or to regroup when there are zeros (since those are the types of problem they often have trouble with) and assign 1 problem that doesn’t require those things. Or, if I want students to think a little more deeply, I might assign 5 error analysis problems and ask them to explain the mistakes in writing. According to the NCTM article, homework assignments like error analysis require deeper thinking and understanding, which is what will benefit our students the most.
2) Make homework accessible by differentiating
If students are unable to complete the math homework because it's too difficult (or they believe it's too difficult), there isn't much chance that they'll get any good math practice out of it. And this goes back to the inequities mentioned earlier - if they couldn't do it, what happens to them during the review of the homework? They are likely lost and/or tuning out.
The same applies for the students who find the work too easy - if it's simple for them, they aren't getting good practice or deep thinking. And homework review? They probably find it boring. There are so many ways to differentiate - a great topic for another post:-)
3) Make homework aesthetically pleasing
According to ASCD, 2010, if the homework looks uncluttered and is graphically appealing, students may be more interested in completing it. I honestly hadn't thought about this much in the past! But think about your response when you look at a page completely filled with text or too many graphics - how does it make you feel?
4) Give students the opportunity to discuss their answers
I have found great benefit to giving students time to discuss in small groups. I do this as frequently as possible. It gives me time to circulate and listen to their conversations and questions. And often, students are willing to ask a group member about something that gave them trouble, rather than asking in front of the class. This provides them the opportunity to verbalize their confusion and allow peers to verbalize their understanding of the concepts. This discussion doesn't have to take a lot of time - especially if the homework assignment was only a few problems:-)
5) Assign homework that's efficient
According to Five Hallmarks of Good Homework, ASCD, 2010, this means it probably shouldn’t include cutting things out, gluing them, or creating posters, for example. While I like using "foldables," I'd agree that assigning them for homework may not be the best choice. Where is the math practice in this type of homework?
Based on this information, my action item is to work on creating differentiated math homework assignments that focus on a specific purpose, require deeper thinking, and are graphically appealing.
Do you have any tips to help students get the most of out their math homework?
Hi, I'm Ellie! I've been in education for 25 years, teaching all subject areas at both the elementary and middle school levels.