Teach them HOW to do homework

One of my grad school professors taught me how to read.

Okay, so I knew HOW to read (hold your snarky math teacher comments, English folk), but I didn’t realize I had no idea how to read for an academic context. For one of our very first assignments, our professor set up a very sneaky experiment that taught me I wasn’t reading very well. He told the whole class that for one of our more dense and academic readings for the next week*, one person would be randomly selected to lead a class-wide discussion. This was early on in a program with a group of 22 all-star, experienced educators. Very scary.

I was terrified into competency.

Instead of just reading it straight through and perhaps highlighting, I wrote questions in the margins, connected various parts of the text, made a list of the main ideas, pulled out quotes that could generate discussion, and generally actively thought about the content of the article.

It turned out he was bluffing, which he revealed in class the next week. Phew, *changes underwear*.  But with this exercise, he made the point to us that the way we read that article was totally different from the way we probably read most of the other stuff. And more effective. I was thankful for this because for the rest of grad school, I read much more effectively. Even if I didn’t have time to read an entire article, I would spend a bit of time diagramming, writing questions in the margins, and actively engaging with the content. Instead of expending more effort, I used my effort more effectively.

How did I make it through so many years of education without knowing how to read? How much more could I have gained from both my high school and college education? How does this apply to our math students? How many of them are trying to do better by working MORE instead of by working MORE EFFECTIVELY? What can we do to show the how to do homework?

What’s a good meta-assignment that can show students how to do math homework effectively (without making them sh*t some bricks to learn the lesson)?

*Alfred North Whitehead, The Aims of Education. NB: I don’t really remember what it was all about 9 months later, but hey, I guess good teaching techniques have their limits?

Posted on May 14, 2014, in Homework, Teaching. Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. But I bet if you read your notes you would remember the key ideas of the article. Better than re-reading highlights and still not having a great sense of the takeaways. Curious what this looks like in math. We talked today about writing up solutions so that someone who had never done the problem (or even thought about it) could follow your work. Same idea?

  2. Really good question.

    I have hear of people doing a similar thing with maths homework (letting students know that one student will be randomly chosen to go through a particular question on the board).
    Maybe you could take that further by having another random student explain the reason for each step that is written down. I’m not sure if that would work how you suggest , its just the first thing to come to mind.

    • good thought – it sounds similar to my grad school thing though where it is using something that could be terrifying for some students. but both you and tina are suggesting somehow going with the “be able to explain this to someone else” route, which i think is a good metric!

  3. I feel that leading a class discussion about an article isn’t parallel to demonstrating one problem in front of the class. What about teaching the class the lesson or leading a discussion about the math from the lesson?

  4. I’ve been thinking a lot about homework — why teachers stop using it, why it’s necessary for some contexts, what its role is in traditional math classes, etc. I have a rough hypothesis that ALL effective math classes, no matter the instructional style, require that students encounter ideas, try to make sense of them, put them into practice, and then see if what they thought the ideas was really gets you the right answers. So an effective class presents the ideas clearly enough (whether by lecture, experimentation, whatever), then students attempt to use the ideas (e.g. in their homework), and then they evaluate how well the grokked the ideas based on the going over of the work (in recitation, small groups, or the professor going over homework…).

    So the big need for homework is to use it to know what you know/can do and don’t know/can’t do. It shouldn’t be a chance to show off, it should require active meta-cognition and reflection. You should come out of a great homework session, ideally, having pleasantly surprised yourself by putting some ideas together and realizing you really get this one thing, and having saddened yourself a bit by realizing that what you thought made sense in class hasn’t really gelled on this other thing.

    Maybe the task then is that you’re going to randomly give them massively-valued homework quizzes, but the point will be assigned like the Jeopardy final round. They will know the topic of the question and will bet as many or as few points as they want, then you’ll reveal the question and they’ll work on it, gaining or losing as many points as they wagered. They start the year with 50 points (failing but not too badly?) and then their total goes up or down as they wager.

    The point being that the homework assignment requires them not just to know the math, but to know how well they know the math, to make their betting effective.

    The down side is that the kids who try to game homework are probably also the kids who would be more likely to try to game the game then to actually learn how to do homework. But maybe debriefing of classmates’ strategies could help?

    • Max, sorry this took me a whole to respond. I love the way you describe a “good homework session”. What a cool discussion to have w students! Not sure a system like you described would be for me – I’m not thinking about a continual thing to motivate them but an activity to show good homework so they can be internally motivated by learning. Hard sell, but we’ll see. Thanks for your thoughts.

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    Montana Tech of the University of Montana

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