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23 December 2010

The pejoritive connotation of the word "homework"

Bad dog from

What does the typical American think of upon hearing the word "homework?"  While I have no psychomological evidence of this, I suspect that the word is generally considered to be synonymous with "rote drill," and has a profoundly negative connotation.  On one hand, this is silly -- homework in any subject does not have to consist merely of rote drill. 

(What's wrong with rote drill, anyway?  I don't see the National Association of Music Educators campaigning to stop making violinists learn their scales; I don't see the National Association of Football Coaches minimizing the importance of conditioning, blocking, and tackling drills.  Done properly, and with the correctly limited scope, rote drill at any level of any subject is an important part of learning.  Anyway.  Ahem.)

Physics homework in particular does not, or at least should not, generally consist of rote drill.  Homework problems are used for practice, sure, but students are practicing the skills of creative problem solving, they're practicing to eliminate their crazy misconceptions, they're practicing their ability to explain concepts with reference to a relevant equation... Doing the homework, and moreover doing homework problems seriously and carefully and correctly, is an integral part of learning physics.

Nevertheless, students do not always take homework seriously.  In some upper level physics classes in particular, these very smart students say, I don't need to practice, I can just perform on the test.  (Then they perform poorly on the test because they didn't practice, and they say physics is just too hard.)  How do we get students to pay attention to homework?

Well, it starts (but does not end) with the homework grade.  I put a score on homework problems every night or two.  This score explicitly counts for 30% of students' course grade.  Of course, even with that explicit carrot, my lower level students do not pay appropriate attention to the homework.  They turn in hastily done crap, then just sigh when they see that their answer was wrong.  It never occurs to them to check BEFORE class whether their answers were correct; it never occurs to them that it would be a good idea to understand WHY their answers were wrong.  So the grade itself is a necessary but not sufficient motivator.

At a Virginia AP physics workshop, a teacher reported that he was forbidden by his administration from counting homework more than a token amount toward the course grade.  While I stared open-mouthed in a state of flabbergastation, others chimed in that they were under the same restriction.  But one clever physics teacher in my workshop had a solution...

I don't call my assignments "homework" precisely to avoid the negative connotation.  I use the phrase "problem sets" or "nightly problems," and I regularly make the comparison to the English essay -- I'm asking for the equivalent of a couple of well-written paragraphs every night in an English class.  The woman in my workshop took my phrasing and analogy a step further.

"Just call the homework an 'assessment'," she said.  "English teachers are allowed to count a series of take-home writing assignments as equivalent to a test.  So, we do the same thing.  These problem sets are the precise equivalent to a writing assignment, so they will be counted just as the English department counts them." 

And perhaps that trick might help the students as well as satisfy the clueless administrator.  If a student hears "this counts as a test," his effort seems to double.  I've noticed that students will repeatedly make the same kinds of mistakes on homework problems, but if they get the same exact question wrong on a "quiz" in class, suddenly they start remembering.

Why does the psychology of "homework" seem to work against the legitimate goals of nightly assignments?  I don't pretend to know.  All I can do is make the observation, and then use the observation to the benefit of my class and my students.



  1. Greg, I don't understand the pejorative nature of homework as well, but I think it may have something to do with kids spending lots of time on assignments they either see as pointless busywork (though their perceptions might be incorrect) or an impossible mountain to climb, when given problems and challenges they feel over their head. I imagine for most kids, this starts way before they every get to a physics class, so it's hard to address.

    I try to address it by calling homework practice. Most of my kids are athletes or musicians of one form or another and we talk about how they approach their practice. They all recognize that it's possible to approach practice with the wrong mindset, and get nothing out of it, even if you've had to do a dozen suicides. We talk about deep practice, a term coined by Daniel Coyle, author of the great book, the Talent Code, which means focusing carefully on every aspect of a particular skill, getting lots of feedback from experts, and working with tremendous effort to learn from mistakes.

    Experiments in Learning by Doing has a wonderful blog post on "Deep Practice in Practice," which gives a very clear picture of what this looks like in an algebra I classroom.

    Anyway, as my students and I talk about deep practice, we also recognize that they don't get graded in practice. The point of practice is for them to learn the skills they need to master the sport or instrument. By focusing explicitly on how students should approach homework, reducing the quantity of homework I give, and trying to come up with some creative assignments to push their thinking, I've gotten to the point where I don't give homework a grade at all, and yet, I'd say 90%+ of my students complete it with level of commitment I never saw back when I made homework was 20% of a student's grade.

    Note: I do collect and give students specific written feedback on every single homework assignment, and this helps me greatly to see which students in my class are struggling with the material. I just don't put a number grade at the top, or count it as part of their grade. It's practice.

  2. Greg,

    I've been struggling with getting students to complete their homework, who hasn't? I've tried toying with how much their homework grade is weighted, I've tried "cleverly" disguising the homework as "out-of-class problems, practice sets, nightly physics problems ," etc. None of these tactics have proven effective. In regards to this blog post's suggestion of calling homework by a different title, I have found that students still recognize that it is homework, you're just calling it something different. Roughly 30% of my urban public school students will submit their homework on time. Talking with other teachers in my school has got me thinking it's an epidemic, as the same problem exists in other subjects and other grades. Have you personally found this technique to work? Anytime I read ideas about motivating students for homework or any out of class work, I find myself viewing it just as pessimistically as my students, looking for it's weaknesses and relegating it to homework with a fancy name tag.

  3. You're right that homework is what it is, and students are easily smart enough to see through a euphemism. Renaming or restyling homework is really aimed not at students but at parents, advisors, and administrators.

    When a smart student tells mom "Ach, homework is stupid, I don't need to do it, I'll just ace the test," mom tends to sympathize, especially if the kid has always done okay before, especially if mom is as frustrated as the kid with math class assigning "1-49 odd." Then mom gets mad at the teacher for insisting that kid must do the homework; the ignorant-of-physics principal might support mom when the issue comes up the ladder.

    Restyling homework as "take-home tests" or whatever can help fight the ignorant adults in the education business. When kid's protests fall on deaf ears, he and his classmates eventually just do the danged homework (and amazingly enough find their performance improving, too).

  4. Greg,

    Thanks for the quick response. I also appreciate your candor. It seems we all have our own bureaucratic hoops to jump through when it comes to school policies. I recognize that most of the suggestions in your blog post were addressing the issue of not being able to weight homework as we see fit and how to side-step that issue. I personally don't have to worry about that and upped my homework weight to 99% of the final grade - just because I can! I should also mention that I then immediately brought it back down to it's normal weight (God complex?). I see your point of directing our efforts toward parents and not students. But if we begin calling homework 'take-home tests' even parents will eventually realize it's "just homework" when they catch on that my class has nightly take-home tests. Well, maybe they won't if they're anything like their kids (JOKING!). Although, as I type this, I think I'm realizing the significance of yours and others' suggestions; that is, a take-home test *can* be weighted. Gotcha. Sorry to expose you to my stream-of-consciousness realization which probably didn't need to be typed, but I'm already at the end. Thanks and great job with the blog. I really enjoy it!