Homework Participation and Student Achievement in Mathematics

John Palo, Math Teacher, East High School, Rochester City School District  John.Palo@RCSDK12.ORG

Background

I have been teaching for nearly ten years in the Rochester City School District.  I have taught every middle school and secondary math subject: from 7th grade up to AP Statistics.  I have also taught in strictly general education classes as well as inclusion classes and an 8-1-2 class.  Unfortunately, one common thread has been extremely obvious – students do not do homework and teachers have pretty much given up on assigning homework because students don’t attempt it anyway.  On top of that, some research came out that claimed homework doesn’t make a difference anyway.  However, most research was based on elementary grades (this includes the main opponent Alfie Kohn and his book The Homework Myth).  I have come to believe and Common Core supports this, that in order to truly learn (and not just memorize) students must achieve higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy such as analysis and synthesis.  Most students, in particular students in the Rochester City School District, don’t get nearly enough practice.  Especially since attendance in the district is horrendous (typically students miss, on average, 40 math classes per year) the students are not getting the practice in class. This is where I believe the “homework doesn’t have benefits” claim falls flat.  I agree that pointless, mind numbing math problems for homework don’t really have benefits.  Research on homework and its benefits have mainly centered around students who attend class on a regular basis.  I feel that well thought out assignments that provoke thought are a necessity that our students need to practice in class but especially on their own later in the day (even more so if the students miss a lot of class) if students are going to truly understand and learn mathematics.  The problem, of course, has been how to convince students of this as well.

Inquiry Questions

  • How can I convince students that homework is beneficial?
  • Can students who miss class on a regular basis still be successful?
  • If students attempt homework on a regular basis will they be academically successful?
  • If students are “bribed” to do homework, will they have intrinsic motivation to continue attempting homework?

Instructional Change Overview

I have attempted to “bribe” students in the past to do homework by a token economy.  I have used fake money (similar to Monopoly money), printed money with students’ faces on the money but in black and white (not very realistic) and student faces on money in color but that was very costly (could only print in color on my own printer).  Students could then use the money to purchase items.  However, I found that by having “auctions” on items seemed to drive students more, the competitive spirit of an auction seemed more enjoyable for most students. Also, maintaining “bank” records of students (to prevent students giving/stealing money from each other) has always proven to be very difficult and time consuming. Also in the past, I have been unable to start the money system at the beginning of the year due to lack of resources, constant schedule changes before the first day of school, etc.  Typically, I have waited until the first marking period (6 weeks) is over before implementing the system.      In order to really see if this system would work and make an impact, I would need to change a few things I had done in the past.  First and probably most important, I would have to start the system as soon as possible, hopefully within the first week of school.  Second, I would need a more efficient way to keep track of student records.  Third, I absolutely would need to have the money look as real as possible (color print) but still using the student faces.

Assessment Methodology

My main objective is to increase student participation of homework and how increased homework effort affects test score. I will collect the data using the following methods: • Comparison of homework completion rate:  I will compare the classes that use the money system to those that don’t use the money system. • Student survey on homework:  I will ask the students a variety of questions about why they do or don’t do homework in all of my classes, asking both the classes that participate in the money system vs. those that don’t. • Comparison of test scores:  I will compare the scores of students that complete homework on a regular basis compared to those that do not to see if Regent Exam scores are affected.

Reflections

This narrative summarizes my experiences with my action research project of using the money system to see if students increase their effort on homework and if more homework completion translates to better Regents Exam scores. My main goal is to have students obtain intrinsic motivation for completing homework assignments and realize that more participation in thought provoking, meaningful homework assignments translates into better test scores.  My action research project was extended throughout the year and even into summer school.

There were many positive aspects to using the money system throughout the year. At first some students viewed the money system as childish.  However, rather quickly and probably due to indirect peer pressure and a competitive spirit to win auctions, all students, including my older students, were on board and eager to earn money.  Also, to keep an overall positive atmosphere in the classroom and increase attendance, students were given $20 for coming to class on time.  Students also could earn money throughout the class period by asking good questions, answering questions, showing work on the board, etc.  By rewarding students for other aspects, I believe I increased their understanding and therefore increased their willingness to complete homework assignments.  Students earned $10 for a homework assignment.  I purposefully had the reward for homework less than attendance because I didn’t want students to lose sight of the fact that being in class has a bigger impact on success than homework.  But if students didn’t attempt an assignment I took $20 from them.  Throughout the year, most students attempted homework assignments.  Homework was given daily, including over weekends and breaks.  Students that attempted homework assignments did better on quizzes and tests throughout the year.  By consistently pointing this out to the class, those students that weren’t completing homework on a regular basis seemed to put forth more effort as the year progressed.  Also, students who were absent made a point to find out what homework assignment they had missed and submit it to get paid.  As a teacher, more homework to grade does mean more work.  However, I was able to plan lessons more accordingly based on student’s needs and strengths that were evident from homework turned in.  Throughout the year, the money system was used in 2 classes which consisted of approximately 44 students.  On average, 89% of students attempted homework given.  Considering the amount of homework given, previous experiences and discussion with other teachers, this is a remarkable rate.  Of those 44 students, 40 ending up taking the Integrated Algebra Regents Exam at the end of the year.   19 students passed the exam which means 48% of the students that took the exam passed.  Even taking the passing rate of all of these students (44) still yields a 43% passing rate.  The Rochester City School District average for passing the Integrated Algebra was only 25%.  This means my students had nearly doubled the passing rate of the district.  Students in my other classes that did not use the money system had a homework completion rate of 34% (roughly 67 students).  Only one other class took the Integrated Algebra Regents Exam (23 students) and only 6 passed (26%).  The other two classes still had final exams and only 19 students passed out of the 44 (43%).  However, historically, students do tend to score better on local exams than Regents exams.

Of course, there are two sides to every story.  The obvious negative side, at least from a teacher’s view, is the time, energy and cost of implementing the money system.  Numerous ink cartridges were used, time to cut the money out, keeping track of students accounts, passing out money, collecting money, class time for auctions (occurred every few days and took about 5 to 10 minutes), cost of auction items (candy, McDonald’s food, movie tickets), etc. can be overwhelming if not managed properly.  The use of the iPad to electronically keep track of students’ accounts instantly helped tremendously.  A couple of students were embarrassed of their school id picture (used on the money) but eventually seemed ok with it.  For students, it was something else to keep track of (checking accounts, counting, keeping organized) and at times can take away from instruction.  Also, I found that some students were putting in minimal effort but knew that they would earn $10 for simply turning in something.  In way, there were trying to cheat the system.

The ultimate comparison came from teaching summer school.  I taught 3 classes, all ending with the Integrated Regents Exam in August.  Due to time constraints and logistics, implementing the money system in summer school isn’t really possible.  In fact, students are being taught a year’s worth of material in just 6 weeks, although it can be considered somewhat of review since most students have been exposed to most of the material throughout the regular school year.  Of the 3 classes (35 students), students homework completion rate was about 22%.  There are obvious reasons for this: most students taking summer school are there because they didn’t do homework during the regular year, had spotty attendance, behavioral issues, etc. and carried these issues into summer school. Also, most students (and teachers) have come to expect summer school to not have homework assignments. Of the 35 students, 31 took the Integrated Regents Exam and only 3 passed (a dismal 10%).  However, I believe this further demonstrates the positive impact homework assignments have on test scores or how the lack of completing meaningful homework assignments can have a negative effect on test scores.

Conclusion

Despite the amount of work, energy and cost it takes to effectively implement the money system, I believe the positives far outweigh the negatives.  In fact, I am determined to use the money system for summer school next year.  Students clearly were more motivated to complete homework on a regular basis knowing they would be rewarded with “money” and eventually use that “money” to win items of interest at auctions.  I was glad to see the increased homework completion rate translated to better test scores.  I feel this did prove that thoughtful, meaningful homework assignments can affect a student’s academic success.  I feel it is important to point out that this system certainly isn’t a “silver bullet”.  Besides the money system, sound teaching strategies, administrative support, collegiality, and outside tutoring definitely contributed to the success of the money system and the students’ academic success.  In particular, I was still adamant about using parents as leverage.  In other words, if students didn’t attempt a homework assignment, I would quickly let parents/guardians know and most of the time this also had a positive impact.  Moving forward, I will try to implement the money system in all classes this year.  I will reward homework completion on a rating system, however.  For example, if it is obvious minimal attempt was put into the assignment, students will only receive $5, more effort $10 and a near perfect assignment $15.  I believe this will help curb the notion that it’s ok to just turn something in and get rewarded the same amount as someone else that clearly put in a lot of effort and had accurate work.  I thoroughly enjoyed my experience with this action research project and am grateful for the opportunity and support I received from the CCTE.  Furthermore, I am extremely appreciative that I had the opportunity to explore this project throughout the full school year and summer school.