cheesemonkey wonders

cheesemonkey wonders

Sunday, January 29, 2012

SBG, Intrinsic Motivation, and the "Grading" of "Homework"

One of the surprising parts of this latest round of parent conferences was the number of parents who wanted to talk to me about why their child is suddenly interested and engaged in learning mathematics when — as I gathered — this was not previously always the case.

I teach in a district which places a very high value on school, teachers, and academic achievement, so this conversation in and of itself was not the surprising thing.

I explained about using Standards-Based Grading, frequent formative assessment, and the remediation and reassessment method I first stole learned about from Sam Shah and others in my Twitterverse/blogosphere orbit, but two things came up again and again during this round of conversations which really caught me by surprise: my emphasis on in-class autonomy as a mode of differentiation and my approach to grading homework.

In-Class Autonomy
My Algebra 1 classes are unusual for a middle school in that they contain a mixture of 7th and 8th graders. I find there are huge benefits to this kind of heterogeneous grouping. For one thing, the students in one grade tend not to have met the students in the other grade, so there are fewer preexisting status issues to contend with among math learners (for an excellent discussion of working with status issues in the math classroom, see Between the Numbers' presentation on this issue from the Creating Balance conference on Math & Social Justice in an Unjust World). For another, it creates a healthy competitive atmosphere in which neither age range wants to be shown up by the other. 8th graders do not want to have their clocks cleaned by a bunch of 7th-grade whippersnappers, and this is an excellent antidote to the problem of 8th grade "senioritis." At the same time, 7th graders are somewhat intimidated by being around the older kids, and that motivates them to bring their A game to class to help them compensate for any feelings of insecurity. The mixing of students encourages everybody to notice and value what others bring to the situation and to stay focused on their own work.

I am pretty much tied to the curriculum, our pacing guide, and the state testing schedule, with minor variations allowed to deal with large-group (or whole-group) lostness as need be. But that means that there are times when the most with-it students could get frustrated or bored if I did not provide them with some differentiated alternatives to keep them engaged while I work with the 75% of the class who are catching up to them.

So I allow students who are ahead of others to either "work ahead" or "dive deeper" during these times. I see no reason to bore them when I can challenge them and call them back to work with the whole group when I need everybody (or when there is a whole-class activity they do not wish to miss out on). I provide them with self-selectable options and I find that it works out really well.

This fits well with Dan Pink's thesis in his book Drive that intrinsic motivation arises from our basic human desires for autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Middle-schoolers do not have much autonomy in their own lives, so giving them a little bit in the classroom goes a long way towards both motivation and harmony (which is how I prefer to think of "classroom management").

Apparently this has been my unwitting secret to getting many of my students' cooperation. Students who would be bored or frustrated at being tethered to a whole-class pace that is either too fast or too slow feel happy and engaged because I try to make it possible for them to work at a pace and a depth that is meaningful for them. I did not realize this was such a giant change for so many of them.

The Grading of Homework
The other thing that seems to be working for my students is the change in emphasis on the "grading" of "homework," in that I do not actually grade their homework.

I was convinced long ago that Sam Shah's approach to Binder Checks is the best way to place an appropriate value on homework — namely, that homework is work one does at home to improve one's own learning. In an SBG world, mastery is measured by the student's performance on assessments — not by the teacher assessing each of 40 problems that one has worked on at home. The purpose of homework is to provide practice and investigation time, in addition to exposure to different kinds of problems and issues that may come up. The purpose of "assessing" homework is to assist the student in developing good study habits and organizational habits so that homework becomes a meaningful part of their school lives.

When I moved from high school to middle school, I discovered that the full binder check approach was a recipe for discouragement. It seems to be a developmental issue. So instead, I have modified the program into a system of "mini-binder checks," in which I check the corresponding homework "chunk" while they work on the test/assessment on that particular chapter/chunk. The "grade" or "score" they receive for "homework" is merely a completion score. It is not a problem-by-problem assessment of their thought process on each homework assignment.

Apparently it's a novel approach to trust motivated middle school students to do their homework and check it all at the assessment point in one fell swoop. At conferences this week, I heard some pretty upsetting stories about students staying up until midnight or one o'clock in the morning, trying to get all their math homework done so they would not get punished and graded down. I heard stories of students I think of as super-mathletes breaking down into tears and meltdowns because they couldn't get their homework all done and they got punished (and shamed) in class because of this failure. So I heard a lot of appreciation that I assign a reasonable amount of homework and expect them to take ownership of getting it all done in time for a reasonable assessment of completion.

It makes me kind of sad to hear these stories because I think of the students in my Algebra classes as pretty joyful learners. And it also saddens me because I do not see these practices as leading toward the "positive dispositions toward mathematics" that we are supposed to be building.


  1. Can you tell me more about how you prepare the options for your students to "work ahead" or "dig deeper"? Are you preparing extra material? Is it self-checking? What sort of tasks are these?

    I'm trying to figure out how to increase the autonomy without things spiraling out of control with an especially immature class, and I'm struggling.

  2. Some days it's as basic (or unprepared) as giving them the option to work ahead in the textbook. Other days, when I'm more organized, I'll set up a worksheet or puzzle sheet or something else and label it "Super-Challenge." I try to always make it something self-checking and that lends itself to friendly collaboration. Often I toss in some fun, non-math-centered trivia questions, such as flags of the world (an idea I got from Dan Meyer). Lately I've also added the option to use the Magic 8 Ball/ Magic Geek Ball to tell your fortune after a certain number of problems (they have to write their fortune down on their classwork).

    I've found that the place where I have the most flexibility to differentiate is at the high end of the confidence and competence spectrum rather than any place else. Your comment made me think about the fact that these students' behavior is also usually exemplary, so they appreciate a high degree of autonomy. When we're working on some new skill or concept -- whether it's via whole-class, groupwork, or individual work -- the lower-to-middle students seem to feel safer staying together as a "pack." I think they feel less anxious about being shamed than the more confident students do.

    Another way I have found to increase autonomy with an immature group is by allowing them to "bank" extra credit points against the upcoming test if they complete a certain ambitious-but-within-reach amount of classwork. For some reason, nothing seems to motivate the unambitious and immature students like the opportunity to earn a rainy-day cushion of extra-credit points to be applied against a test.

    For example, since I usually score each test problem on a holistic five-point scale, a one-time opportunity to earn enough points ahead of time to act as an insurance policy against test anxiety (or lack of understanding) is often enough motivation to get everybody working their butts off in class. And that extra boost seems to push them into the realm of understanding and mastery so that the "extra credit" points are simply frosting on the cake for them. It doesn't occur to them that the extra effort they put in is what pushes them over the hump into mastery.

  3. Thanks -- that's a lot to think about! I'll be doing a lot of experimenting with this group over the next few weeks, so I appreciate the help.

  4. Elizabeth,

    I love this idea and it may be just what I need for some of my students. I sometimes pre-test before a unit. If they are proficient, I have them search the net for math games that apply to the topic. So, they are working on our current topic, but not having to sit through a lecture when they are proficient. I had not thought about having them work ahead. I have them keep their text books at home, so I may have them watch a video on a concept (there are some very good teacher tube ones) and then work ahead in the workbook. Do you ever let them work ahead on future homework so they have less of a homework load at night? Some of my brightest are my biggest athletes and have limited time at night. As usual, you've given me a lot to think about and some great ideas! Thanks! @jreulbach

  5. @jreulbach,

    Thanks for this feedback. I definitely let them work ahead on future homework, as long as they can do so independently. Almost all of my students have ridiculous athletic and extracurricular loads, like yours, and they often have little to no time at night. Plus I believe they actually need to spend some quality time with their families! (radical, I know). :)

    As for the textbook issue, we have classroom sets, but I will often provide purpose-made worksheets or a photocopy of the homework material/problems so that they can work ahead in class.

    Also, for each unit, I try to have at least one major activity that everybody has to participate in. I motivate this by offering 5 points' worth of extra credit on the upcoming test to all students who complete at least 20 of the activity problems (or whatever is appropriate).

    I view this motivational tactic as having two main purposes: (1) it keeps everybody bonded as a classroom community, and (2) it encourages students to view classwork (and homework) as investing in themselves and their efforts -- kind of like investing in an insurance policy for a rainy day.

    Sometimes I even say that they will only get the extra credit points if EVERYBODY in the class completes 20 problems. This creates an atmosphere that says, "Nobody wins unless EVERYBODY wins." And that gives my more advanced students incentives to help those who need encouragement and support to consolidate their understanding.

    It's a win-win. Let me know how it works for you!

    - Elizabeth

  6. Sometimes I even say that they will only get the extra credit points if EVERYBODY in the class completes 20 problems. This creates an atmosphere that says, "Nobody wins unless EVERYBODY wins." And that gives my more advanced students incentives to help those who need encouragement and support to consolidate their understanding. san go cao cấp and sàn gỗ tự nhiên căm xe