I Do Not Get Homework At All Sometimes

I give my students two problems a night – challenging, standards-based, assessment-grade cuts off Algebra’s prime rib. They can choose from the easier or harder problem. It drives me nuts that some students will still blow off such a low-volume assignment.

I was threatening my Algebra 1 sections with an increased problem count, increased reward for completion, and increased penalties for non-completion as of the second semester, which started today. Then I graphed their first semester grades against homework completion and gave up.

Then you have my three sections of remedial Algebra, which behave more or less as you’d expect.

It’s all very troubling.

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. Troubling because homework is not as effective in Algebra 1?
    Have you thought about requiring homework for those students with lower than an A or B? Your graph shows that some students did not particularly benefit from homework since they received high grades without doing it. This might provide an incentive to those students who don’t want to do homework also.
    I’ve never tried this idea, but I like the idea of it.

  2. I have come to the conclusion that homework can lead to more “worK’ and aggravation for the teacher, than benefit for the students. Your graph (s) could help defend this point. It is also interesting to see how many students get good grades without completing much homework at all.

    Troubling indeed.

  3. There is a slight correlation in the Alg 1 group, but not enough to justify daily homework. Try replacing it with a weekly quiz, with required remedial homework for those who get below 80% on the quiz. Weekly homework can be a lot easier to schedule than daily homework, and reduces the mind-numbing “every day we do the same thing” problem.

  4. Since I am a data geek, I found this post to be absolutely awesome! I just emailed the link to the entire staff at our middle school. Would be really interesting to do this school wide!

  5. I like the idea of weekly homework.

    I think students want to see the value to them in doing the homework – do they perform better? Or is it busy work.

    One thing I do is have one or more problems on the weekly quiz be exactly from the homework. So if they diud all of the homework, they get a leg up.

    Or, if homework is for weaker students to practice a concept – have a quiz that determines who has to do homework. If they are successful on the quiz, they have earned their way out. Have suggested homework before the quiz so they are given the option of doing homework to practice before the quiz.

  6. This is very very interesting.

    Could it be that what’s needed for success in Algebra A is more skewed toward skills practice/drill, so that homework helps, while a greater relative emphasis on conceptual understanding (whose development in class may just possibly rely less on skills practice) is relevant for Algebra 1? Or could the greater correlation between homework completion and grade in Algebra A reflect a stronger correlation between trying and succeeding in that class, rather than a causal relation between homework completion and grade?

    Just thinking out loud. Fascinating data.

  7. There is a piece of data that is uncontrollable by the teacher – a student’s home environment.

    Does the student have a study routine setup and maintained rigorously at home, do the parent require this of their student and monitor work completion, and do the parent’s have high expectations of doing well in school and ultimately graduating high school?

    In my teaching experience, those students that have the above conditions generally complete homework and any missing work. Those students that do not have the above conditions rarely complete homework or missing work. There are of course exceptions, but this has equated to about 1 or 2 students per year.

    We can all agree that time on task is very important for concept understanding, long term retention, and duplication of correctly answering problems. It screams that students need more practice of one concept in a variety of perspectives. But, if it isn’t getting done at home, either by the student’s own motivation or by the parent’s motivation (neither of which are controlled by the teacher) then when will this “time on task” happen?

    Perhaps this infers that we spend more time in class on quality of instruction rather than quantity of instruction. For some students, is it reasonable to cram 25 standards into a full year of Algebra? Perhaps repetition on the basics is also needed.

    Bottom line, Dan, you in a similar position as many other Math teachers and this forum is a great way to discuss and problem solve it.

    How can coaching sports be applied to teaching Math?

  8. i teaches tenth grade and i have been threaten numorouses times and i find the best defence is a good offense.
    All bur nine of my students will pass on to the twelve grade.
    i has bout ten meet’n’s with parents per week.
    i can appreciate what you speak.
    your freind, Barbara

  9. Re Michael:

    Agree that the literature supports that more time on task equals more learning for any individual student, but where does it say that all students need the same amount of time on task? Once I’d done one or two problems requiring a given approach, I was good to go and that was as true in advanced differential equations as it was in Algebra 1. All those hours of homework I did were busy work, not useful learning time. I used to do my math homework in class, while the teacher was talking because it took so little of my brain for either.

    It wasn’t until much later that I realized that all that time on algorithms was largely wasted AND resulted in my missing out on real conceptual understanding. When I got to grad school, I realized that none of the differential equations that might apply to my work were capable of being solved exactly, and I realized that I didn’t know how to actually generate a useful equation from a physical problem, only how to solve artificially simple ones from a textbook.

    I find your graphs very interesting, Dan, and I think they are telling you one very important thing – that the utility of homework (like the utility of any particular educational strategy) varies from student to student. Even in Algebra A, where there is an arguable trend, there is still a 40 point spread for equal homework completion over most of the range. This is about the students, not their parents or any other external factor.

    I had a vigorous discussion about this recently with some friends. How to reconcile the data that homework has little or no overall benefit with the experience of some people that homework was essential to their own learning? For some students it clearly is helpful, for others it’s such a drag on emotional energy and motivation that it may actually be counter-productive.

    How can you identify the individual students who benefit? For my friends it was the ones who were having trouble with the material, but were motivated to struggle with problems to seek mastery – they felt “fiero” (the hands-in-the-air, fist-pump emotion) when they did finally get a problem.

    I am a professional developer in science, and a scientist, and I am learning a ton from your blog. Thanks for putting yourself out there.

  10. Two things:

    1) The whole problem with correlations is they don’t show causality. Let’s say there was a really strong correlation. So students with good semester grades did the homework more often. Does this mean the homework truly helped them, or is it simply that they’re conscientious students who will always do their homework and also did well in Algebra? For that matter, assuming the semester grade is a good indicator of their level of understanding of Algebra, the causality could run the other way. Students who better understand algebra do their homework more often because it’s quicker/easier/less frustrating/etc.

    2) What’s the difference between Algebra 1 & Algebra A?

  11. The most fascinating data point in the Algebra 1 class is the kid in the top left who completed 7% of his homework and scored a C+. What would that kid fall on your class? (He knew who he was when I showed my class their graph.)

    It’s obvious to me (and other commenters) that some students need homework more than others. So I make it available. I attach to it a token and rather paltry point total. What I will not do, though, especially in light of these results, is force a kid to retake a class for low homework completion.

    That’s what happened with the Intelligent Slacker. That’s why he is repeating my class. He has learned nothing new all year but he didn’t do any homework in eighth grade where homework carries some immoral weight (60%, or something) where What You Know matters much less than How Much You Sweat.

    We have to invert that.

  12. Dan
    After teaching 11 years at our local high school, I made the jump (some would call it a fall) to middle school. I agree with you completely about the “immortal weight” given to homework in the middle school. We are, in fact, changing that. Eventually, our school will give minimal points for homework and grade students on what they can actually do. The question that I have is this: If we are required to give homework, how do we make it meaningful?

  13. Independent George

    January 29, 2009 - 1:08 pm -

    Back in college, my econometrics professor posted a similar graph following midterms. The grade distribution basically looked like three overlapping sets of normal distributions: people who did all of the problem sets, people who did some/most of the problem sets, and people who did none/few of the problem sets.

    Of course, the bastard put the data on our next problem set.

  14. I have to ask, but the homework these kids aren’t doing is the two problem assignments, right? I’d hate to see how much less they would complete if it was the tradition 15-20 problems.

  15. Why would anyone think that there is enough information here to come to any conclusions about this specific case. Why would anyone think they could extrapolate this into a general argument about homework, unless the goal is to bolster one’s preconceived ideas on the subject.

    “I agree with you completely about the “immortal weight” given to homework in the middle school. We are, in fact, changing that. Eventually, our school will give minimal points for homework and grade students on what they can actually do.”

    But you should be concerned about making that learning easier. Does practice not work at all?

    “If we are required to give homework, how do we make it meaningful?”

    Of all subjects, math is the easiest one to figure out. There are specific skills that have to be mastered. Practice is required, but the teacher and students can’t just go through the motions. You have to make sure that the practice is effective. You have to correct each homework set and go over problems in class. You have to grade the homework to make sure that kids will do the work. There needs to be a quick turn-around between when the students do the homework and when you go over issues in class.

    I used to teach algebra with 25-30 students per class with no assistant. I gave out problem sets almost every class with both odd and even problems. I went over every problem and gave out a check (plus/minus) to all work. I handed back the problems at the next class, and since I went through all the homework, I knew what areas to talk about.

    Some kids still might not do the work or do it poorly. Although grading will force the issue (say 20% of the final grade), some kids still won’t do the work. I didn’t base my teaching on those kids. Some kids might be so good or the material might be so easy that they don’t need to do the homework. I didn’t worry about them. They should crank out the homework and quit complaining. I cared mostly about the kids who needed the practice and review.

    I’ll give you an example. I teach my son algebra at home because he is a year ahead and we don’t want the rest of his schedule screwed up. We were talking about the slope-intercept form of the line:

    y = mx + b

    He had to rearrange an equation into this form and plot it. One result came out as

    y = 3 – x/2

    He got stuck on what ‘m’ was. I had taked about the different ways you can look at something like (-x/2) in the past, but he got confused when he saw it in this example. I also realized (once again) that I can’t take anything for granted. I proceeded to explain to him that (-x/2) can also be seen as:

    (-1/2) * x

    or even


    It fixed a big misunderstanding and it took very little time. Practice revealed this problem.

    You could try for doing more (all) practice in class. My sister-in-law teaches high school English and is heading this way, but it requires lowering expectations. Her complaint was not that homework didn’t work, but that many kids did not do it. She saw her change as a way of getting more learning done. I’m not impressed. This might be the best solution for her, individually, but that doesn’t mean that it’s the best teaching solution on a K-12 educational basis.

    Teachers look at problems as what walks into their classroom and they worry about what they can do there and then. I, as a parent, look at problems longitudinally, as the summation of grades, as systemic problems. While I can sympathize for a fifth-grade teacher who has to go back and teach the times table, the solution is not what can be done to achieve the most learning in that particular classroom.

    The problems of individual teachers do not necessarily define the problems of education. Better education does not come from generalizing what works best for individual teachers.

  16. How about, for next year, telling the kids that they have two choices at the start of the semester that will affect their final grade for that semester: either choose to do all the homework and have it count 25% of the grade, or don’t do any homework at all but attendance and class participation counts for 25%. I’ve seen a version of this method work at the high school level, and have always wanted to try it myself.

  17. It’s an interesting topic because grading, I believe, does impact effort and learning, likely in varying and often negative ways. It would be interesting to see a more causal chart of the classroom in which homework plays a large part in the final grade percentage. Add that in with the use of the zero for assignments that are not completed then averaged on a 59% or less is equal to failure system–then I think you’d see equally interesting data.

    Dan’s data might have a decent link to what students know & are able to do because the course grade is an attempt to be based directly on that factor.

    One much suggest that a student getting a high grade in a class could become more positive about the subject & consider himself to be “good” at the subject — this could lead to listening in class, getting more interested, even trying harder– all of which could support better learning results.
    On the other hand, what if one looked at a scatterplot of the compliance based classroom where daily work is 40% of the final grade and one time testing of a chapter is the norm. Even if this is well-done with homework returned immediately and super use of the overhead projector in demonstrating the problem solving methods, overall results of math learning systemwide are not encouraging. It might be able to further discourage the student who is “not good” at math, and doesn’t get the way the teacher is demonstrating what he or she understands so well.

    I don’t think that the no grade system works, but the grade system doesn’t either. Homework goes beyond extending practice. There’s probably more time for practice in a classroom that cuts down on the demonstrating, correcting, and housekeeping of the traditional approach.

    Great topic & super data.

  18. Dan inspired me at the beginning of the year to do this system of homework. (2 questions and let the student pick which one they do).

    At first, the homework was nightly and I saw the same things everyone is talking about. At about the 10 week mark into school, I started to assign homework as needed.

    Those needed days were days we didn’t get enough practice in (43 minute period) or when I needed to see if students could modify the material and apply it to a different style of question.

    I have at least one homework assignment a week… those are Spiral Review Quizzes. These count as quiz grades and are 5 multiple choice questions on previous material.

    I know some students will cheat and just get the answers. I have to remind myself (and I know you know as well) that no matter what I try to do, some students will refuse to do any amount of work outside of school and that will ultimately show on the in class quizzes and tests.

    I have averaged at least 1 homework assignment (not take home quiz) a week. My homework counts as 25% of the grade currently. Not sure if I will keep it that much next year.

  19. I have found success with assigning nightly homework. I grade it for participation and we go over the problems in class. Homework participation is a small percentage of their grade. I then give them a weekly homework quiz. I randomly choose 5 problems from their homework to put on their quiz. This way they really try to understand their homework when we go over it because they know that they might be quizzed on it. This method has led to great class discussions, it helps students who struggle prepare for the quiz, and it does not kill a student’s grade if they forget their homework every once in a while.