Dr. Cathy Vatterott, the author of Rethinking Homework and Rethinking Grading provides teachers with research backed elements that increase the likelihood of investments of student time engaged in homework having a learning payoff. The connection between homework and grading is also addressed.
Connect with Cathy on Twitter: @realhomeworkldy
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Steve [Intro]: 00:00 Hello and welcome to the teacher edition of the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. For over three decades, I’ve had the opportunity to learn with teachers in and out of their classroom settings. I have a great respect for the complexity of teaching and I know that all great teachers are continuous learners. I invite you to join me as I explore my thoughts and insights on a variety of topics, connected to teaching and learning. Thanks for listening in.
Steve: 00:33 Homework and learning. Today, I’m joined by Dr. Cathy Vatterott, professor emeritus at the university of Missouri St. Louis. Cathy is a former middle school teacher and principal and the author of, “Rethinking Homework” and “Rethinking Grading,” and you can find her on a website called Homework Lady. That title just jumped out at me and made me want to have her join us to give us some thoughts as teachers looking at at that homework decision. So Cathy, welcome.
Cathy: 01:10 Thank you. Glad to be here.
Steve: 01:12 So Cathy, I’m gonna jump right in. What makes a task a valuable or good homework assignment?
Cathy: 01:23 Well, I think there are several things that we look at to try to assess that quality. And the very first thing is what is the academic purpose of the task? So a teacher should be looking at, why am I giving this assignment? Is it for pre-learning? Is it to diagnose where students are? Is it to check for understanding of something that I did today? Is it to practice? Or is it for processing? And then they’re going to make a decision about which of those is the most valuable for the content and where they are in the learning process. So for instance, you don’t want to assign practice before you’ve adequately checked for understanding. Otherwise you’re going to have kids practicing something incorrectly and then it has to be untaught. You don’t want to assign a processing task until you’re sure that the students have an adequate, firm foundation in what they’re doing.
Cathy: 02:23 So I think the purpose is the first thing. The second thing to me is, is it an efficient assignment? Is the amount of time that the students are spending is it’s what needed to get to the goal? In other words, does it need to be a 10 page paper or can a five page paper reach that goal? Do they need to do 20 problems or can five problems show you that they understand how to do the problem? But the next thing I think is that homework needs to be doable without help. A huge frustration on the part of parents is students come home and it’s something that they cannot do without help. Even the very youngest students – directions should be made clear enough that the students can do it without help. And then I think there needs to be some student ownership of the task.
Steve: 03:15 Cathy, talk a little bit more about that. What do you mean when you say ownership of the task?
Cathy: 03:21 This is something that has been shown to be so important. The more motivational research that we do, the more we find out this role of ownership. Students are eager for control and they’re very motivated when we let them control things. They’ll gladly help you design their learning if you let them. So, for instance, if the goal is to memorize your multiplication tables, why not give students the option? Why not say, “your homework tonight is to decide on your method and then bring it back and talk about your method and then see how effective your method was.” So, and we’re so used to over prescribing as teachers – one size fits all. This is my task. It’s infallible. This is how we’re going to get you to learn this material. And instead, when we give students ownership, we basically share that goal, like the example I just gave you. We give students choices and either how to learn, how to practice what they learn, or even how to show what they’ve learned. And that proves to be very motivational to kids.
Steve: 04:32 What I’m hearing there is, we’re actually helping kids learn how to learn at the same time.
Cathy: 04:40 Well, and we’re asking them to take responsibility for learning, not just complying with what we’ve told them to do. And this is huge because when students get into the university level, there is no one dictating these tasks specifically. They’re expected to learn on their own. They’re expected to do that. So it’s actually very good preparation for their future.
Steve: 05:05 Yeah. So do I learn better by by joining a study group with a couple of other kids, or do I learn better off by myself? And unless I test out those options, I’m stuck trying to figure it out.
Cathy: 05:22 Right, right. And do I do better to make a practice test for myself or do I do better to outline my notes? You know, what is the method that’s most effective for me? And we have college students that are still figuring that out because their tasks have been so tightly prescribed all through K-12 schooling, that they get into college, and then they struggle to make these decisions.
Steve: 05:49 Yeah, that’s interesting. My wife worked on a program where she had teachers talk about replacing homework with home learning and and having kids make decisions about how to use that time so that it would have the biggest payoff on their learning outcome. And when I had a chance to talk to parents about it, I suggested that that was one of the most powerful things kids could be learning starting as early as elementary school, because success at the university level cut loose on your own really is a lot about being able to make those decisions.
Cathy: 06:41 Definitely. And we’ve just, we’ve seen that once we trust kids to take control of their learning, they get actually very excited about doing it. But we just have to trust kids that they can do this.
Steve: 06:58 I’m Almost wondering – I know the schools that have a requirement for teachers to assign homework. And as I was listening to you say, trusting kids, I’m almost wondering if we’ve got to start by trusting teachers in that making a decision about an appropriate assignment or non assignment for kids is an important decision for a teacher to make, rather than a school guideline that requires the teacher to be making a homework assignment.
Cathy: 07:36 Yes, exactly. Because what happens when we do that is that teachers then are forced into into creating a task. When in fact, if philosophically, they believe that that is not necessary or that they believe they want that learning to happen in the classroom, then yeah, I think that we definitely need to trust teachers to make those decisions about what is the most appropriate task, or is a task needed and what task is needed.
Steve: 08:09 The other question I’m having then is, where does homework being graded count? And I know that I worked with middle schools that went to a standards based approach and in their standards based approach, homework didn’t get graded and when homework didn’t get graded homework, didn’t get done because the kids saw the reward of a good grade or the punishment of a bad grade as the reason for doing the homework.
Cathy: 08:50 Yeah. And that’s really interesting. We’ve sort of gotten students addicted to the grades, to the point. I have a great line from a friend who said, “I’ve never heard a kindergarten ask, ‘how many points is this worth?'”
Steve: 09:06 [laughter].
Cathy: 09:06 Yeah, exactly. It’s like, wait a minute. Where did we go wrong? And so, we’ve gotten kids sort of addicted to that and then we wonder why they’re focusing on the grade and not on the learning. And what we’ve found is that when we – it’s that it’s not the grade that is important in terms of homework, it’s the feedback. So it should definitely be assessed and given feedback, but it doesn’t always have to count in the grade. So to me, what we’re doing, if we don’t grade homework, if we don’t count it in the grade, to me, what we’re doing is we’re asking kids to delay gratification.
Cathy: 09:49 We’re saying that you’re doing this because you want to do well on the assessment that’s coming up. And when students start seeing that, a couple of things happen. They dosome stumbling in the beginning when they say, “oh, I don’t need to do this,” and then they bomb the test. And so, that’s the first part of this. But then the second part of it is that some students find out that they don’t need to do the homework in order to do well on the test. And to me, that’s okay. That the purpose of doing this is, is for you to be able to learn and the demonstration of the learning comes in the in-class assessment.
Steve: 10:39 Yeah. Powerful. Powerful.
Cathy: 10:39 If I could say one more thing about that –
Steve: 10:41 Go ahead.
Cathy: 10:41 About counting homework in the grade. One of the problems that comes up with that is that it causes a lot of stress, it causes parents to overhelp and sometimes it even causes cheating. And my line is that even the honorable student will cheat when overwhelmed. And so I think we want to be very careful about, if we are putting that into the grade, how heavily is it weighted.
Steve: 11:13 As I’ve been listening to you her the last few moments, it’s really dawning on me that perhaps an important strategy for the teacher is getting the kids to give the teacher feedback as to how homework is impacting them. I know that during the quarantine, teachers became empathetic in understanding the conditions that some students were dealing with. And I tried to communicate to people that when the pandemic’s over and the quarentine’s done, a lot of those conditions are still around.
Cathy: 11:54 Most definitely. And that has emerged as a huge concern. It was already there. I was already talking about it years ago, about equity, but all this it’s become glaringly obvious now – the conditions that some students have to work with. And I think that is, that is a huge concern that will not leave us. And at least the light has been shown on this during the course of the pandemic that we have some huge equity issues
in terms of home learning.
Steve: 12:34 Well, Cathy, thank you. I’m wondering if you’d tell the listeners a little bit about your your website and what resources teachers might be able to to find there?
Cathy: 12:45 Yeah, so the website is just homeworklady.com. And I have articles I’ve written there, I have sort of handouts from presentations. One of the most beneficial things that is there are surveys for parents, teachers, and students that they can use to get that feedback from students and parents about how much homework is being assigned, how effective they believe it is. So there’s quite a bit of information on there that I think they will find helpful.
Steve: 13:22 Yeah. Those surveys really sound helpful. Well Cathy, thank you so much for joining us.
Cathy: 13:28 Thank you. Glad to be here.
Steve [Outro]: 13:31 Thanks again for listening. You can subscribe to Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud on iTunes and Podbean and please remember to rate and review us on iTunes. I also want to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on twitter @stevebarkley or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.