Homework with purpose, autonomy and mastery

I have done a lot of reflecting on homework since last year. Over the summer I read several books that helped me shed some light on it for my own practice. Here are just a few quotes
Who Owns the Learning? Preparing Students for Success in the Digital Age ALAN NOVEMBER
“When students are given the opportunity to have purpose and ownership in their work, we see amazing things happen with the quality of their learning experiences and outcomes.”p106

Drive, author Daniel Pink (2009)
points out that the most important predictors of high-quality work are autonomy, mastery, and purpose
Strategic Planning in America’s Schools, William Cook (1995):
“Truly educated people of the next century will not apply for a job. They will create their own” (p. 32)
With these thoughts in mind and our district homework policy I decided to try something different this year. I decided to let my students choose their own homework. I gave them suggestions for things to do and the guideline of 20 min of Math homework a night (per our policy).
My goal for this was for students to do something for homework that would improve their understanding of the content. Some of them would do 10 practice problems, some 5 and study some vocabulary, and maybe some might make a video about what they are learning. I wanted to eliminate the diversity in amount of time spent on homework. Some students can do 20 problems in 10 min. Other students could take hours on the same assignment because they don’t understand. I wanted homework to be something that each student could be successful at. The students we told to focus on what they could do without frustration and we would do the frustrating stuff together in class. I set up Edmodo for them to post what they accomplished and share it with the rest of the class. There was no grade for homework just a point system to get them privileges in class.
The results…a lot of push back. Students hated the idea of doing homework and not getting points for it. They counted on those extra points to boost their grade. The general consensus was students wanted problems assigned. They wanted points for doing those no matter how much time it took. I know that just doing problems in Math is not enough. You have to study the vocabulary, theorems and concepts. If a student only practices problems all they will be able to demonstrate is the same “types” of problems they have done. They practice enough till they memorize what the problem looks like and how to solve it. If the problem looks just a little different then the students who have no concepts and just practice are lost. I will often tell my students that it should not be an issue if I ask them to solve a problem they have never seen before.
I did not just want to give in and do what my students wanted. Just giving them practice problems seemed like I was going against all the things I had read over the summer. I even wrote Dan Pink in an email to ask him his opinion of the situation. His response was:
“So this is a tough one. Many of these students have become so conditioned to the reward-and-punishment approach that when faced with an alternative, they don’t know what to do.
A better approach, now that you’ve seen some early results, is to start smaller. Maybe do the alternative homework one day a week or one day every two weeks. And instead of points, perhaps have them report to their peers about what they did. Or change the homework so that one night, they have to answer the question: “What’s one way to improve this classroom?” Don’t give points for the answer. Instead, ask them to present their idea to their peers.
The key design principles are: (a) to start small; (b) to create a sense of accountability, not through points, but through obligations others.
I can’t promise it’ll work. But I can promise it won’t be worse than the regular regime at most schools.
Dan Pink (personal communication, October 22, 2012)
I also had a long conversation with my building principal and we decided that the students needed some type of grade for homework. They were not ready for the level of autonomy I had given them. Too much change too fast.
I decided to have my students continue doing 20 min a night but I now asked them to put all the evidence of their homework in a Friday folder (which sometimes happens on Monday ) . The evidence may be practice problems, a note from a parent for each night they studied and what they studied, or some evidence of study like terms and definitions written out. At the end of the marking period I would have them fill out a rubric rating themselves on the total amount of homework they have done, the consistency of 20 min a night, and the overall quality. In essence each student has a homework portfolio.
I would like to next year implement more of Dan’s suggestions. Starting small and working the students into more autonomy. I am convinced I was too ambitious with my original plans. I still believe having the students choose what their assignment will be is a good idea but they need to start with more structure. I also believe the piece I was missing to motivate them was the purpose piece. I knew the purpose of them doing homework but their purpose was different. They wanted homework to bolster their grades. I need to find ways to get them to buy into homework other then points as Dan suggests.
All of that being said I would recommend a homework assignment as follows:
Homework should not be graded as a nightly assignment. A homework grade should be based on a body of work that demonstrates student growth. Students should be allowed to choose some of the modes that growth is demonstrated. Homework should also involve some public piece. This could be a blog, a video, art work, twitter chat, collaboration with another classroom, presenting to their peers … At the very least it should be sent home to parents. Students should have some control over their schedule as long as their work demonstrates an average of 20 min for each weeknight. This differentiated approach will allow students to use homework to become more successful in the content.
So I have decided I am not giving homework anymore. Each student will have to do a portfolio demonstrating their work over the quarter. That body of work will be shared with their parents and peers, at the very least. With a wider audience if they choose to do so. (maybe here on this blog). In the beginning of the year I will tell them exactly what they have to put into their folders at the end of the week. As we move forward I will give them some choice in what can go into their folders and once we are well into the swing of things I might let go completely and have them choose what goes into their folders. They will also always be allowed to go back and edit what they have done in the past and put in better versions. This will get them moving towards autonomy with the purpose of presenting their portfolio and the ability to demonstrate mastery with their edits.
I know this was a long post but it is a tough idea to get through. Let me know what you think in the comment section.





  1. tracie belt said:

    Great article! I totally agree with all of your points, Tom. Another thing you might try is changing the scaffolding to your approach of giving children choices. Start the year by telling the students, you will be developing a portfolio or interactive math notebook that you think will help demonstrate your knowledge, mastery and application of math. Giving at least 4 choices (perhaps including free choice with approval) of assignments and even giving them the choice of the nights they do a work sample, video or application piece will increase their sense of ownership. I look forward to hearing your next blog on this subject.

  2. My Homework Done said:

    I read your blog and completely agree with you that students have a lot of homework and they need some help and suggestion for their school and tuition works. We provide homework help for high school, college, university, and master’s students who don’t have time to complete their homework for themselves.

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