Why do we set homeworks?
What is the point of homework? What are we trying to achieve by setting the kids homework?
Consolidation and practice of what was learnt in class? Promoting self-study skills and independent thought? Learning of new concepts?
I’d like to think we set homework for all these reasons. It is well known that getting the kids doing homework improves their attainment in maths. Colleagues I have discussed the topic of homework with have commented that they find that lagging the topic of the homework approximately one week behind when the topic was studied in class leads to better attainment. This is perhaps unsurprising as it promotes the revisiting of previous learning to secure long-term memory retention. If you haven’t seen the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve before then you really must look at it now! It doesn’t tell a good teacher anything new or surprising, but does answer the question that perpetuates through every staff room: “why can’t the kids remember what they learned last week?”. Revisiting concepts is the key to long-term memory rentention. Repetition, repetition, repetition.
We use the brilliant MyMaths software for some of our homeworks. Student voice surveys we have conducted suggest that on the whole, pupils enjoy doing the online homeworks more than conventional book-based ones. This isn’t surprising since most modern pupils feel more comfortable infront of a computer than a textbook. The big bug-bare we have as teachers about the online MyMaths homeworks is that the kids type their answers into the software and don’t have to record their workings. As teachers we are more interested in their route taken to the solution rather than the final destination itself as this shows up misconceptions in understanding.
Our pupils must never lose the skills of putting pen to paper to show workings through maths problems. I do wonder sometimes how we can combine the engaging ICT format that seems to motivate kids so well with the traditional skills learned through textbook homeworks. In short, I haven’t any perfect answers, only ideas. I’m not sure whether the ideas have value and are worth trying so would really appreciate your thoughts in the comments section below!!! Here are a couple of ideas I have been pondering on recently:
Online MyMaths homeworks with written workings
I may experiment with printing out (and photocopying) the online MyMaths homeworks for the pupils this year, getting them to stick the page in their exercise books and making them do their workings in their books before they then type the answers into MyMaths. The kids could then do self-assessment using the automatic marking MyMaths provides. The impact of this strategy on the photocopying budget might have to be investigated though!
Videos showing concepts and setting homework questions
Imagine setting your pupils a homework on adding fractions with different denominators. Imagine you send them to a Youtube video that features the following:
- Explains the learning objective (to add fractions with different denominators)
- Explains the concepts involved, emphasising on understanding rather than methodological processes.
- Worked examples of some questions.
- Presentation of questions that the pupils must complete for their homework. The kids pause the video here and do the questions.
- Answers to the questions (without workings shown so they can’t cheat and just skip to this bit).
- Encouragement of the pupils to self assess on how they did on the questions and what they have learned.
My idea is that the videos would not be like the conventional ‘how to add fractions’ videos you find online. Nearly all of them just use demonstrating and modelling as teaching strategies and rely upon the viewer to absorb what is being presented rather than engaging them in the learning of the concepts. My videos would be much more focussed on active learning techniques using strategies like “pause the video now and think about what comes next” or “pause the video and try to work out a rule for describing what we have just seen”. Getting the pupils actively thinking and engaging during the conceptual explanation stage is rarely ever done on ‘how to’ maths videos.
Academically speaking, I was a late developer and my maths understanding didn’t really blossom until I was at university. I owe a great deal to a single book, or should I say tome, called Engineering Mathematics written by K. A. Stroud. The book starts literally by teaching you how to count and ends up with you manipulating functions with complex variables! What is so special about the book is that it is set out unlike any other textbook I have ever seen. The format is based around ‘frames’ which are small nuggets of learning that build off what was covered in the previous frame. Many frames end in a question that you have to work through with the answer shown at the start of the next frame. By using this format, not only is the learning well structured, progressive and planned, it is also based on active learning techniques that requires you to engage with it at each and every stage, barely reading five sentences without you having to challenge your understanding to answer a question. I would see my videos as a visualised format of similar learning techniques used in Engineering Mathematics.
Production of the videos would take a while but I wouldn’t see each one lasting more than 10 minutes. The Jing software is an excellent resource for producing short videos which just screen capture your PC. You can just record your giving of the lesson on your interactive white board and it will produce the video for you (and upload it to Youtube if you have the Pro version). It would be an ongoing project that would mature over a period of years if it was shown to have value in improving learning.
Your thoughts please!!!
I ponder ideas like these all the time yet don’t always have the experience or confidence to choose which ones are worth thinking about further. I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas about what I’ve discussed above to get another perspective on them. If you think you can contribute something please feel free in the comments section below. Many thanks and let the discussion begin!