Math Teachers: Avoid the Homework Doom Loop

Math teachers, I have a warning for you. (Cue ominous music.) There’s a trap that’s lurking around the corner—one that many of us fall into at some point. (Cue increasingly ominous music.) And once you’re in, it’s hard to escape. It’s called…the Homework Doom Loop. (Cue anguished scream: “Nooooooo!”)

Let’s watch (in horror) as a teacher gets sucked in…

Mrs. Nelson has a fantastic math class planned. After a brief mini lesson, students will move around the room engaging in fun and challenging math puzzles. Students enter class, homework in hand. Several clearly struggled, so she announces, “Let’s go over the homework together.” First, Mrs. Nelson runs through the answers, and students quickly mark them as right or wrong. Next she asks, “Who wants to go over one they struggled with?” Emily raises her hand: “I didn’t get number 3.” A few students (ones who understood the work) quietly groan—they’re ready to move on. Mrs. Nelson, in a vain attempt to keep students’ attention asks, “Who can explain how they solved that one?” A classmate bumbles through a half-coherent explanation. Emily wrinkles her nose and sighs, “I think I get it.”

The next half-hour continues like this…with a few students struggling to understand what they got wrong. Mrs. Nelson explains some and a few other students (who only half-understood it themselves) explain others. Most of the class half-listens, texting under their desks or staring out the window.

With just a few minutes before the end of class, Mrs. Nelson frantically teaches the next concept, throwing the interactive lesson out the window. (“We’ll do it tomorrow,” she lies to herself.) Students nod as she explains the new concept, appearing more competent than they are. Mrs. Nelson assigns the homework and students rush out of class snapping pictures of the assignment on the board as they go.

The next day, students return, more confused and upset than before. Since yesterday’s lesson was short and students couldn’t practice the new concept before they left, they were not ready for the homework. While some had parents or others on hand to help, many didn’t and floundered. (Some didn’t do the homework at all and are now about to fall further behind.) Students now need more help, and this class period disappears trying to correct and fix homework. Again, there’s no time to teach a real lesson, so the teacher explains the new content quickly and students rush out of class, once again primed to fail at the night’s homework.

The loop continues like this, and before long, Mrs. Nelson isn’t even preparing fun activities or lessons. She’s simply planning on spending most of class going over homework challenges and then explaining the next homework assignment.

A Fundamental Problem with Homework: The Doom Loop Explained

New learning requires time and productive practice. Whether someone is learning to play the violin, learning to swim, or learning differential equations, they need clear instruction and lots of time and practice with a good coach to improve. Consider how ridiculous it would be for a dance instructor to teach a new technique and then have students practice the skill on their own, away from the instructor. Missteps and stumbles should be expected when learning new dance steps, and under the watchful eye of a skilled teacher, dancers will be able to get back on track and engage in productive practice quickly. The same is true for math. If students are engaged in new learning, where stumbles and missteps should be expected, they will need guidance and coaching to get on the right track. Only once a student is clearly proficient with the new technique would it make sense for additional practice—reinforcement and consolidation of the solidifying skill—to happen away from the teacher.

And that is why the Homework Doom Loop is so deadly for students. Instead of the majority of the practice of newly acquired skills happening in school, with the coaching and support of teachers and peers, most of the practice is spent at home, where there is no support and when students are exhausted from a long day at school. They spend their practice time in the wrong place, at the wrong time of day, and without the right people.

Escaping the Homework Doom Loop

So, how do teachers avoid this Homework Doom Loop, where practice happens in the wrong place and class time is spent focusing on poorly practiced work? There’s one surefire guaranteed solution:

Stop giving homework. This is the surest way to not fall into this common poor teaching practice. Keep the work in class, where you can coach students and help them practice well. So much research has been done on homework—and the results are murky at best, even in upper grades. It is clearly not a high-impact teaching strategy, so it’s one we should consider ditching all together.

If you continue to give homework, here are some other ideas to help avoid the Homework Doom Loop:

Keep Homework Light and Easy. Be careful not confuse volume with rigor! A few practice problems are better than 25. Keep it brief and manageable.

Have Students Choose Just-Right Practice. One way to differentiate homework is to have students self-select problems that are at the right challenge level. Instead of having students complete all of the problems (or all of the evens or odds), have students practice for 10-15 minutes, choosing ones they can complete independently. (To learn how to teach students how to choose just-right work, check out Learning to Choose, Choosing to Learn: The Key to Student Motivation and Achievement.)

Don’t Correct Homework in Class. And don’t spend tons of time correcting it yourself! If the homework is simply practice, treat it as such. Use it as a formative assessment. For example, before students turn it in, have them circle one problem that they think went really well and star one that was really hard. Glance at these to get a sense of what to teach (or reteach) next. This will free up class time for effective instruction and meaningful practice and coaching.

Give Students Your Phone Number and/or Email. If students need help on their homework, you’re the one who assigned it, so you’re the one who should help! I have used this strategy with my students, and it’s fantastic. Students never abused this privilege, and parents didn’t have to engage in power struggles about homework. And if I assigned work that was too hard, I knew right away. (If you don’t like this idea because you feel that your home time should be free from schoolwork–so you can relax and rest up for a great next day at school–consider offering the same opportunity to your students by not assigning homework in the first place.)

A Final Thought

There’s one especially dire consequence of the Homework Doom Loop that should be emphasized. For too many students, high levels of frustration around math homework lead to feelings of inadequacy and incompetence about math in general. I have heard my own children explode in anguish: “I don’t get this! I’m so stupid!” as they’ve struggled with math homework. This is hardly an emotional state that prepares students to have the open mind and confidence needed to tackle challenging math work. So, stop giving math homework all together. Or, at least greatly reduce it. Coach students as they work in school. They will be more successful as mathematicians and will be more likely to truly enjoy math as well!

  • Mike Anderson
    Mike Anderson is an education consultant, award-winning teacher, and author of many books including What We Say and How We Say It MatterThe Well-Balanced Teacher, The First Six Weeks of School, The Research-Ready Classroom, and Learning to Choose, Choosing to Learn. Learn more about Mike and his work or invite him to work with your school or district through his website: Connect with Mike on Twitter: @balancedteacher.

  • 1 Comment
    1. Well that is refreshing to read from a teacher.

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    Mike Anderson
    Leading Great Learning
    Durham, NH
    Phone: +1 413.658.7907

    Leading Great Learning

    Mike Anderson is an energetic, experienced, and highly sought-after educational consultant who helps facilitate great learning in schools all over the United States and beyond. He has over twenty years of experience as a teacher, consultant, presenter, and developer and has authored many books and articles about great teaching and learning.