Homework, exams, grades: are any of them connected to learning?

The comments on post about final exams seem to be bringing out related questions about all the stuff that happens (or doesn't) in a course before the final exam. They're important questions that deserve their own post.

What's the point of homework assignments?

  • To give you practice solving problems or grappling with texts on your own?
  • To push you to extend your proficiency (say, by working out how to solve problems that are interestingly different than the ones you've seen solved in class)?
  • To shift part of the pool of points that will determine your grade onto an activity where you have relatively more control over how you do (because you can spend more time on it if you need to, choose the time of day when you're in the best state to do it well, etc.)?
  • To give you (the student) feedback about how well you understand the material you're learning?
  • To give the teacher feedback about how well you understand the material you're learning (which could be used to adjust instruction accordingly)?
  • To develop competencies that aren't easily developed in lectures or exams (say, doing research, or revising an essay through multiple drafts)?
  • To kill trees?*

What's the point of exams, final or otherwise?

  • To show the knowledge you've absorbed (not just what you can find in the books in your notes, given enough time)?
  • To demonstrate an understanding of how different discrete bits of information fit together (the "big picture")?
  • To get feedback on what you've learned in a setting where your performance is more likely to be individual, rather than collaborative?**
  • To develop competencies that are harder to develop with homework assignments (e.g., in a few sentences and in your own words, explain concept X)?
  • To give those who struggled with the homework assignments another chance to demonstrate that they (finally) understand the material?
  • To discourage students from skipping out of and/or sleeping through class meetings?
  • To get you ready for standardized tests of one sort or another that exist for some other purpose (e.g., NCLB, college admission or placement, etc.)?
  • As hazing (I had to take exams, now it's your turn!)?

What's the point of grades, final or otherwise?***

  • To give you feedback on what you have understood and what you still need to work on?
  • To give your instructor feedback on what you (and your classmates) have understood and what you still need to work on?
  • To quantify your mastery of the course material?
  • To rank your performance relative to that of your classmates?
  • To reward your effort?
  • To give someone else (the teacher at the next level, admissions committee, potential employer, etc.) a number or letter that embodies your worth?
  • To encourage students to actually try to learn the course materials and demonstrate mastery of the skills upon which they're being evaluated?
  • To make sure instructors always have something they should be grading?

I'm guessing that students, instructors, and others (like parents or admissions committees) have pretty different views on all of these -- and that there's even a good bit of variation in views among students or instructors.

What I think is really important, and often overlooked, is that if you don't have a clear view of what you want homework, exams, and grades to do when you're planning and teaching your course, there's a good chance they won't do much to support the learning. Like most tools, just waving them around accomplishes very little (beyond maybe terrifying the folks you're waving them at).

So, if the pedagogical goal is to help students master a certain body of knowledge and set of skills connected to applying that knowledge, what ought homework, exams, and grades do? And how much does the initial attitude of the student (eager and engaged versus resistant) affect the approach you think is most likely to achieve the goal?

*I'm only halfway kidding about killing trees as a practical effect of lots of homework. As yesterday was my kids' last day of school for the year, they brought home what looked to be reams of old homework assignments. Sure, we have curbside recycling, but I'm to the point of proposing a return to wax tablets.

**Barring cheating, of course. I'm inclined to think it takes a different kind of commitment to try to get away with cheating with the instructor right there in the room than is required to lean kind of heavily on a study-buddy for your answers on the homework.

***See also the earlier discussion on what grades should communicate.

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I had a high school math teacher who I thought had a good system for homework vs. tests. For each unit there would be nightly homework assignments, a few problems at a time, turned in on test day. This homework, if you did all of it (regardless of whether you got it right) was good for 10 points on your test score. Without doing homework, the best you could get was a 90, which was still an A. So if you knew the material perfectly, you didn't have to do any homework to get a top grade. If you needed the extra review, the homework could help you bring a grade up by showing that you were at least putting in the maximum effort.

He also gave 2 or 3 extra credit points for having perfect class attendance between tests. And students competed to get the top 10 best grades in the class (out of the combined three or four different classes he taught in that subject), because he'd write the top 10 scores on the whiteboard, giving the students with the best grades fun nicknames and calling them that in class. It being a statistics class, he'd also put a graph of our grades up on the board.

I once knew someone whose job was like an exam.
He was a senior advisor to the Premier (akin to a state Governor in the US). The Premier would say "I have to give a speech in Parliament in two hours on the topic of X", and he would have to write it.
Two hours to write a fact-filled essay. That's exam material.

By Pseudonym (not verified) on 15 Jun 2007 #permalink

One of the purposes of homework is to force the students to actually think about the material in the class.

There are other ways; I've used "active learning" techniques, which make lectures more useful than they would have been otherwise.

The first time I taught introductory astronomy for non-majors, I only had a handful of homework assignments during the year. The result was that students only thought about the class about every other week (if there was homework or a test). I went to more frequent, shorter homework assignments.

Many students have the idea that the way to "do" a class is to sit in lecture and write down information, and then to put out a huge effort right before a test cramming to be ready for it. I prefer the model of always thinking about it, so that when the test comes around you don't have to do a huge amount of extra effort to be ready for it. "Active learning" techniques that make lectures more than just a transcription exercise help achieve this end, but so do regular small homework assignments designed not just as drudgery, but to challenge the students to think about the material.


Excellent post - thank you.

I agree about the killing trees aspect of it -- my daughter got a chalk slate and a pencil last year, and we try to use that as much as possible instead of scratch paper.

By PennyBright (not verified) on 16 Jun 2007 #permalink

I could give you the "right" answers from a parent/educator's pov, but we know those answers so I'll give you my charming 16yo's response instead.

We were chatting about his upcoming finals (biology, english, and french). He has taken the time to calculate his grade average in each class in order to figure out what grade he needs to get on the final to either maintain his A or A+ status.

"Gee, mom. I only need to get a 60 on my biology exam and I keep my A"

"Not exactly reassuring words for a mom to hear." I replied "You could study harder, set your sights a little higher. Maybe try to actually retain some of your education?"

"Oh, mom. I didn't go to high school for an education. I'm here for the socializing. If I wanted to learn something I'd have skipped high school altogether and gone straight to college."

Best I can figure, he views homework/exams/grades as part of a system. If the system interests or engages him ( i.e. green design/engineering/physics) he pays no attention to the external measures and does well because he enjoys the material. Otherwise, he figures out the minimum he has to do to satisfy external requirements with a minimum of effort.

I don't know whether to call this responsible pragmatism or heartless cynicism but he does get good grades and teacher reviews and his friends are wonderful.

(BTW, he got a 97 on his bio exam).

The purpose of homework in the analytical classes is to learn how to do work. You learn the concepts behind math, physics and physical chemistry, and computer programming in class- but you don't actually know how to DO any of those things until you do the homework. They're preperation for doing well in a class. For classes that instead require writing, usually writing is part of or in lieu of exams.

A grade is something that other people can use to judge whatever grades measure. No, it doesn't measure your WORTH as implied by that snarky option, but we live in a world too large for people to take the time out to evaluate your intelligence and capabilities independantly. Grades are just shorthand- you can argue that they're BAD shorthand, but they're better than nothing.

School for me was nothing but a grinding endurance test. Homework was an invasion of school into time that otherwise would have been a respite from school. Only in my 30's was I diagnosed dyslexic.

I have always been able to teach myself whatever I needed to know. One thing I now understand is that what works for some students, or for most, may be torture for a few. It seems criminal to me that we only work 7 or 8 hours, but we expect children to do more, on the vague and abstract promise that it will stand them in good stead for a job they may hold someday.

A special education administrator I met recently told me; "A certain percentage of students will manage to learn, whatever we do. We shouldn't let that lull us into a reassuring sense that what we are doing is the best way to teach them."