You’ve probably heard of the song by The Notorious B.I.G., “Mo Problems, Mo Money.” It’s an a cappella choral piece that poetically shares the scientific evidence which backs the claim that the amount of math homework students do per day has a direct impact on the students’ salaries over their lifetimes.
If you haven’t heard the song, that’s because it doesn’t exist, and neither does the research.
What does exist is research that shows traditional math homework (a certain number of problems assigned nightly, after a lesson, and about that lesson, which is checked the next day for credit and may be reviewed at the start of class) has little to no significant impact on student achievement.
Math homework does, however, correlate strongly to student and family stress, math anxiety, higher incidents of cheating (copying for completion), and long-term dislike of mathematics as a subject.
“But if they’re not doing homework, when will our students practice math skills? Aren’t they supposed to master certain concepts and skills? I just don’t have time in class to teach AND let them do practice problems.”
You may have heard these statements, and maybe you’ve even said them yourself. It is time for math teachers to rethink the traditional approach to homework.
In Hacking Mathematics, teacher, author, and math consultant Denis Sheeran shows you how to hack your instructional approach and assessment procedures, in order to promote an amazing culture of mathematical inquiry and engagement that very few students ever see.
In baseball, a Double Switch is when the starting pitcher is taken out of the game and the relief pitcher comes in, but instead of being placed in the batting order where the previous pitcher was, the manager moves a current outfielder into the open place in the lineup so that he can bat sooner, and the new pitcher won’t have to hit for a while.
It’s a substitution strategy that gets the most potential result from the switch. That is exactly the purpose of the Double Switch for homework. There are two moves to make:
1. Take the starting pitcher (homework on today’s lesson) out of the lineup and move the relief pitcher in (Lagging Homework), but wait to use him for a bit.
2. In the meantime, bring in someone more valuable (In-Class Practice) to get the best result.
In short, make In-Class Practice a major part of your class time. This isn’t as much a hack as it is a procedure and classroom culture shift. When students practice a sport, the coach is there to give feedback. When they practice math, be there to give feedback. Take back the homework review time from the start of class and move it to after a lesson.
Step 1: Find a clean break to shift homework review time in your class to active practice time.
You’ve got to create a shifted window for Lagging Homework to take effect. If you’re just starting a school year, it’s a bit easier since you can create this culture from the beginning. If not, you may have a unit coming to an end that can become a breakpoint to introduce the new structure to your students.
Step 2: Communicate the In-Class Practice and Lagging Homework idea to your students, their parents, and your administration.
At first, some students and others will be confused by the idea of Lagging Homework. Clearly communicate the value of the process.
Outline for them that giving students more time to understand a concept increases their ability to successfully complete the homework and that, since more time will be given to the learning process—fewer homework problems will be required for mastery completion.
Explain how Lagging Homework gives you the freedom to extend lessons over multiple class periods when necessary, and extends the exposure to a topic over multiple weeks, thereby increasing student time with the concept even further.
Step 3: Keep homework short and accessible.
You’ll be off to a great start if the first assignments you give truly model that you are not punishing slower learners with a lot of homework. Look back about a week and see what you taught.
Choose a few problems that represent that topic well and assign them as homework this week. It doesn’t even matter if the topic is directly related to this week’s learning. In fact, it may be better if it isn’t; then the assignment will serve the purpose of keeping a recent, but somewhat forgotten concept, fresh in your students’ memories.
It’s the In-Class Practice component that you’re using to develop the new skill, not the homework.
Step 4: Create a schedule map to follow for focus.
Implementing these changes doesn’t need to create confusion for you or your students, so create a plan for homework that you and your students can understand and predict.
After one week of teaching, begin assigning homework on that material at the start of the second week. Put a three- or four-week chart up on the board that labels the progression: clarifying which week you’re teaching now, and which week or topic the homework is on.
You may also want to include assessments and reassessments in the table so that students know the full scope of your instructional cycle.
Step 5: Change your assessment schedule to include Lagging Homework and revisions
Your assessment schedule is bound to change if you implement Lagging Homework. You can no longer give students a summative assessment on a math topic right at the end of the topic if they’re just beginning their homework on that topic.
The week of Lagging Homework will help you identify your students’ remaining weaknesses and misconceptions, which you can then address through instruction or supplementary materials. Assessment must now follow that period of time.
What can the Double Switch bring to your classroom and to your students?
More time, increased content exposure, reduced stress, greater communication, and appreciation for the work being done alongside feedback, coaching, and support.
If homework is a regular struggle in your classroom because students either have difficulty finding the motivation to do it, or because you’re spending too much time going over it in class each day, then both of these issues can be alleviated by adding practice time in class, lagging your homework, and truly focusing on your students' learning and mastery of math.