Note: This is the seventh post in a series based on the book Never Work Harder Than Your Students & Other Principles of Great Teaching by Robyn Jackson.

A colleague of mine used to take home 75+ math assignments every night to be graded. She would hand them back the next day with check marks and a score, all written in red. I grinned each day as she walked out my door for the evening after our almost daily conversation about how the day had gone in our respective classrooms. She would often end the conversation with comments like, "Wow, I only have one section of papers to check tonight!" or "Looks like I'll be grading papers while watching a movie tonight." The return on her efforts, she often lamented was rarely worth it based on the glances the students gave their graded papers. I don't think she would be upset at me for sharing this story, because she is now realizing that she has been doing more work than her students. The sheer number of problems she was assigning each evening became a numbers game - how many must they attempt and/or answer correctly to get "full credit."

Robyn Jackson says,

"Master teachers invest their time up front...They spend more time designing quality assignments and assessment than they do creating volumes of work for their students and themselves." (p. 156)
In my earlier years, I remember asking my mentor how many homework problems were reasonable to assign each day. We agreed that 10-12 seemed about right. I felt guilty the night I assigned one hundred (yes, 100!) problems to my Consumer Math students as a "discipline measure. " Nobody completed all one hundred problems, not even the hardest working students. I learned a lot from that day and the subsequent days when the majority of my students did not turn in completed homework assignments. Assigning more problems did not make my class more rigorous or challenging. The attitudes of my students towards homework - and "math" in general, I'm guessing - only decreased as I assigned more problems.

Jackson also suggests what now seems like a no-brainer. Homework needs to have a purpose and that purpose should be clearly communicated to students. This is a great reminder. As I started sifting through the first chapter of Geometry to get my brain back in "math mode," I tried to remember what the overarching theme of the chapter is supposed to be. The theme is the basics of Geometry. It seems so disconnected at times. I'll need to not only share that "the purpose of us going through all of these seemingly disconnected ideas now is to help us later" but also reiterate this time and time again when the practice problems (formerly known as "homework") are assigned.

Today, I started acting on one of the principles I previously blogged about, "Know where your students are going" by looking at the first chapter to eventually see if it matches my assessments. I think I'm going to practice what Jackson calls "curriculum flexibility" - sorting out the "need-to-know" vs. the "nice-to-know." This will also help me better decide which problems to assign and how many to assign that correspond with each learning target. To clearly communciate the purpose of the assignment, I will need to articulate how the problems match up with the specific learning targets. From the perspective of my colleage, the more problems assigned, the more that will need to be graded. I think I have an alternative approach on "grading homework," but I'll save that for another post. :)

What successes have you found when trying to focus on "quality rather than quantity" in your classroom? Feel free to share in the comments section below.

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