George Lucas Educational Foundation
Homework

Assigning More Meaningful Math Homework

A small set of problems or even one substantial problem can be enough to supplement classroom instruction.

November 29, 2023
Tashi-Delek / iStock

As a math teacher of more than 23 years, I have had the habit, almost like a muscle memory repetition, of assigning daily math homework for my middle school students. It wasn’t until recently that I paused to reflect, “Why am I assigning this?” The easy answer is, “My students need to practice to develop their skills.”

If I dig a bit deeper into the “why,” I wonder, “Are all of my students benefiting from this assignment? Did I assign an appropriate amount and level of problems? What resources do my students have or not have to be successful with this assignment? Is the assignment meaningful or busywork?”

Consider the following suggestions for making math homework more meaningful.

3 Ways to Create More Meaningful Math Homework

1. Think quality over quantity. The National Council for Teachers of Mathematics Homework page of tips for teachers suggests, “Only assign what’s necessary to augment instruction. If you can get sufficient information by assigning only five problems, then don’t assign fifty.”

Worksheets and problem sets from textbook publishers might contain dozens of problems that repeat the same concepts. It is OK to assign part of a page, such as “p. 34 #s 3, 5, and 17.” I tell my middle school students, “I handpicked these particular problems because they capture the objective of today’s lesson.” When students know that their teacher carefully “handpicked” a problem set, they might pay more attention to the condensed assignment because it was tailored for them.

Even one problem can be sufficient. Robert Kaplinsky, cofounder of Open Middle, routinely shares on X (formerly Twitter) single problems that are really engaging and give students a good chance to practice skills.

The depth and exploration that can come from one single problem can be richer than 20 routine problems. You might be surprised by how much depth can be inspired by a single problem.

2. Consider choice and variety. It’s unrealistic to create a personalized daily homework assignment for each student in your class. Student voice and choice can be applied to your preexisting assignments without your having to re-create the homework wheel.

Traditional assignments can be modified by offering students choice. This might look like “Choose any five of these problems,” or take this tip from educator Peter Liljedahl and designate problems as “mild, medium, or spicy” and let students pick their level for that assignment.

Offering homework level choice also promotes a culture of growth mindset through messaging like “You might choose mild problems for this lesson; however, tomorrow you might feel you’re ready for a medium level.” Level choice can vary day to day—your math level is not fixed.

Daily homework can also be spiced up by offering a variety of types of assignments. Consider assigning problems that go beyond providing a single number answer. Here are a few examples to get students thinking beyond just getting a particular problem right:

• When simplifying (4 + 5) x 5 - 3, what is the first step?
• When simplifying (4 + 5) x 5 - 3, Ali got the answer 18. What advice do you have for her?
• Write your own order of operations problem with a solution of 42.

Check out these websites for even more creative ways to vary homework:

3. Remember, accountability doesn’t have to result in a grade. There is a major difference between assigning homework for a grade and assigning homework purely for practice. When a grade is the result of an assignment, the stakes get higher for the student.

In the February 2023 Washington Post article “A deep dive into whether—and how—homework should be graded,“ former teacher Rick Wormeli wrote, “When early attempts at mastery are not used against them, and accountability comes in the form of actually learning content, adolescents flourish.” If homework is truly for practice, this is an opportunity for students to make mistakes and take risks without the fear of a penalty.

Even if homework is graded as a completion grade, there are considerations of equity and meaningfulness of the practice.

Consider the following questions when deciding to give a completion grade for a homework assignment: Do all students have a home environment that is supportive of homework? Do some students have additional support, such as tutors or parents, to help them get the homework completed? Would students copy homework assignments from each other just to earn the completion grade?

If not grades, then how do we hold students accountable for practicing outside of class?

Student presentations and discussions are a way to check for understanding of an assignment and to let students know you expect them to attempt the problems. This might look like a debate in which students take sides on how to approach a problem. Alternatively, students could post their work on the board to share their strategies with the class or discuss their solutions in small groups. Communicating their mathematical thinking deepens their understanding.

Education consultants Ashley Marlow and Katie Novak write in their Edutopia article “Making Math Accessible for All Students” (July 2022), “When students have opportunities to think, reason, explain, and model their thinking, they are more readily able to develop a deep understanding of mathematics beyond rote memorization. The goal is for all students to experience success in higher learning of mathematics—requiring those reasoning and sense-making skills and increasing engagement.”

The next time you’re planning your lessons and assignments, pause and reflect on the meaningfulness of the homework assignment. Could it be shorter but more in-depth? Can students have a choice in their work? Will students find value in doing the work even if it is not for a grade? You might find that students take more ownership and care in their homework if it’s more meaningful to them.