The Case Against Grading Homework

When homework is meaningful and contributes to their learning, students are more likely to complete it.

June 6, 2024
Daniel de la Hoz / iStock

As a middle school teacher, I sometimes spot students huddled up in the school hallway before class frantically copying homework. A teacher can stop to intervene, as I have done dozens of times, but we all know that they’ll just find a new place to copy the work away from the observant eyes of the adults at school. This is clearly academic dishonesty, and it’s easy to point the finger at the students. But what is the root cause of this dishonest behavior?

The student who is copying their homework either didn’t have time to complete it, forgot to do it, or doesn’t care to do it. They are copying the work so they can earn, most likely, a completion grade on the assignment. Students know the drill—if it looks like they did the assignment, then that’s good enough for a completion check mark in the grade book.

Is the student concerned that it’s imperative to review and practice this material in order to do well on the subsequent assessments in class? Is the student concerned that they will be found out during a rich conversation about the exercises in class? Probably not, or else the student would not resort to simply copying the work.

What are we doing as teachers to make homework worthwhile for the students beyond the typical completion grade?

3 Ways to Motivate Students to Do Ungraded Homework

1. Make assignments meaningful. Teachers and students alike know that practice is necessary to perform well. It would be hard to argue with an athletic coach that going to practice is not necessary, and instead, it’s fine to just show up to the game and wing it.

”Practice > scrimmage > game” is a helpful metaphor that the educators at Adlai Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Illinois, use to describe their school’s homework/assessment grading structure. Like team practice, homework is assigned for the purpose of practicing and reviewing—and to further the metaphor, practices are not graded, of course. Scrimmages can be compared to quizzes or other lower-stakes assessments. Lastly, the game is the culminating summative assessment such as a project or test.

Using this metaphor borrowed from athletics, it’s clear that students must practice and review to perform their best for the big game.

Beyond sharing this metaphor with your students, sometimes it takes explicit explanation from the teacher for the students to see this connection. “Tonight you are assigned 15 various conjugation exercises to help you prepare for your mock job interview project. Both partners will need to be proficient with simple past tense to conduct the interview.” If a student wants to engage appropriately in their upcoming French interview project, they will be motivated to review their ​​passé simple conjugations.

2. Feedback doesn’t have to be a grade. A sixth-grade student once told me that she completed all her math homework, but she never knew if she did it right. If I were in her math class, I would be unmotivated to do any of my homework.

Beyond providing an answer key so that students can self-check that they are on the right track with their work, teachers can also engage in meaningful feedback on homework. This might look like students randomly posting problems and their work on the board, students discussing problems in small groups, or providing time in class for students to ask about any questions they were unsure about. (Read more about how to create a mistake-friendly classroom here.)

I find that when I follow homework with a rich discussion the next day, students are more likely to complete their assignments. They know they cannot fully participate in the discussion unless they have their work with them at that moment. When homework is followed with feedback, students can close the loop on how they are performing with a concept, without having to be assigned a grade.

3. Students are still held accountable even if homework isn’t graded. Cathy Vatterott, author of Rethinking Homework, writes for the Association of Middle Level Education, “Teachers who don’t grade homework still monitor completion of assignments and communicate with parents about missing work. They just don’t count it as part of the student’s grade.” Teachers can keep a record of homework completion to inform conversations with parents and caregivers.

A teacher might share this information with a parent: “Emma struggled with simplifying fractions on her recent quiz. She was assigned two practice assignments on this topic last week, but she only brought one to class. It is important that she keep up with the daily practice to improve with this concept.”

There are several ways to keep a record of student work without assigning a grade. Laila I. McCloud, director of the MEd in Higher Education Program at Grand Valley State University, writes in the article “Keeping Receipts: Thoughts on Ungrading from a Black Woman Professor,” “I keep receipts in the following ways: having students engage in peer review of their work, providing detailed feedback, and using course engagement reflections.”

Instructional coach Tyler Rablin suggests a team-style game to get students engaged with the previous night’s homework or allow the students to use their homework (with feedback) as an aid on a future assessment. “Accountability doesn’t just have to mean an added consequence, but it can be a much more authentic and natural consequence (both positive or negative) for the homework.”

There will always be pushback from teachers, administrators, and parents who claim that students will not complete the assignment if it’s not graded. To counter this argument, there will always be students who won’t do the assignment whether it’s graded or not. When homework isn’t graded, a student’s average in the class reflects only what they know and can do in class—a more equitable reflection of a student’s progress.

With meaningful assignments and robust feedback, students may be more motivated to engage with practice and review. Reflect on ways you can shift your students’ perspective on homework. If students are regularly not completing the work you’re assigning, ask for feedback on how the assignments can become more meaningful and beneficial to their learning.

A lot of teachers are working on new approaches to homework in an attempt to guide students to focus on their learning rather than grades. If you have strategies you’ve had some success with, or if you have questions that other educators might be able to help with, please share them in the comments.

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  • Homework
  • Assessment
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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