George Lucas Educational Foundation
Critical Thinking

What Would Happen If Students Assigned Their Own Math Homework?

Instead of a set of 20 questions, use this framework to have your students create their own homework based on their needs and interests.
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Is homework worthwhile? Does doing it make a difference in learning? These questions are the source of much debate nowadays. Some may say homework is good practice, and practice makes perfect. Others insist homework is unproductive and pointless.

What benefit is there in doing 20 of the same type of math problem? If students didn’t understand the lesson from the day, not understanding 20 problems may make them feel that math is inaccessible. This is how children begin to struggle in math and decide it’s not for them. And if they did understand the lesson, repeating similar problems is pointless. Worse still, students begin to believe math is boring, irrelevant, a set of mundane rules, and maybe even a waste of time.

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What if homework could be a means for promoting self-efficacy, agency, and motivation to learn? Teaching students to actively pursue knowledge and see it as valuable is critical to their success both in and out of school.

In this light, the following option for math homework was born.

The “What I May Need… What I Loved…” Math Investigation

The “What I May Need…What I Loved…” math investigation below was crafted out of a desire to teach students that learning requires a personal commitment, in class and at home. Because knowledge is not static, it is vital for learners to be able to pinpoint how and when understanding happens for them and when it doesn’t. Students need to be shown how to self-reflect and identify points of clarity or moments of confusion. Then, if something doesn’t click during the math lesson and questions remain, students are given support and options for further self-study. And recognizing when something sparks an interest and using that to fuel a passion is how learning thrives.

What I May Need... What I Loved...
PDF of a homework assignment created by the author
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In this assignment, students choose to focus on either an area they didn’t fully understand or something they found interesting or engaging. The important part here is not the doing of the homework. The magic of this assignment is that students are the driving force behind the decisions. They get to practice self-motivation, preparation, and persistence by making daily decisions on their own behalf. To top it off, the focus is on evaluating personal learning and growth. What better way for students to discover their identities as capable mathematicians than to be in control of monitoring their progress and investigations?

When introducing this, you may want to have students to do a test run in class, trying several options, reflecting on them, and sharing thoughts in small groups. Create an anchor chart of helpful hints for getting the most out of this homework option and display it near the Standards for Mathematical Practice. Ask students what connections they notice. There is a strong correlation between the SMPs and good habits of mind for learning. Provide time for students to discover their part in becoming persistent as mathematicians. Persistence takes action.

Making This Homework Option Work

1. Begin transferring responsibility for learning from teacher to students: If teachers want students to recognize what they need or love in a math lesson, students must first see learning as important. Learning takes action. This truth is foundational for promoting agency, self-efficacy, and growth mindset in students.

No paradigm shift will work without some personal investment. Before rolling this out, teachers need to set the stage so students trust that investing in it is worth it. Where do teachers begin? Here are two simple but powerful ways for creating an environment where students feel empowered as learners:

  • Infuse questions throughout the math lesson that encourage reflection and allow moments of pause as students identify points of learning. Recognizing clarity and confusion are pivotal to learning. When a student knows what understanding looks like and feels like, they are better equipped to repeat it.
  • Provide questions or sentence stems that facilitate self-monitoring by slowing down the learning process in real time long enough for students self-reflect, track progress, and devise a plan that stimulates further growth.

2. Get parents on board: Buy-in from parents is critical to this idea working. Otherwise, it could turn into just another menu or tic-tac-toe board where students choose what they’d like to do each evening to show mastery, which can sometimes result in more rote learning. Again, it is not in the doing that makes “What I May Need… What I Loved…” so valuable to student growth. It is the idea that students self-monitor their learning needs and then do something about what they discover that makes this idea so transformative.

Sharing research on growth mindset with parents is always a great starting point. Parents need to know that perseverance and hard work determine success. Jo Boaler offers a plethora of resources that reinforce the idea that anyone can succeed in math with confidence, effort, and determination.