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Homework and the Quest for Metacognition


Homework and the Quest for Metacognition


All too often, students work for the wrong reasons, and are therefore ineffective at learning.  When they are going through the motions of completing homework, for instance, it is often because they are working to improve their grade or because the teacher told them to do it.  Learning can be a tangential benefit of such work, but it is not the driving force.

On the other hand, when students work out of an intrinsic desire to create, to learn, and to master new ideas and skills, the learning that results is deeper and more meaningful. Their work must therefore be structured to cultivate that internalized motivation.

For example, when a student does her work to prepare for a conversation with other students —rather than to earn more points — she is much more likely to pay attention to what she is and isn’t learning through that work.  In other words, the work she is doing helps train her to be a more metacognitive learner.  

Creating structures for her to self-evaluate the work she is doing can also help her practice being a more metacognitive learner.  By internalizing what excellent work and true mastery look like, she becomes less dependent on external motivators such as grades issued by a teacher.

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Something New

Something New


“Consider the topic we started working on yesterday.”

I’m referring to the beginning of a unit on inertia.  I start the class by dramatically pulling a tablecloth out from under a china place setting, complete with a wine glass filled with water and a lit candle.  It’s a classic Physics demonstration, and I play it up, getting right to the point of pulling the cloth only to stop and talk about what they should watch for or how they shouldn’t try this at home.  By the time I actually do the trick, they are all ready - it always gets their full attention.  

Once the big moment arrives, assuming I’m not picking up broken china on the floor, I give them a moment to talk about why they think the trick worked.  Without answering any questions as a whole group, I have the students spread out throughout the room and work on a station lab.  This is a set of open-ended activities to explore the physical meaning of inertia:  they crash carts with dolls strapped in with rubber bands and again when they are unstrapped to help them think about the Physics of seat belts;  they create collisions of heavy carts with lighter ones; they watch a video of a car crashing into a brick wall and the way the crash-test dummy moves with and without a seat belt; they used carts and blocks of wood to simulate a car being rear-ended by another car and the effect of inertia on the head of a passenger undergoing whiplash.  (By the way, it’s not what you think it is.   Technically, when a car is hit from behind, the head does not snap backward, as most people think.  Rather, it stays where it is — an object at rest stays at rest — while the body is pushed forward by the seat, leaving the head behind until the neck pulls it forward.)  

When we get around to talking about this lab, I remind my students that the neck was not designed to pull the head in this way, so it’s better to have a headrest do it instead.  As they are working, I wander around paying attention to their conversations and asking them occasional questions to focus their attention on the more subtle issues at hand.  They finished the activities earlier this morning, which brings us back to this conversation.

“By now, you all probably have a sense of what inertia is, but there’s still some work to do to understand it deeply.  So tonight, you’re going to do your first homework assignment in this class.  You’ll read the four sections of the book that I’ve listed on the board.  They are about topics you have been exploring in the station lab.  I’d like you to read the four sections and take notes on what you are reading.”

Several students are visibly unhappy.  One lets out an audible groan.  

“Do we really have to take notes?”Mark asks.  “I really don’t learn from taking notes - it’s just a waste of time for me.”

A number of students are agreeing with him.

“Mark, I know thatpeople learn in all kinds of ways, and as you’ll see, in this class we’re really going to be able to pay attention to everyone’s different learning styles.  But I also know that studies are very clear - writing about what you’ve read increases how much you learn and remember, particularly when you have to think about how to say it in your own words.  Since learning is our central purpose, we need to use all the tools at our disposal.  And wait a little until we talk about how you can take notes - I think you’ll see that it will serve a common-sense purpose.  Besides, if you do it right, it will be a great summary of what you’ve learned when you are studying for a test or an exam. 


Conscious Reading

Conscious Reading


“To read without reflecting is like eating without digesting.”  Edmund Burke

“Before we go any further, I want to talk about reading itself.  I’m sure all of you have had this experience at one time or another:  you are reading some textbook, and you get to the end of a paragraph and you suddenly realize you have no idea what you just read.  Your eyes went through the motions, you theoretically saw all the words, but you just weren’t there at the time.  You were on automatic pilot.  It’s like driving in a car lost in thought or in conversation, and realizing you didn’t actually see the street you just drove down.”

It’s clear that everyone knows what I’m talking about.

“A person who is bad at reading won’t even notice that he just “read” a word or phrase or paragraph that he didn’t understand.  He just keeps on “reading”.  Even if you are a pretty good reader, you might notice you don’t know a specific word but you keep on reading and don’t do anything about it.  

“A really good reader will stop, make a note of what it was that didn’t make sense - maybe underline it or make a note in the margin or slap a post-it on it.  She might even grab the dictionary or look a word up online.  In any case, there is a heightened awareness of what is happening.  Things aren’t just ignored or swept under the rug.  It’s called metacognition, which is a fancy way of saying you are aware of what you are thinking about at that moment - you are conscious of reading while you are doing it.

“That’s the kind of reading we’re after here.  So when you’re done, I want you to take a piece of paper and draw a line down the right side.  The left side will be your reading notes.  The right hand column, which I call the “commentary”, will be where you assess how well you’ve understood that section.”  As I’m talking, I’m drawing an example on the board. 

“We’ll use a simple scale - 5 means you know it so well you can explain it to someone else, 4 means you’d like to talk about it some more, and a 3 means you have some serious questions.  Putting down a 1 means you don’t know what any of it means - I’m guessing that won’t happen too often.  

“Next, in the commentary column I want you to make a note of anything you didn’t understand, and be as specific as you can.  If you didn’t put down a 5, what was it that you didn’t get.  It might be a word or a phrase, or maybe a diagram that didn’t make sense.  You want to be able to see that note tomorrow and ask a specific question about it.  You will be in a study group, and by going over everyone’s questions together, you should be able to understand what you didn’t get while reading by yourself. 

“By getting into smaller groups, everyone should feel more comfortable and talk more, asking and answering questions of each other.  It’s called conversational learning, and it is one of the most effective tools we’ve got.  You’ll be doing a lot of it in this class.

“Here are some examples of previous students‘ homework.  Take a look at them, talk to your neighbor about whether you think this approach makes sense for a minute or two.”  

I hand out examples of excellent homework showing different note-taking styles.  I also hand out a cover sheet that has a checklist of things that should be included in the homework. (If you’re interested, I’ve included several examples of homework and the cover sheet in Appendix A.)

“One final thing:  when you get into groups tomorrow, I’m going to stamp homework that has all of the pieces on this checklist.  The stamp doesn’t say anything about whether you understood the material or how good your handwriting is.  It is simply acknowledging that you have prepared yourself well to participate in a conversation with your study group.

“Your job in doing this homework is to understand the material to the best of your ability, and to know as specifically as possible what you don’t understand yet.  That way you are ready to teach if you got it, or ask good questions and learn if you didn’t.”

I’ve been paying attention to the clock on the sly, and I finish this last sentence just seconds before the bell rings to end the class.  It’s an old teacher trick, but it’s a nice touch and it provides a tidy, dramatic close to the class.  Eventually, some students will notice it, and marvel at this silly skill - it might even get a good-natured laugh.

“See you tomorrow.”

“I have learned about myself as a person thanks to this class.  I have learned that failure is an opportunity.  One of the lessons I am taking away from your class is to never frown at failing.  I have an entirely new feeling towards receiving bad grades, making a mistake, etc.  I now view this as an opportunity to figure out what I don’t know, to go back and actually learn it and better myself.”     Erin S., student


What's It All Worth?

What's It All Worth?


“Let’s talk about how to evaluate the homework you just did.”  They are sitting in their study groups at the tables in the back of the room.  I’ve found a perch on the side counter, where I can see all the groups.  “In the past, my classes have used a 1 to 5 scale, where 5 is excellent work and 3 is mediocre, and that has worked pretty well.  Remember, these aren’t points that we’re going to add up to get a score, they’re just your best sense of how well you did the homework.  So the question is, what goes into making homework excellent?  Talk to each other in your study groups and see if you can come up with three or four aspects of doing an outstanding job on your homework that should go into this evaluation.”

At first, there is some confusion; this is uncharted territory for some of them.  In a few minutes the talk gets boisterous and there are clearly some disagreements about what matters.

“Okay, let’s hear at least one idea from every group, starting with you guys.”  I indicate the table furthest from where I am standing.  “What makes excellent homework?”

In this group, a young woman named Alicia has been the spark plug of the conversation.  She has already started to assume a leadership role in every small group she has worked in.  She is a tiny person, barely five feet tall and very thin, but she has a vivacious personality, a lovely face and long, curly red hair.  She makes an impression.

She speaks for her group.  “We thought that for homework to be excellent the student has to do all the parts - if the homework has summary notes and the commentary stuff, and answers the questions at the end.”

“So completeness matters.  But what about how much detail the notes and the answers need to have?  How do you know if there are enough notes?  Are one word answers good enough to be rated excellent?  Did anyone talk about how much writing is necessary?”

“We did”, Jessica answers. “We said the notes have to be detailed enough to show that you know something about it.  You have to have the big ideas, but also some supporting arguments.”

“In the past, we’ve agreed that it should be enough detail so that looking at it later is all you need to study for an exam,” I respond.  The notes would remind you of everything of importance.  Does that seem reasonable?”  There is clear agreement around the room.

“What else?”, I say, turning to the next group.  

“We agree with the completeness thing, but we think it is important that everything is in the student’s own words.  If you’re copying answers to questions from someone in your group, that is definitely not excellent homework.”

“So it’s okay to talk through the answers to the questions together in your group, but the writing has to be done solo, right?”  They agree.

The third group goes in another direction.  “Since the point of being in study groups is to be able to talk about what we read, someone who didn’t do the reading shouldn’t be rewarded since they are letting their group down.”

“And how would you know if that’s happened?”

“That’s what the stamp is for, right?  So no stamp means it’s not excellent.”

“But let’s say someone didn’t do the homework - should they be able to make it up later?”

Jessica has an immediate answer: “No, if they didn’t get it together, they shouldn’t get credit for it later.”

Alicia disagrees.  “But they can still get something out of it if they read it later.  They should be able to do it, but get less credit.  So they can only call it excellent if it has the stamp.”

“That sounds good to me,” I say, ”so timeliness matters, too.  And you guys”, I say turning to the last group.  “What did you talk about?”

“Pretty much what everyone else said, but we also said that the notes should be in some kind of standard format, like an outline form, for instance.  We just weren’t sure what the right form should be.”

There is a strong response from the rest of the groups, most of it negative.

“I like to do notes like I’m writing a letter to myself.  I never use outlines.”  Alicia says.

“Well, I use bullet points”, Desmond says.  He is a big guy, a football player, and he speaks emphatically.  “It always works for me to see the big ideas when I’m done taking notes.”

Still others have different approaches, and it’s clear that there is no one form that will be satisfactory.

“So let me ask you this”, I say.  “Who are you doing the reading notes for?  If it’s for me, then one format would make sense so that I can judge them all according to one standard.  But if you’re taking notes for yourself, then the best format is the one that is most useful for you.  Personally, I don’t care if it’s bullet points or poetry or long paragraphs.  The main things are that your notes make you think about what you just read enough to put it in your own words, and that they summarize the material well enough for you to be able to review the material later.

“And while we’re on the topic of who you are doing homework for, I have another proposal.  Instead of my giving you a grade for your homework, you evaluate how well you did it, based on the criteria we just talked about.”

“Wait, does that mean we don’t get credit for doing the work?” Paul, who has said nothing up until now, looks upset.  “Because I think that people who do their homework should get a better grade than people who don’t.”

“Paul, I agree.  Like we just said, if you’ve done the homework and are ready to talk about it with your study group, you are contributing more to the conversation, and will learn more than if you do it later or not at all.  So it should be part of your grade.  

“What I’m suggesting is that my giving you a grade has a whole different feel to it than if you are evaluating yourself.  For one thing, it helps dispel the idea that you’re doing the homework for me.  Remember, our focus in this class is always going to be on learning, not doing school.  For that to work, you have to figure out how to do the homework for yourself, so that you will learn from the experience.  You may not be used to that idea.  I think evaluating yourself will help.”

“But what if we give ourselves bogus grades?  Some people are going to take advantage of this.”  As always, Ryan’s response has been blunt and to the point.   I already feel he has a well-developed sense of right and wrong and he is unhappy about the possibility of other people cheating to get ahead.

“Well, for the first few times you do homework, I will be going through it carefully and giving you lots of feedback on your work and how you evaluated it.  Really, there’s no place to hide - I’m going to look at everything you do, and if someone isn’t being honest, it shows up pretty quickly.

“In my experience, that happens rarely, and it is easily fixed.  The whole idea of this class is that we have the common goal of all of us learning as much as possible about Physics and about ourselves.  When you come to see that we’re all on the same side, we all want the same thing, then the idea of cheating doesn’t make much sense any more.  I know it sounds trite, but you really are only cheating yourself.”

Since I have had this conversation with my students many times in the past, I already have a good sense about what we will conclude.  I have, in fact run off a check-list styled evaluation sheet for them to use. 

“I took the liberty of copying the evaluation form we used last year, and you’ll see that almost everything we talked about today is included.  I’d like you to evaluate your homework using this form and turn it in.  You can take some time talking to the people in your study group about what’s a fair evaluation, or just do it by yourself, if you’re comfortable.  In any case, I’d like you to fill it out, staple it to your homework and turn it it.  This will allow me to give you feedback on how well you did the homework and how well you are evaluating yourself. 

“We’ll do the next few homework assignments this way, until it’s clear that everyone understands how to give themselves an accurate and honest grade for homework.  After that you’ll do all your homework in a spiral notebook called a learning journal.  I will look at your homework when you turn in your journal at the end of each unit.”

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A Teacher's Story: Alan M.

A Teacher's Story: Alan M.


At the end of the school year, I’ve asked all the teachers who have been working with me for an “exit interview” to get a sense of what has worked for them, and how I can improve my skill as a consultant.  

Alan is a Physics teacher.  He is twenty-six years old, newly married and quite energetic.  He is earnest when we talk about teaching, but I have no doubt that he knows how to enjoy himself when he wants to.  

Alan is new to this school and only has one year of teaching under his belt.  In our “exit” conversation, he drops a bombshell.  

“Before you and I started working together, I was seriously thinking of quitting teaching”, he says.  “I was overwhelmed and frustrated.  I found myself getting angry at my students, and I didn’t think it was going to get any better.”

I am flabbergasted.  I knew how stressed out he seemed when I first met him.  I could tell he was frustrated with his students, but I really had no idea he was in such a state of desperation.

He describes the relentless power struggles with a few students, a sense of being powerless to change the antagonism that he experienced with them, and a sense of futility of every escalating strategy.  There seemed to be no way out of the struggle, and he felt he could win battles, but ultimately he would lose the war.  Like many new teachers, he was exhausted and overwhelmed with the work load.

In the midst of this crisis he and I began working together.  I visited his class, and could see right away the tension he had described to me.  It was clear that the students and he were not working together.  There were a lot of side conversations, always a sign of disrespect or disinterest, and he kept getting louder to be heard over the other voices in the room.

For him, the urgent issue was one of getting his students to do more homework.  In most of his classes, he reported, only a third or fewer were actually completing the work.  Increasingly, he found himself in the role of hectoring them, or threatening ever more dire consequences if they didn’t do the homework.  None of that had any effect except to increase the sense of animosity in the room.  

His immediate goal in our first conversation was to increase that percentage.  Before talking about strategies to do that, however, I suggested that it sounded to me that his working relationship with the students was a serious source of stress.  We started talking about a different way for him to think about his relationship with his students.  Since force wasn’t working, something else was needed.

We talked about the possibility of simply discussing the problem with his students.  It was risky of course;  there was already some bad blood in the room, and there was always the chance that if he lowered his guard and spoke sincerely with them, one or more of them would use that moment to get even in some way.  

He would have to walk a tightrope of maintaining his authority as a teacher while letting them know he was uncertain of how to proceed, but he wanted to try to change things, and that he wanted to hear their response.  The trick would would be to keep the conversation constructive, and to give them the opportunity to tell him what they thought might work.

I told about him the approach I had developed and encouraged him to adapt as much ofit as he could to his own situation.  He took the idea seriously.  The next day he had an honest, soul-searching conversation with his classes.  I intentionally did not sit in, since that would have changed the dynamic.  He admitted that what they were doing together wasn’t working, and that he wanted to come up with a better way.  

He began by telling them that he had given a lot of thought to the kind of homework he was assigning, and the way they were going over it.  He wanted to try something new.  Instead of going over homework in a whole class setting with him in charge of calling on people to answer the questions at the end of the chapter, he would have them discuss the homework in small study groups.  If a student had summarized the reading in their journals, they would get a stamp.  (I gave him a few to get started from the collection I had accumulated over the years.) The stamp from now on would mean that the student had done the work necessary to participate in the discussion.  

If most people in a group did the reading and took notes, they would meet at the lab tables in the back of the room and go over the questions together.  Those who hadn’t done the work would sit in and take notes.  They were still expected to do the necessary work, but they wouldn’t get the stamp.  Since they weren’t ready to participate and teach and learn from their study group, the homework simply wasn’t as valuable.

If only one or two students in a group did the work, they would go in back and form ad hoc study groups.  Alan would create a separate study group of all the people who hadn’t completed it and go over it with them.  They too could still do the reading and take notes later, but of course they wouldn’t get a stamp on their work.    

He also came up with the idea of giving a short quiz at the end of that discussion that checked up on how well they understood the reading.  Now discussing it together had an immediate effect on their grades.

The result was startling.  The number of students completing the work jumped in the first week, and the students who didn’t do it were aware that the others were having a better time than they were and were clearly learning more and doing better on the quizzes. 

After several weeks had gone by, I visited one of his classes on a day when homework was due.  The change in the room was palpable.  Alan had to stop the class while they were working in groups to point out how much better they were doing, and how effective the change had been.  They clearly a sense of pride in their collective accomplishment.  When we met after the class, he was very happy and excited.  He said it felt as though a great weight had been lifted.

Within a month, most students were doing homework regularly, and the atmosphere in the room was dramatically improved.  Most importantly, the students saw Alan as someone who wanted them to be successful, and no longer just another person telling them what to do.


"I strongly believe that I learned more in this class than I did in any other science class throughout my high school career.  I was able to learn the material for what it actually was, rather than just memorizing the information to be able to spit it back out simply to get an A on a test.  I also didn’t think I was ever fully aware of how much I was truly learning until the first semester exam rolled around.  After discussing the test with other fellow physics students who had other teachers, they were stressed about how little they felt they knew on the test.  I, on the other hand, felt much more prepared for the test and although my grade might not have been absolutely perfect, I felt confident while taking the test."

                                    —Ella K., student


Reflective Letter: Felix K.

Reflective Letter: Felix K.


When I first enrolled in this course I was very nervous for the math portion that was involved with Physics.  However, after taking it I have learned that all you need is practice to be able to succeed.  I have learned that I learn better when I have to do the teaching.  It forces me to see what I actually fully understand and know and what I do not. I now know that it takes time to grasp a concept and no one completely understands a concept the first time they learn it.

For most of my high school career, my mindset has been learning for the sole purpose of getting a good grade.  This course has changed that.  It has shown me that a grade is just a grade and the important part is whether you have grasped the material and have grown to your full potential as a student.

I think this course structure is the most beneficial structure a class can have.  It forces the students to not constantly worry about what grade they are getting, but rather on the material they are learning.


A Little Mutiny

A Little Mutiny


Early in my career, when this system of self-evaluation was first evolving, I had the closest thing to a student rebellion that I ever experienced as a teacher.  It was a time when I was doing a lot of experimenting, so much so that after almost every weekend I would come into class and say “I had an idea over the weekend...”, and the class, more often than not, would groan.  Too much change, I learned the hard way, makes for unhappy students.  They need to know what is being asked of them. 

On that particular Monday, I announced that I wanted to experiment with them grading themselves, I met with serious resistance.  Anna became the spokesperson for some very intense objections.  She had a steely look on her face, and her blonde curls shook with the intensity of her speech.

“You mean you’re not going to grade our work at all?  What is the point of doing it if you don’t tell us how we’re doing?”   

Her question cut to the heart of doing school, although at that point in my career, I didn’t understand that.  I just know instinctively that something feels wrong with the way I’ve been handling grades in the past, how every teacher I know handles grades.

“I will still look at all your work, and I’ll make sure that I agree with the grades you give yourself.   Isn’t that what matters?”

“No,” she said.  “I don’t think that my giving myself a grade is anything like you givingme a grade.  I don’t know what you know as a teacher - how am I supposed to know whether this is good homework or not?”

Tom, who had been sitting with his arms crossed across his chest and what looked a lot like a glare on his face, joined the conversation.  “I have no idea how to give grades.  I’m a student.  I do the work.  The teacher gives the grade.  That’s the way it’s supposed to be.”

“Look, I agree that most of you have no idea how to give a grade to yourself.  But I think we can figure that one out.  I came up with something called a rubric that will tell you everything you need to know to come up with a grade.  And I am planning on having us talk about this until it makes sense to everyone.  I know it’s going to be bumpy at first, but we can figure this out.  And I think that once we do, you’ll appreciate the fact that you’re more of a boss of your own learning this way.”

Anna is completely unconvinced.  I’d never seen her frown before, and the level of determination on her face was a little frightening.  I began to wonder if I’d made a big mistake.

“I think you should keep grading us for a while and let us get used to the idea.”  LaTasha’s face was filled with concern.  She was looking off to the side, not making eye contact.  She found the idea of telling a teacher what to do very difficult, but in fact she had a good idea.

Looking around the room, I see this is too much too soon.  

“LaTasha, I think your idea is excellent.”  She smiles with relief and some pride.  “We’ll keep doing grades the way we have, and over the next week or so, let’s talk through how this might work.  I want to hear what your concerns are and see if we can’t work through them.  And I promise you this - if we try this and it doesn’t work, for any reason, we’ll stop doing it.”

There was an almost tangible release of tension in the room.  Tom uncrossed his arms.  Anna’s frown eased up a little.  I didn’t know it yet, but the act of listening to the needs of students and changing what I do as a result has a powerful effect on our working relationship.  Over the next few years, I will start incorporating student feedback in a systematic way.  It will profoundly change my practice as a teacher.

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Helpful Hints and Answer Keys: Learning Trumps Cheating

Helpful Hints and Answer Keys: Learning Trumps Cheating


Today, my students are learning how to use the simplest of equations for the first time in this class.   Their task is to solve mathematical problems involving motion.  I have introduced the equations, and they have done several practice problems in class while I walk around and check their progress.  After putting solutions on the board, I hand out the first homework problem set.  It consists of six problems that are identical to the type they have just been practicing.

“Take a look at these problems.  They are similar enough to the ones you just did that most of you should be able to complete them at home on your own.  However, it’s likely that some of you will get stumped at some point or another, so I have included “Helpful Hints” on the back of this sheet.  Take a quick look.”

They turn the sheets over, and I add, “But not for too long”, with a laugh, and they turn them back to the front.

“If you get stuck trying to set up the problem, the helpful hints will show you how to get started.  They list the factors you have been given and the unknown that you are trying to find.  Starting the problem is often the hardest part.  

“Let’s say you are able to successfully start the problem but then get stuck at the next step, choosing the right equation to use, that is also included as a helpful hint.  In other words, helpful hints will give you the beginning and the middle of every problem.  They won’t tell you how to solve the problem and get the right answer - that’s your job.  The idea is that no matter where you got stuck, with these helpful hints you should be able to make it to the end of the problem on your own.

Alicia asks what I’m sure a number of students are thinking.  “Why won’t people just cheat and use the helpful hints right away?”

“The idea behind the helpful hints is that you will only use them if you can’t proceed on your own.  Some of you may think that looking at the helpful hints at all is “cheating”, but I don’t see it that way.  If you need help and use the hints, they are allowing you to get over a hurdle and be able to complete problems.  Surely that is better than just giving up and leaving the page blank.”

“As for people who just turn the sheet over and use the helpful hints immediately, ask yourself what they are gaining by doing that.  Technically speaking, they will complete the homework, but they will end up not having practiced the problem on their own.  They won’t have learned anything.  Besides, it’s not that much more work to actually do the problem than it is to copy the helpful hints and then finish it on your own.  If all you are doing is copying, you really won’t be able to participate in going over the homework with your study group, and it certainly won’t help you when you have to solve the same kind of problem on a test.  In other words, you’ve chosen to turn an opportunity to learn into busywork that doesn’t serve any purpose.  

“The idea of cheating implies that you are doing the homework for me, when in fact the homework is an essential part of your learning process.  It isn’t for me at all.  

“Tomorrow, when you come in, you’ll get into random study groups again, and I’ll stamp in your work if you have completed each problem as far as you can take it.  That should be at least as far as the helpful hints go.  Then, I’ll hand out answer keys to every study group.  Every time you do homework, I do the same homework and create an answer key.  That way, you can compare your work to mine.  If there’s any difference between thetwo, your study group will help explain it.  

“When you turn your work in, it is excellent if it is complete and correct.  It will, in fact, look just like my homework.  If your problems don’t look just like mine, write them over again in your journal so that you’ll have the practice of finishing them completely and correctly.

“Now, here’s the part that’s different from traditional homework:  if you used the helpful hints at all, or if you needed the answer key to make your problem solving look like my problem solving, that is critically important information for you.  It tells you that you haven’t learned to do these problems independently yet.  That is your goal - to do the entire problem, from start to finish, on your own without any assistance.  So if you weren’t able to do that this time, it is your job to choose to do more practice until you are able to do it independently.   We’ll talk about how that works tomorrow.”


A Friendly Trap

A Friendly Trap


The students are scattered around the room in their study groups going over a problem set that they had last night for homework.  Jasmine comes up to me with a perplexed look on her face.  “I’ve tried three times and I just can’t see how you got this answer for number five.”  She holds up the answer key and her journal to compare the two.

“Well, Jasmine, that’s because your answer is right, and the one I put down on the answer key is wrong.  See, I substituted the wrong number for the initial velocity here.”  I point to it.  

“Aha, she says, “so that’s it!  What a relief!”

“Didn’t anyone else in your study group have the same problem?”, I ask. 

“Yeah, but they just copied down your version in their journal corrections and moved on to the next question,” she says.

That brings me up short.  It’s clearly time for a little talk with the class.  I wait until it looks like everyone is done with that problem.

“Okay, I’m sorry to interrupt, but I’d like to check something out,” I say.  “How many of you have a different answer for number five than the one on the answer key?”  No hands go up.  

“So here’s the problem — those of you who copied down my answer are confused about why you have answer keys to work with.  You are still thinking that getting the correct answer is the purpose.  It is most definitely not.  Your job is actually to discover whether you are able to do the problems correctly on your own, and if you aren’t, to isolate the difficulty you are having and work on mastering that.  

“In other worlds, when you see a discrepancy between your work and mine, the most important thing you can do is to figure out exactly why that difference exists, whether you made a mistake or I did.  That’s where you do the real learning.  Copying over the right answer without understanding why it is right and your answer was wrong is a complete waste of your time — you are missing the chance to learn from your mistakes.

“So now I want you to go back to that problem and see if you can discover what mistake I made and what the correct solution should be.  I’ll check back with you in a few minutes to see if everyone was able to figure it out.  And from now on, I’m going to intentionally make a mistake in my answer keys every once in a while to help you see if you’re really using it well.”


A Teacher's Story: Rick C.

A Teacher's Story: Rick C.


Rick is swamped.  I haven’t seen him in a couple of months, and the first thing we talk about is how overwhelmed he is.  He has a newborn baby at home, and after having taken some time off for paternity leave, he has returned to school to classes that are behind schedule and chaotic;  having classes run by substitute teachers for several weeks will do that, no matter how skillful or well-intentioned they may be.  Rick is sleep deprived and buried in a huge backlog of grading;  when I visit his room, he points to large stacks of student work piled up on his desk, on top of his filing cabinet, on the window sill.  It is a daunting sight.

We have been talking for months now about how to rethink his job.  Anyone who knows Rick knows that he is a decent, thoughtful person.  He has been teaching History for eleven years, the last three of which have been at this high school.  He is good at his job.  His students trust him - he is dedicated to their success and they know it.  

From the beginning of our conversations, he has made it clear that has become dissatisfied with the status quo.  He knows his students can be much more effective, and he wants to find a way to make that happen.  At the moment, however, he feels like he can’t keep his head above water;  all he is doing is grading and trying to stay a little ahead of his students.

Give the sense of state of things, we start talking about how he can streamline the workload and get caught up with the grading.  The first task is to staunch the flow of new work.

“Have you thought about having your students self-evaluate some of their work?” I ask him.

“I’m reluctant to do that right now,” he says.  “They are just learning some basic research skills, and many of them are at a really low skill level.  I missed so much of this quarter, they need every bit of feedback I can give them.  If I don’t grade their work and communicate to them what their problems are, they won’t learn how to do the research.”

“Rick, I agree that they need feedback from you.  But grading and feedback aren’t the same thing.  We need to look for new ways for you to give them feedback orally, since that’s so much faster than in writing.  It’s also important to recognize that some of your students need much more help from you than others, so if you can direct your time towards their needs, you would use your time more effectively.  Are there times when they are working independently as a class and you could talk to one or two students at a time?”

“Yes, we have regular discussion periods where they work in small groups.”

“How disruptive would it be to pull individuals out, talk to them for a few minutes, and have them rejoin their groups?”

“That would work - the group could catch them up pretty quickly.  So you’re saying talk to them, rather than write comments on their papers?”

“Absolutely.  I happen to think it will mean more to them in any case.  In my experience, students don’t always take written notes too seriously, and sometimes they don’t read them at all.  If you’re talking to them, it’s more personal and you know they’re hearing it.”

“But what about the work they’re doing - shouldn’t I at least read it?”

“In general, yes.  You need to read what they’re writing so that you know how to respond when you talk to them.  The reading part is the same effort, but you’re saving hours by not writing your responses out longhand.

“But I’m guessing there is some work that they need to do - say practicing a certain skill - where they can evaluate how well they did on it themselves.  In my classes, students learned specific problem-solving skills.  Once they got into groups and saw answer keys, they could get the feedback they needed from their peers, and could evaluate how well they did the homework on their own.  Is there anything like that in your classes?  Tasks that don’t require your intervention?”

“Yes, there are.  They practice lots of small steps in the research process before putting them together to do a whole project.  Those would work well in group conversations.”

“Right, and that way lots of conversational learning can go on around learning those skills.  Meanwhile you have been freed up to have meaningful talks with individual students, to give them the feedback they need.”

“Okay, I can do that.  But it still leaves me with all these piles of grading.”  He looks at the stacks scattered around the room with an expression of mock despair.  

“So let’s see if we can’t take it one step further.   When you think about all the various assignments that are piled up here, are there some that students are capable of evaluating on their own?  You have to teach them the criteria, of course, but you already know the criteria - it’s how you grade them.  You also have to establish the culture that will cause them to take the task of self-evaluation seriously, and you’ll have to monitor it for a while to make sure they’re doing it accurately and honestly.  Given your working relationship with them, do you think that’s realistic?”

“Absolutely.  We’ve already talked about it, but I just don’t know how to get started.”

“Well, here’s something I’ve done in the past that serves two purposes;  create a form that describes all the attributes of good work.  I don’t like to call it a rubric, although it’s serving the same purpose.  Instead, I just break up all the parts of the grade, say the format, completeness, specific qualities that should be included, and then for each facet list all the aspects that make up excellent work.  

“When you are grading their work, this form serves as a cover sheet that explains how you came up with your evaluation.  Since you’ve listed all the attributes you are evaluating, when there is a common mistake being made you just underline it on the cover sheet, rather than writing the same comment over and over again.  This is a huge time saver.

“And when they are evaluating their own work, the same lists of attributes serve as a check-list for what should be included.  If you hand the cover sheet out before they do the work, they can look at it as they are writing so that they know if their work is complete before they turn it in.  And if you’re checking their self-evaluations, if you disagree with them - say they left something out but gave themselves an excellent grade - you can again just underline the things they missed to give them the necessary feedback.”

“This sounds really doable.  I’ll get started on creating the evaluation form today.”

“Good.  That’s the first step.  Then go through these piles and sort out anything they could evaluate themselves.  When you are ready to hand that work back to them, you need to be honest about the backlog, but also about the legitimacy of their self-evaluating that work.  They need to know this is useful for them, and not just you dodging work you should be doing for them.  Also, I would definitely play on their sympathy for you having a baby to take care of and being sleep deprived.  It’s a real factor, and it humanizes you in their eyes.”

We work through a few details on what should be on the sheet.  I tell him I’ll email him examples of the forms I used.  Using the format directly will give him a head start, and he’ll be able to write out the attributes in a short time.

Over the next few weeks, he introduces the form and the individual feedback sessions during group work.  He still has those piles of grading, but now the rate of new work is less than the rate at which he’s grading, and the piles start to get smaller.  And, more importantly, his students are beginning to assume more responsibility for their own learning process.