IDK – Homework Edition

IDK – I Don’t Know. (Title for this post blatantly borrowed from Mr. K over at Math Stories.)

Yesterday while talking with a student and her parent I had a brainwave! As a math teacher, when I check homework, it is mostly just to check that it’s been done. I know that there is a lot of copying going on, I know that there are arguments for and against homework. I’ve certainly toned down the amount of homework that I give over the past few years, particularly as I have been teaching more and more middle school classes. What drives me absolutely batty, though, is when I look at a blank piece of paper and the student gives me the “I didn’t know how to do anything and I looked at each problem and didn’t know what to do for any of them” spiel. That could very well be true. That could also very well be untrue. How am I to know? (Some say I’m pessimistic.)

So here’s the solution that I thought of right in the middle of my conversation: if you find yourself in this situation, instead of leaving it blank, write down the questions that you have about the problem!  

Simple, elegant, and everybody is happy. Why did it take me years, YEARS, to come up with that?

What are you solutions to IDK on homework?

5 thoughts on “IDK – Homework Edition

  1. Hi Jackie,

    I’m curious: how detailed are their responses? I have asked them similar questions in the past (maybe not to write them down but verbally) and I usually get something like “I didn’t understand anything” or something equally vague. How you increase a student’s metacognition?

  2. Mr H,
    Oooh, I’m so glad you brought up this topic: one of my favorites.

    Since you asked, I never accept IDK as a reason for incomplete homework. I instruct my students to do as you already have: write down what you don’t understand. Or, write down something that shows me you thought about this and still don’t understand.

    In MYP terms, I mark homework in more than one way. As an ATL skill, I am checking for completion. However, I often also check homework (formatively) against one of the criteria, with brief feedback. When a student gives the IDK response, their homework gets a “0” for completion (AtL), a stamp in their planner, and for the criteria, they have to do it — either right then and there, or at home later, depending on what’s planned in class for that day. When they’ve done it, I give them feedback as I would have done if they had completed it on time.

    90% of the time (in my experience), the IDK response is just an excuse. When the realize that even if they don’t understand, they must write something on that paper that demonstrates that they’ve thought about it, I never get the IDK response. Moreso, the kids who often think they didn’t get it, realize, as they are writing why they don’t understand it, that they DO understand it. 🙂

    Lastly, you might be interested to hear what Alfie Kohn has to say about homework. I often think of his perspective and many times, I have made homework optional. When I do this, almost all my students do it anyway, interestingly… then again, I teach mostly MS.

  3. I think it somewhat depends on the student. A kid who does this all the time needs to write the questions they have. And maybe that’s a good policy for everyone. I’m like you, I check for completion and process. If a student leaves a question mark or a blank I circle it and either help them with it right then or tell them to ask someone or me and hand it in when they know. I still feel like this is only effectively being communicated to a chunk of my students and that there are still a larger chunk who take guesses without worrying about verifying or questioning later, or still don’t navigate the “I need to figure out x.”

    Do you ever learn how to do something or correct your own mistakes by checking the answers? I also ask students to check the answers in the back once they’ve done a problem.

  4. MsMichetti, that is quite the interesting article by Alfie Kohn. In particular I like this quote: “[Children] aren’t vending machines such that we put in more homework and get out more learning.” It would be interesting to present his work to parents and teachers alike. I know in mathematics, there is always a huge push from parents to assign large amounts of homework.

    Nick, checking the answer will never teach a student how to do something but it does provide instantaneous feedback. It then becomes an issue of identifying and fixing mistakes (conceptual or accounting), if possible. This is, in some respects, the learning that occurs with homework. There is always that small minority who use homework as this self-diagnostic tool. Most others see it as “something to be done”and thus derive little or no benefit from it, especially when it is sprinkled with “IDK”.

    I’m wondering if I need to spend more time in class, particularly at the beginning of every school year, on correcting other people’s work, sometimes fictitious, sometimes self- or peer-review of work, training that eye to identify the errors, describe what probably went wrong, and describe how it can be fixed. One or two of these would make a better homework assignment than 1 – 13 odd any day.