Oct 05


So, to be clear, I love what I do!  But, as with any job or calling or even hobby, sometimes you get frustrated.  This was one of those weeks.

I teach two different “levels” of the same course – Algebra 2 academic and Algebra 2 honors.  As you can imagine, the academic level is for those students that might have struggled a little in math before but are college bound and need Algebra 2.  The honors is intended for the more gifted math students and those students (primarily 9th and 10th graders) usually end up in AP Calculus AB or AP Calculus BC.  My honors class is where I’m experiencing the frustration this week.

The honors course is a rigorous one intended to get through not just the required standards (by our state – not Common Core) but also through some introduction to Trigonometry.  The material covered goes beyond basic standards at the state but also pushes the student to think beyond that.  Its also where some of the gifted students first start to struggle and they definitely were struggling this week.  Or at least some are struggling (its way more than I’d like.)  My issue is, though, that they aren’t struggling because they can’t understand or do the math, but because they aren’t practicing or asking for help.  I have (and believe in) a policy of not grading homework.  I don’t grade it for all the reasons other teachers don’t – it should be practice without fear of doing poorly, their grade should reflect their overall understanding without help from others or notes etc.  I’ve had that policy for several years and I always hit a spot in the year where I question it.  Bam…. hit that spot early this year.

This year is a little different though.  The classes overall aren’t doing as well as I think they should.  I gave a test on Thursday and Friday and they acted like I had never even mentioned some of the concepts.  Well beyond the normal, “I didn’t study so I’m going to pretend I’ve never heard of this ” kind of response.  Then I had some less than honest attempts at the test (if you know what I mean) and they didn’t seem to care at all about this until the test came around.  I know, its almost the definition of teenager only it definitely seems to be worse.  All of this seems to be telling me that they don’t know what’s going on and don’t really know how to go about figuring what they can do to fix it.  They aren’t making the connection that practice will help them learn and make better grades, that they need to be responsible to take good notes, access the online materials and to seek help when they need it.  And studying for math… how do I do that?

So, where do I start?

Do I go back to grading homework?  At what cost – I have 130 students.  Grading homework every night means not spending as much time on creating interesting lessons.  I still believe all those things that made me stop grading it to start with so why change?

Do I change my grading policy all together and try standards based grading with them?

What are good ways for me to encourage them to take good notes and review and practice outside of class?  For me, that’s what studying for math means – review your notes and practice your problems.  I’d love to spend more time in class but where do I find it?  Flip the class?  Not sure they’d watch the videos either.

So MTBoS buddies…. help!!  How do you help your students learn to be independent?  How do you help them learn study skills and strategies?  I’d love comments and suggestions.





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  1. Rebecca Phillips

    IMHO, it doesn’t sound like they need help learning to be independent as much as they need help overcoming obstacles. Gifted students are used to having things come easily, and don’t know always know how to handle challenges, frankly. My advice: give them a pep talk. Borrow phrases from our gifted specialist “Yes, you’re afraid of failure. It’s scary. I know. Try it anyway. The other side of this feels amazing.” “I’m so excited that you’re struggling with this now – everything worth doing is worth struggling for so you need to learn how!” Secondly, involve the parents. If I”m right, and this is about learning to learn and to struggle more than it is about learning to be independent, they might actually need help … or at least pressure from home.

    (… and free advice is generally worth what you pay for it… but hang in there!)

    1. lbburke

      All great suggestions Rebecca! I have actually already involved the parents (sent a “math is not a spectator sport” email last week to all my parents.) There will be pressure there for sure. The students definitely admit to not knowing how to study. Just trying to figure out how to help them figure out that not making the effort isn’t the way to go at it.
      (and just because advice is free doesn’t mean its not valuable!) Thanks again!

  2. Kathryn

    I also teach the top tier of math students and I come up against this same problem each year to some extent. I think it was more pronounced when I taught Geometry, but I still see it now that I’m teaching Advanced Algebra.

    I couldn’t quite tell from your post whether you assign nightly homework or not. One thing that’s been helpful this year in my class is having the students take a few minutes together in partners or small groups to go over their homework together. They’re having good discussion and they would be embarrassed to bring in an incomplete assignment because their friends would see that they hadn’t done it. If there’s anything they can’t figure out in their group, we’ll go over it as a class. There are two great benefits to this system- I get about 4 minutes to work with a few kids who need some individual help and the students are reflecting on their thinking from the previous day in their discussions. It’s also saving me a good bit of time during class. I’d also suggest keeping a record of homework completion. Whether or not it figures into their grade, it would be nice to be able to point out to a student (as I did just this week) that he has only done 50% of the homework assigned.

    1. lbburke

      More great ideas! Thanks Kathryn. I did “check” homework last year and keep a record of how much they did. Think I’m going back to that for sure. Last year I put it in PowerSchool (our grading package) so parents could see it but it didn’t count towards the grade. It caused a little confusion but gave them good information. I do assign homework each night but I think I’ll try to limit it to a few (I only give about 10 anyway) and tell them to spend no more than 15 minutes on it. Then give them few minutes at the beginning (while I’m browsing for it.) Thanks so much for the suggestions!

  3. Stephanie reilly

    I think more formative assessment so they know how they are doing compared to your expectations every day. My go to FA is give everyone one prob to do and stick incorrect ones under the doc camera and everyone finds the mistake. Somehow bring it to light everyday what they know, don’t know.

  4. Jennifer Fairbanks

    I just experienced the same thing this week with my Accelerated Common Core Algebra 2 students. I gave them a quiz, 12 questions in 60 minutes, part calc, part non calculator. It had some meaty stuff on it – solving systems with 3 unknowns by hand, graphing systems of inequalities with 4 inequalities, linear programming. But, no one finished. So, I had students come back and complain. I am convinced that they just aren’t used to being an efficient test taker. If you get stuck on the 3 system, move on, don’t spend all your time there and not get to the rest. They just wont’ leave it. When I was grading, most of them barely had anything written for the linear programming problem which was 10 points out of the 60 point quiz, so I didn’t count it. I turned it into a 50 point quiz and if some did get it right (about 3 kids), I have them 2 bonus points. So, I had some kids get a 100 on the quiz but I will tell them they are not a master at the material and they better figure out the linear programming because it will be on the test on Wed. It is frustrating. I have taught it for 8 years and they have finished in the past.

    1. lbburke

      So sorry you had that experience but I guess I am glad that I’m not the only one. My test didn’t even really have anything that meaty on it. Normal distribution, permutations and combinations and solving absolute value equations. Absolutely all of them just like ones we covered in class or on homework. That’s the part that gets me the most – there was nothing new in the sense of really having to take the material and apply it to a new situation which I would expect an honors student to be able to do.
      You are definitely right though – they don’t know how to efficiently take a test. They don’t know how to study for one either. We reviewed in class but many didn’t do anything after that. I post a practice test online that they can take for extra credit. I even email them back their answers and the correct answers. How do we teach them how to study? Especially when we’re not really around them when they should be doing that. I’d love to ask them what they think they need but I’m not sure they know and I know I’ll hear “grade the homework” and to me that’s a non-negotiable.

  5. Max Ray (@maxmathforum)

    I remember your class as one in which I had to learn time & frustration management. It was the weekly problem-solving journals (not being able to finish in time, not knowing what to do) and also being stuck on a concept and not knowing what to do. Oh, and losing points for doing my work in pen — I didn’t like that! I remember panicking and thinking “oh no! I’ve hit the math wall! I’ll never understand anything after this!” I wish I could say, “And then you did this and it all worked out,” but I think it was more perseverance, feeling supported, and being able to mess up without it being the end of the world. And I remember doing some peer teaching and my peer appreciating my explanation and that boosting my confidence.

    I also wanted to chime in because I read a great definition of studying from a guy on MIT who was teaching himself whole courses in a few days — finding the toughest part of material that you don’t understand, and explaining to yourself (through sample problems, paraphrasing, and finding other sources) until you do. Then find the next toughest part, and repeat!

    That resonated with me and how I got through one of my toughest college courses (Bio 1). Interestingly, I had more trouble in my math courses because we weren’t just learning a system of ideas, we were learning ways of tackling problems (proof techniques) and sometimes even if I could understand the solution, I couldn’t re-create the solution paths we were taking notes on, so it was hard to apply them to the homework and exams.

    So one thing that might help the students be studiers is having them spend some time in class finding problems/notes that either they don’t understand/can’t put in their own words, or they can follow but they think “Where did that come from? How did they think to do that?” And then work in small groups to try to teach each other?

    1. lbburke

      Max – Thanks for reminding me! I’ve used groups for years but really want to try to concentrate on talking less and letting them talk to each other more. Hopefully they still think I’m supportive but being supportive doesn’t mean that I tell them everything. It just means I’m there to pick them up and move them forward.
      So I did fuss at them about not doing homework and making a bigger effort and the last three days have been so much better. Several of my kids actually even apologized for not doing their work and a ton have been in for extra help! Hopefully we’re headed in the right direction!

  6. Fawn Nguyen

    I’ve heard somewhere that grading homework, like dividing by zero, kills puppies. I don’t think you want to start grading, not with 130 kids. As Stephanie suggested, perhaps more formative assessments. I like Max’s suggestion too of having kids work in small groups to help each other. SBG helps me lose less hair when kids don’t do well, even if I’m only doing quasi-SBG this year.

    1. lbburke

      Hey Fawn! Can always count on you to make me feel better! Yes – grading homework kills puppies! I have started just walking around and checking to see who’s done what and plan on letting parents know if they are falling down on the job. I also really like your quote that Lisa posted – “The more I talk, the less they learn!” So, while I’ve always tried to limit my talking, I’ll be limiting it even more and giving them more time to work in class. Nothing teaches a lesson like failing and figuring it out and/or teaching others!

  7. Wendy Menard

    Lois – one of the things I am trying in my Algebra 2 classes is a little bit of flipping. (Meaning I tried it last week and am going to try it again next week!) I made a screencast of the lesson on my iPad using Explain Everything (you can make them with Doceri too), uploaded it to YouTube, and assigned it as homework. When the kids came in the next day, I put them immediately into groups, and gave them their homework. They worked all period as I circulated. In one class it worked very well – lots of discussion, everyone working all period long. The other class wasn’t quite as productive, but I saw it more as a function of the groups that I had created and needed to tweak rather than the idea. After 2 days of this, I needed to check in with the whole class and go over some procedural stuff, but I’m going to keep at it for a few weeks to see if we (my Alg2 students and me) can get into a groove with it. My hope is that they realize that they need to make some sense of the material BEFORE they come into class. It’s a bit of a time investment because the lessons take a while to make and upload, but I love the feeling of everyone working and talking math while I walk around and eavesdrop.

    1. lbburke

      Hi Wendy
      I’ve thought about doing the same thing. I actually created a little “video” to go over a problem with one of my students the other day using my Livescribe pen. Its pretty cool. My student teacher is teaching right now. I might suggest it to her but I also told my kids that I might upload some videos of the older material and/or some worked out problems to my webpage for them to review. I’ve been surprised at the number of kids that haven’t accessed my online materials that are already there. Sometimes they aren’t as tech-savvy as we think! Thanks for the suggestion!

      1. Wendy Menard

        I actually have subscribers on YouTube now, which makes me feel like a bit of a rockstar ; )

        It is interesting that you mentioned your student teacher; I have one in a different class who is not, shall we say, shining as brightly as the sun. Perhaps some videos will help augment this lessons for the students.


  8. Scott Hills

    I check only for attempting the HW. I expect problems writen and work to show how the answer was found, but I don’t really assess either of these when I check the work. Iam required to grade HW, and include it as a certain % by the school, but I really water down its impact with other things.

    However, if a student wishes to reassess, at that point I REALLY DO check them homework. (As well as require a signature)

    My feelings on homework are most easily summed up as (usually) “those students who understand the material well are those most likely to do the homework and sadly, they are also the students least likely to have needed to do the assignment in the first place… The converse also stands”

    1. lbburke

      Very true, Scott! So the challenge – how to get those students that need to practice to actually do some! I’m working on talking MUCH less and having them do more in class where they have help available – both mine and their peers!

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