Completion grading: unintended consequences

Homework Should Support the SMP’s


While all homework is up for discussion these days, and many argue against it.  I am a firm believer, for reasons Daniel Willingham (2009) describes, that most students need a considerable amount of practice outside the school day to develop and retain basic math skills.  So like many others, I have put a lot of thought into finding a way to give students short-term accountability without investing an unreasonable amount of time grading homework.  If we are going to achieve the Standards for Mathematical Practice of the Common Core State Standards (SMP’s), our practices surrounding homework should support those standards.  Of all the grading methods I have heard of and/or tried, I believe “completion grading,” whereby a teacher awards homework grades based only on appearance of completion, is second from the top for sabotaging the SMPs.  I rank “completion grading” one notch below the “no zeros” policy.

I think it is safe to say that when most parents see a 10/10 in the grade book, regardless of whether there is a comment about accuracy, they tend to believe all is well.  Students are, likewise, satisfied with 100% whether they invested 5 minutes or 35 minutes.  Poor test scores that follow are often attributed to anxiety when the real cause is insufficient, high-quality practice.

Writing homework grades in the grade book may inspire students to produce it; but once the word is out that accuracy doesn’t matter, human nature is likely to kick in. Since our students’ brains are not yet completely formed, and Friday night fun sounds a lot better than thinking about math, one can only wonder how often the primary goal becomes making it look “done.”  Smart students can game the system by guessing what the teacher will be looking for.  As a result, we may inadvertently re-frame the mathematical practices in the students’ minds like this:

1.   Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them
      Student thinks:  Number the paper to match the assignment.

2.  Reason abstractly and quantitatively
      Student thinks:  Would it be a big number or small?

3.  Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others
     Student thinks:    Write down words and numbers I see in the problems.

4.  Model with mathematics
     Student thinks:   Write down an equation.

5.  Use appropriate tools strategically
     Student thinks:   Mechanical pencils don’t have to be sharpened.

6.  Attend to precision
     Student thinks:   Copy the answer from the back of the book.

7.  Look for and make use of structure
     Student thinks:    Is the teacher looking for a lot of work to be shown here?

8.  Look for and express regularity in repeated reasoning
     Student thinks:    The rest of the answers will look similar

Students who actually try to work out the problems but stop short of verifying their answers may be worse off as they practice mistake-making over and over.  Surely this kind of homework is working against our goals.  Instead, I propose a random sampling system that not only supports the SMPs, but can also support the “4 C’s” of creativity, communication, collaboration, and critical thinking.  The random sampling system takes no classroom time (other than collecting assignments) and grading can be done as little as semi-weekly to be highly effective. Grades in the grade book become meaningful and motivating.

Let’s use what we know about random sampling…

I don’t have time to grade 150 homework papers very often.  I collect it every day and file it or highlight concerns and return it. Since my students are seated in teams, the resource managers collect, check for names, staple and label with:  team letter and who’s paper is missing.  So I only collect 7-8 packets for each class.  I can fire an email to a parent in about 45 seconds if someone doesn’t turn one in. Parents are some of my biggest fans because, for the first time in their student’s academic life, they know immediately when their student is off track.  My older students hate that, “You emailed my mom!” I say, Yes, thanks for putting more work on my plate. If you are unhappy about it, please do your homework. But the real secret is an application of statistics:  random sampling.  The students never know what will end up in the grade book.  My grade book represents a sample of each student’s work and tons of comments. It looks more like a journal.  “Excellent representation of concepts.”  “Much of the work did not lead to the answers provided.”   “Did not check answers with those provided.”  The parents understand, then, why test grades are what they are.  The truth is, I might not grade any homework for two weeks.

Psychological strategies can be effective in growing good homework practices. I have my team resource managers collect the homework every day, staple it together, put the team letter on it, and write down the name of any student who’s missing work. Students who have their homework sense “value” in the collection process.  Here are the motivating ideas for students who do not complete homework as intended:

  • Your team’s progress will be affected if you don’t do homework because you will forget concepts and need to be reminded. That’s not fair.
  • Your guardians will be getting an email about your missing work.
  • You will likely receive an email from Khan Academy about sessions assigned to you to help with what you missed.

I pick up homework from resource managers as I wander around the room teaching with a slate projected on the Smartboard or coaching the student teams.  I just glance to see the number of papers is correct. Managing team papers cuts my work down to a fourth.

To add a little fun to the endeavor, and encourage creativity, I often award 11/10 for a homework that shows effort beyond my expectations.  The students notice, and many start using color to tie concepts together or make grading easier.  They start comparing each other’s homework feedback and develop an understanding of what excellence looks like.  They know who to collaborate with when they are getting wrong answers and find ways to communicate. (Snapchat isn’t always bad.)  That is one of many reasons I don’t have to waste time in class answering homework questions.

Often parents request that I accept late work (not due to an absence) and I explain my system:  Students would only do what they see ended up in the grade book .  I also explain if there are anomalies that are adversely affecting a student’s grade, they can be deleted at the end of the semester.  This also gives hope to the student who is late getting with the program.  After all, it should never be for a grade, it should be for the learning.

Willingham, D.T. (2009).  Why Don’t Students Like School?   SanFrancisco, CA:  Jossey-Bass.

31 thoughts on “Completion grading: unintended consequences

  1. Too much stuff in life is already: “I showed up, wasn’t that enough?” I work with students in college who don’t believe they’re expected to learn… for many, it’s reinforced their secret belief that they are too dumb to learn it anyway and it’s not expected.
    I had a student — not a new one! — complain that the computer exercises were not giving her credit for doing them. Granted, she noted, she had not read the material and had not gotten them right, but it was so **frustrating** for her!


  2. This is intriguing. I teach sixth graders and I know they would have a hard time with the randomness: “But I did homework last night and I don’t get any credit? That’s not fair!” However, I’m getting really really tired of the completion thing for all the reasons you mention. (As for the zeros, the easy fix is: have a “Homework/Classwork” category and be generous with classwork points to get them to the 50% while still having homework zeros show up as glaringly obvious.)

    I have a few questions about how you implement your homework grading. Hope you have time to answer at least some of them!

    1) Are you grading the assignments like you’d grade a test, that is, for accuracy as well as for the quality of the explanation?
    2) Do they have access to “the answers” (the final number, at least, even if not the supporting work) to check themselves on at least some problems?
    3) If they turn it in but get a poor grade, can they correct it?
    4) When you say anomalies can be deleted, do you do that in some consistent way (like dropping lowest 2 scores for everyone) or by feel?
    5) What does “filing” homework look like? I picture myself drowning in papers if I am not careful. (Right now I have them do homework in their notebooks and do the spot check, but if I’m looking more carefully, I think I’ll need separate papers.)
    6) If you were a sixth grade teacher like me, what would you change?

    I’m still pondering my homework policy for this year, so reading this is very timely for me!


    1. I would say, “I may grade it tomorrow, or I may grade something else. It is impossible for me to grade 20 problems for 150 math students (3000 problems) each day. Always do your best, and I will let you know how you are doing.” I like your zeros fix. That’s a great idea!

      1) Yes, but not necessarily every problem. I grade for the purposes of quality feedback and for motivation. Exactly what I grade, depends upon the learning objectives.
      2) I provide almost all the answers because, in my thinking, the point of practice is to correct misunderstandings and reinforce skills & concepts. Sometimes I withhold a few answers just to see if they are correct on their own, but I don’t want them to embed bad processes. I noticed my new curriculum (CPM) does that.
      3) I do not allow homework redo’s for lots of reasons, but drop anomalies if they are affecting the grade at the end of the grading period. Students know that and sometimes ask, “Now what would my grade be if you dropped _________?” I think it is important to always infuse a sense of hope. I do “gamify” mastery quizzes, that is, they can retake for higher scores on essential skills.
      4) I drop anomalies if a) the student has shown improvement in their homework practices and b) the anomalies are keeping that student from a higher quarter grade.
      5) I have 32 folders for each class, one for each day of the month and a “catch all.” I plop the pile I collect in the day assigned (1.5 seconds). If a paper is turned in apart from the pile, I put it in a catch-all folder in the front of the daily files. Otherwise I’d waste too much time trying to get those in the right day and probably misfile stuff.
      6) I would change the focus toward self-advocacy instead of points. My high school students are learning to send me pictures of what they are stuck on and I respond in text, pictures, or video. With 6th grade, I might have them circle what they don’t know and design a help system: Do they have time during the day to get extra help with things? Are there ways of gathering small groups for similar struggles while the rest of the class does something else. Would they watch a video if you sent it to them?

      I love your questions because they help me think through what I do better!


      1. Thank you!! Lots to think about.

        One more clarification: so if you don’t grade homework from (say) the September 5th folder, do you just throw it away? I hate passing back papers (or even having students do it).

        I think this year I’m going to let families vote on a few aspects I am ambivalent on (after I explain to them the plusses and minuses as I see them), because one of the best AND worst aspects of homework is how it loops families in (informative, but potentially burdensome). Maybe I’ll even solicit opinions on whether to do sixth grade math homework at all (since research seems to show it doesn’t do much good in middle school).


      2. Yes, I throw the 5th of Sept out if I have an Oct 5 assignment to put in there. I’ve never had a student inquire about a month-old homework assignment. I use mailboxes when I do pass things back

        I would look carefully at those homework studies. The ones I have read do not say whether students had answers and were encouraged to use them to self-assess and correct thinking. Typical homework doesn’t come with answers and the students simply go home and practice making mistakes. I believe there is a huge difference. Brain research supports a lot of practice and there just isn’t enough time in the math classroom.


  3. Thank you for writing this. Such great information for me to process and apply. One clarification. What did you mean at the end by “Often parents request that I accept late work (not due to an absence) and I explain my system: Students would only do what they see ended up in the grade book”. Are you meaning you tell parents they you won’t take late work because it is only wanted to be turned in because it ended up being one of the random things you graded?

    Thanks for the clarification.


    1. Yes. If a bad grade like that is keeping a student from a better letter grade at the end of a semester, I think that is unduly harsh and will drop it. But if I routinely accepted late work, that would be the only work some students would turn in.


    1. Thanks for the heads up to clarify that. It’s random. I have 31 file folders for each class in a file cabinet. I collect homework from my groups’ resource managers as I circulate, at which time I can easily address a student in that group who didn’t turn one in. When I get around to it, I put all homework in that day’s file. On a day that I have time, I grab a set and grade it almost like I would a test. What is in the grade book, then, represents a random sample of homework habits. I copy-paste comments so parents understand what I am seeing…like not comparing answers with those provided. They all understand why I can’t do that more than once every week or two. Other days I might just watch for a particular mistake, highlight it, & return it with the expectation that someone in the group explain it.


  4. I have decided to use some of your ideas for math homework this year. So far it has gone well, except, they aren’t checking if their answers are correct. I have emphasized the need to check your answers as you go so that you don’t spend all your time doing the homework incorrectly. I discussed it at back to school night, too. Any suggestions?


    1. First, I provide a step-by-step plan for parents who are willing to get involved. My pitch is on rough videos:

      video 1:
      video 2:
      video 3:
      video 4:

      Second, when I see a student is avoiding learning something in their homework, the I assign Khan. That’s my “retraining” strategy 3. here :


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