Thursday, 7 May 2009

Homework: Why practice makes perfect

My Teach For America colleagues are all too familiar with the process of 'drilling'. Here in the UK it isn't really talked about, but I am a secret fan.

"Drilling" is the process of completing several questions on a topic. For example -- answering 10 maths or comprehension questions -- similar to the exercise drills of sports teams. Repetition is vital for our memory and drills help settle students at the beginning or end of lessons.

Their controversy here comes from the lack of 'active appeal'. Recently OFSTED criticised schools for being boring and teachers encouraged to make lessons more interactive. I wholeheartedly agree and most tips here will help you do that. BUT, my Sociology class have spent the whole year creating sociological exhibitions, covertly breaking social norms and designing essays in the shape of burgers. Yet, on May 12th they will be judged solely on their ability to write an essay. Excitement aside, we need to practice this skill.

How to do this and not interrupt our exciting lessons? I use homework. 4/5ths of the weekly homeworks I set are past exam question drills. If this includes several essay questions I let students do 'draft outlines'. Otherwise it is a full drill with complete answers expected. Once handed in I mark to end-of-year standards with complete explanatory remarks.

Teachers sometimes complain on two accounts when I explain this system.
1. They argue "Students won't do their homework if it's boring..." They will, I insist, if they understand why they are doing it. Students are thankful for two hours of engaging lessons but they fully understand that their grades depend on practicing the hard stuff.
2. Teachers say: "You mark every week?!" Yep. Every week. Luckily I'm a quick marker and I have strategies for getting quicker (I will do a separate post on these eventually) but I simply make the commitment at the beginning of the year to put the time into it. When everything else is falling apart in my week, marking comes near to the top of the priority list. Sometimes it's difficult but my motivation comes from the difference it makes to students. If I expect them to put time every week to a serious exam drill then I need to do the same. Besides, how else can I see how their learning is progressing?