Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Can we just flip the homework?

The lesson has been taught and there are a few minutes remaining in the class period. Of course, this means that students can get a head start on their homework. I sit in on a lot of lessons in my role as an instructional coach for preservice and inservice teachers and the scene is nearly always the same. As I walk around the class during these final minutes, I typically see the following:
Why do they start at the beginning? Is it because "it is a very good place to start," or is it because that is how they have been trained?

The way most assignments are structured, the items get harder the farther in you get. I understand that this progression can provide support to students as they build on prior success, but I do not think they see it that way. Ask them and I believe you will find that they do it in order because the assignment implicitly suggests that they do it in order. They have been disempowered to make meaningful choices about what items to try.

What if instead we asked the students to look over the items and identify those that they might need peer or teacher support on? These are the items the students could work on during the closing minutes while they have support available. They can finish the easier problems on their own. Dare I say it? We could flip the assignment.
This could also serve as an assessment for the teacher. Knowing which items students considered challenging could offer insight into the effectiveness of the lesson or inform future instruction.

A change like this represents one of the subtle shifts we encourage teachers to make in their practice. We do not always need to make big moves to offer students a chance to make choices and, therefore, take more responsibility for their learning. A slight change can increase the likelihood of student engagement without requiring a lot of extra planning or preparation. This is another example of educational sustainability for both teacher and learner.


  1. Flip the assignment?!?!? Is it you?

    Joking aside, this is a simple, yet very profound idea. I am going to e-mail it to our staff after I finsih typing this response. GREAT idea!


  2. Nice. And now an analogy (with apologies to our southern brethren for whom this likely falls flat)...

    We had a big, heavy, wet snow last night here in St Paul. The kind that, if you don't have 4-wheel drive, you're gonna need to do some digging out from in order to mobilize your car.

    How do you approach it? Do you anticipate where the trouble spots will be and dig those out before you hit the gas? Or do you just power into it, knowing that you'll get stuck eventually, but sort of powerless to predict where that will be, and the only way to find out is to wait for your wheels to start spinning? And what do you do when they do start spinning? Rock a few times, then dig? Or just keep rocking and spinning, rocking and spinning?

  3. I've been using this approach with my students for a couple of years now, but not "in the closing moments." Instead, when I do a lesson via the board (and I don't always do this), I spend at most 15 minutes (sigh, most of the time) explaining the idea, and the majority of the class time is spent with students working on self-selected problems from a reasonable source. Of course, I also do projects, experiments, and a lot of other pedagogical things, but in the case that I do the "lecture, now you work" style of teaching, the emphasis is on the students choosing appropriate problems to test their understanding of the concept.

  4. John,

    Yes, it is me, and I am glad you found this post useful. I want teachers to understand that they do not have to wait to do something "big" to do something worthwhile. Subtle shifts toward a learning-centered classroom can have a profound impact.


    Thank you - anyone who knows me, knows I love a good analogy. We can help learners to practice their critical thinking skills in so many ways - big and small. Anytime I find learners acting in routine (robotic) ways, I try to think about how I can encourage them to be more metacognitive.


    It's good to know I'm not alone and that these ideas have been replicated elsewhere. There are so many things we can do in out teaching. As long as we keep empowering learners as the goal, I am okay with most of the methods. Thanks for your comment.

  5. I don't give homework but still this post is relevant. A minimal change like the one you described above can have a really big impact on learning, feedback and future teaching.
    Thanks for sharing.