The decision to allow students to choose their own homework (variously called the ‘Unhomework’ and the ‘Takeaway homework’ approach) has a lot to commend it, and is discussed in detail in this earlier blogpost, but needs to be accompanied by an equally flexible approach to marking and assessment to reach its full potential.
This is because one of the inevitable challenges posed by the flexibility of the “choose your own homework” approach is that standardised mark schemes cannot be applied to what will likely be a clutch of widely different homework outcomes ranging from video projects and re-enactments to essays and flowcharts.
Here at the International School of Toulouse, we are therefore experimenting in the humanities department with a new approach which allows students to design their own mark schemes so that they can be measured against the qualities and criteria which they think will reward their efforts to best advantage, as shown in this great example from @MattPodbury stemming from our “Iceman Mystery” project:
The “Choose your own mark scheme” process follows directly after students have completed the “Choose your own homework” phase by settling upon the project outcome that they will produce to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding, and follows this format:
Task 1 – Students consider a range of assessment criteria
Each student is presented with a list of commendable traits that will help them achieve success in school and later life. These are a dozen one-word qualities based on the IB Learner Profile (Inquisitive, Thoughtful, Communicative, Knowledgeable, Risk-Taking, Principled, Caring, Open-Minded, Well -balanced, Reflective, Creative, Resilient). Working individually for a few minutes, each student produces their own one-sentence definition of each word. The teacher then leads a discussion and the class settles upon agreed definitions for them all (image below is a screenshot from the generic activity sheet):
Task 2 – Students choose the most appropriate three criteria for their projects
Each student is now asked to select just three of these qualities which they would like their “Choose your own homework” outcome to be measured against. Students who have opted to do something they have never tried before might select ‘Risk-taking’ as part of their criteria, for example, whereas someone else who plans to conduct some in-depth independent research might opt for ‘Inquisitive’ or ‘Knowledgeable’. For each of these, they need to explain in a sentence or two how they think their project will allow them to demonstrate these qualities.
Task 3 – Students produce their project, then self-assess it against their chosen criteria
In this final phase before handing the work in, each student marks their own work, giving a maximum of five points for each of the three learner profile attributes that they settled upon earlier. They hand in this mark sheet with their project. The teacher then judges whether the marking is fair, adjusts as necessary, and gives additional credit to students who assessed their own work particularly accurately.
Taking it further
Peer-assessment possibilities: Students could be arranged in groups of three. They pass their projects and the accompanying mark sheets clockwise to the next person along, then assess them. Then the projects are passed round once more and the process is repeated so that each project has now been marked by two people. Finally, the three students can moderate the marking after discussion.
Demand that students develop different skills with different projects: One possible drawback of the ‘choose your own mark scheme’ approach is that students might end up choosing to play safe by selecting the same three qualities every time they are given the opportunity. To avoid this, and to encourage students to develop a wider range of study skills, keep a record of their choices from previous exercises of this nature, and insist that each time they design a new mark scheme, they must change at least one of the learner profile attributes that they wish to be measured against.
Here is a generic worksheet which allows teachers to get started with the ‘choose your own mark scheme’ approach:
Choose your own mark scheme: activity sheet for teachers and students
Giving students the flexibility to choose the content and / or the outcome of their homework assignments increases engagement and promotes independent learning.
Giving students the flexibility to choose the content and / or the outcome of their homework assignments is an effective way to increase engagement and promote independent learning. By giving the class an open-ended opportunity to reflect on what they need and want to learn about, and then to choose the most effective way to demonstrate their learning, students are able to take more ownership of their studies and teachers are able to cover more material in a more diverse manner. Another great thing about this approach is its ease of implementation: it does not have to be adopted wholesale for all year groups and all homework assignments, but can rather be adopted to different degrees and at the most appropriate times. This is an approach which has been popularised particularly by Ross M. McGill (@teachertoolkit – see his blogpost at http://goo.gl/QMNbvj). The hashtag #TakeAwayHmk is used on Twitter to share ways in which the approach has been used.
The challenge for teachers using the “choose your own homework” approach is twofold. Firstly, students will need to be given enough of a framework to help guide them towards the most appropriate task without it being so constrictive that the spirit of the approach is compromised. Secondly, the process of feedback and assessment will also to be reconsidered: open-ended choices of topics and outcomes means a more flexible method is necessary. This in itself is a challenge worth rising to. Feedback becomes more individualised and based on work which gives a much clearer idea about the interests and talents of the individual student.
Over recent years I have tried various approaches to the “choose your own homework” strategy. What follows is a short summary of several of the more successful examples, each of which provides a slightly different method.
Example 1: “choose your own content”
The simplest way to get started with a “choose your own homework” approach is to allows students the freedom to choose their topic of study, but for the teacher to specify the outcome. In this way there is flexibility in terms of content, but the teacher will be able to measure some distinct skills through the work that is produced. I use this approach with my Year 12 students at the end of the first half term, when I set them a holiday homework designed to get them thinking about the possible focus of their Internal Asessment (a 2000-word independent study that has to be completed as part of the IB History course). The way I go about this is to give students a list of recommended podcasts (e.g. “Great Lives”, “In our Time”, “Witness” and “The Moral Maze”, all of which are freely available from the BBC). Their job is to listen to one hour’s worth of podcast material, and then use this to deliver a classroom presentation on one or more key questions raised by what they have learned. Example presentations that resulted ranged from “What are the main causes of the Arab-Israeli conflict?” to “How has game theory informed international decision making since World War Two?”. This podcast-based approach is easily adaptable to other subjects: the brilliant “Infinite Monkey Cage” podcast with Robert Ince and Brian Cox could give science students a similarly broad range of inspiration.
Example 2: “choose your own outcome”
My IGCSE History students reached the end of a heavily detailed and methodical study of Hitler’s foreign policy in the 1930s with a desperate need for some creative, independent work. I therefore gave them a homework which consisted of producing a resource designed to demonstrate their understanding of the key questions relating to Hitler’s foreign policy in such a way that they would find it a useful revision aid. I made it plain that I couldn’t care less what the outcome actually was, so long as it clearly demonstrated thought and effort and would prove useful as preparation for the final examination. I then gave the class some time in groups to list some possible outcomes, then we shared these as a class. The range of proposals was immense, including such things as a Google Earth Tour of the key locations of conferences and clashes relating to Hitler’s foreign policy; a ‘Diary of a Wimpy Fuhrer’ outlining the main steps towards World War Two in the form of an illustrated children’s book; a “TripAdvisor” review of each place coveted by Hitler from his perspective, complete with rating to indicate its importance; a photo-album scrapbook of a German soldier from the 1930s charting the progress of German foreign policy; changing the lyrics of a song to cover the topic essentials in a way that would be memorable, and much else besides. I took photographs of the best projects that resulted to provide further inspiration for next year.
Another great outcome was produced by Jade, who decided to revise her entire History course by creating this fantastic tubular timeline tower (subject of this blogpost).
Example 3: “choose the content and the outcome”
The most open-ended method of all, of course, is to give students the flexibility to choose both the topic and the outcome rather than merely one or the other. I tried out this approach recently with my Year 9 students. The broad theme I provided was the growth of the British Empire. I then provided them with a summary grid, with the main periods of growth forming the columns and the main countries and products involved forming the rows. Their job was to produce a homework based on one cell of the table (a particular event), one row (which focused on one of the key countries involved) or one column (which focused on one particular period). In this way they had a great deal of flexibility to choose a task corresponding to their interests and abilities. For example, the students who tended to focus on a single cell (event) in the table either did so because they wanted to keep the task more manageable, whereas others who did so opted for it because it addressed a key issue that stimulated their interest (a Dutch student investigate in more depth the occasion when the Netherlands sailed its ships up the Thames in a daring raid in 1667, for example). In terms of outcomes, one student decided to produce an image of what the dining room of an English middle-class family would have looked like before the impact of Empire, and then a second labelled image showing what it would look like complete with all the goods and produce at the end of the period. Another student produced a rapid stop-motion animation in which she shaded each territory as it entered the Empire, and then rubbed it out as the Empire dissolved, with captions explaining each step of the process.
Taking it further – “Takeaway Mark Scheme”
Designing “Choose your own Homework” exercises necessarily entails a “Choose your own mark scheme” approach too. I have written about this concept here in some detail.
Mark Creasy’s “Unhomework: How to get the most out of homework, without really setting it” (Independent Thinking Press, 2014) is absolutely essential reading for anyone interested in trying out various “choose your own homework” strategies. Mark can be followed on Twitter (@EP3577).
Ross Morrison McGill (@TeacherToolkit) has written a great blogpost: “#TakeAwayHmk is #UnHomework” (http://goo.gl/02eN9c). This also analyses the latest research about the importance of homework.