The Homework Tree


My most recent Action Plan (after changing my mind about 10 times) goes something like this:

How might we ensure that students have a positive outlook on their math class and are engaged by the concepts?

There are many answers that jump to mind when I ask myself this question:

  • PBL (or at least, incorporating more elements of PBL in each unit)
  • Spiraling
  • Start with ‘big problems’ and let the core skills develop out of necessity
  • More hands-on manipulatives
  • More student choice
  • Math is Fun Fridays

However, when I consider the question another way, why are students not engaged in the concepts?, I started to consider how we assign homework.

For our senior school math courses, we assign homework this way:

Their homework is broken down into a minimum expectation, a standard expectation, and challenge problems which we ask for them to attempt, at the very least. We often encourage students to skip certain questions if they are understanding. For example, if #6 has parts (a), (b), (c), (d) assigned and a student can correct answer questions (a) and (d) and feel confident, then they can skip questions (b) and (c).

However, what I’ve learned is that this is not happening. Most students are trying all the listed problems and become either overwhelmed or bored and quit prior to the challenge problems (the problems we, as teachers, want them to try the most!). Other students see upwards of 20 questions listed and instantly feel defeated so they don’t even start.

I want to make homework more manageable for students and also in line with their current ability. My working prototype to do this is what I call a Homework Tree.

I wanted to make homework be a positive experience, which means different questions for different students. My hope is the following:

  • Students who answer Yes after the first 5 questions will gain confidence in their abilities
  • Students who answer No will realize they need extra help quicker than before.
  • If students answer No often, they will be motivated by this to want to be in the Yes category more often.
  • This can help with goal setting. Students who answered No a lot in a previous unit can set a goal of being in the Yes category more often next unit.
  • I’m hoping this way allows students to get to the challenge problems faster so they attempt these problems and improve their critical thinking skills. (I want to warm them up for these problems, I think our current way sometimes burns them out).
  • A student who struggled with the first 5 questions (and therefore answers No) is given a challenge problem they can handle. Again, trying to build confidence.

As I said earlier, I’m still in the prototype phase so any and all feedback is welcome!


About Michael Moore

I have taught senior mathematics at Hillfield Strathallan College for 10 years and I'm currently the Subject Coordinator for the Mathematics and Computer Science department.
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2 Responses to The Homework Tree

  1. Eric Daigle says:

    Hey @mmoore,

    You have stumbled upon or discovered or intuited the necessity for student voice and choice in the homework realm. This is linear adaptive learning at its best. Well done! I love the tree concept (although I was looking for more branches other than the usual binary one… being an English/Humanities teacher, that’s just me!).

    No doubt your students will excel at this new method as it empathises with their fears of failure and encourages resilience.

  2. Garth Nichols says:

    Dear @mmoore,

    This is a great strategy to give, as @edaigle wrote, voice and choice. I like how the homework is conditional too. This follows some basic tenants of differentiation and personalized approaches. I wonder how students see it? When I have done this type of work in the past, the most valuable feedback (and I would also say learning!) came when I ask students to reflect on WHY they chose a certain option and/or path.

    We have even experimented with this approach in previous iterations of Cohort 21’s second F2F. We had a learning matrix and had set it up with “If-Then” statements. If you are comfortable with Twitter, THEN begin here… IF you are still getting going with Google+ THEN start here.” With each choice, there were different starting points, instructional videos and challenges. But what I think is significant is asking the participants “why” they chose the path they did. This metacognition is key to the engagement process too.

    Great work here Mike, and I look foward to an update at our next F2F!

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