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Teaching approaches: checking-homework Challenge

Level: Starter/beginner, Elementary, Pre-intermediate, Intermediate, Upper intermediate, Advanced Type: Reference material

Some ideas of how to make the whole-class correction of homework less of a chore and more of an active challenge.

The problem: checking HW exercises without being boring. Suggestions on ways to check exercises in class that don't turn the mood somber? I feel that checks are a necessity, but have yet to find an effective way to do this.

These are just a few ideas of how to make the whole-class correction of homework less of a chore and more of an active challenge. The suggestions given are specifically geared to be used when correcting exercises set from a workbook or worksheet as homework but some ideas may also be used when giving feedback for tasks set in class.

  1. Give students a chance to compare their answers in pairs. Students can then correct/ change/ complete their own answers before a whole class check. This puts students at the centre of the correction process from the start and asks them to reflect upon their own and each other’s answers with a greater degree of learner autonomy.

  2. Take names out of a hat at random to nominate the students who are to supply answers (make sure this is done in a ‘fun’ way, explaining to students that they have an opportunity to PASS if their name is called).

  3. Use a ball or a scrunched up ball of newspaper weighted with a thick rubber band (lightweight balls that don’t bounce are best – bouncy balls have a tendency to get lost in the darkest corners of the classroom) to throw at random around the class to see who gets to give their answer to questions. Whoever gets the ball throws it to the next student. Again, give students an opportunity to pass if necessary.

  4. Alternate between asking for answers to be volunteered and calling on specific students to answer questions. Where the teacher is unfamiliar with the various ability groups in a class, nominating students can be a nightmare, especially if weaker or less confident learners are inadvertently asked to provide their answer to more complex questions. However, nominating is a way of ensuring the participation of those who are less likely to volunteer. Alternating between volunteers and nominated students solves this problem in part, but nominees should always be given the chance to pass if they prefer.

  5. To ensure that all students participate in the correction process, pre-prepare a grid that includes the question numbers for the various exercises that are to be corrected. Leave a space next to each question number. At the beginning of the lesson, get students to put their name down to answer the various questions. Tell students that, even if they did not do the homework they can still try to answer a question of their choice but do not force students to put their names down. When all the students who wish to participate have put their names down for at least one question, take the list in and use it to call on the students to answer the questions in turn. This ensures that the students called upon will be answering questions they themselves feel confident about (or else questions for which they would prefer individual feedback). If this process is repeated over several lessons, it also gives the teacher a chance to see whether there are students who repeatedly prefer not to be involved in the homework correction process. These students and their individual problems regarding homework can then be dealt with on a one-to-one basis.

  6. For fill-in-the-gaps exercises or simple one- or two-word answers present feedback in power point or on an OHP. Go through answers one by one giving time for students to check their own work. At the end of each exercise, stop and give students a chance to query, provide alternatives, or request further information regarding specific answers.

  7. Ask the class to do a quick survey in groups ranking exercises from the most to least difficult, the most to least interesting, the most to least useful etc.. Use student feedback to decide which exercise to correct together first and then give exercises ranked by the majority as the least interesting/difficult on OHP/power point as above to speed up the correction process. This ensures that students will be more alert during the correction of what they perceived to be the most problematic areas of their homework. Homework ranking tasks also provide important feedback to the teacher who may use the data provided to check on the cause of problems areas at a later date. Students may perceive certain exercises as difficult for different reasons – length, typology, unclear instructions, vocabulary density of exercise, grammatical problems, uninteresting topic etc.. A further analysis of these issues may help the teacher to decide which exercises to set or dedicate more time to in the future. Remember to check your students’ ranking of difficult exercises after correction – what students may have originally perceived as problematic may not actually correspond to their own performance. This again may be something that can be discussed and analyzed further at a later date.

  8. For teachers in a hurry to get correcting out of the way – simply vary the order in which exercises are corrected. This ensures that students are alert and are following the correction process.

  9. Get students to check through answers in pairs by photocopying the key (readymade or produced by the teacher) or displaying answers on an OHP. Set aside time at the end of the lesson for individual students to discuss problem areas or organize a tutorial session where students can come and discuss problems individually with the teacher while the group works on another task/project work.

  10. Change the time of the lesson in which homework is corrected. Most students expect homework corrections to come right at the beginning of a lesson and, let’s face it, it’s not the best or most enjoyable way to start off! Try checking homework as a way of ‘calming down’ after a boisterous group-work session or leave it till the end of the lesson. Incidentally, this also works with setting homework. Try varying the point of the lesson at which homework is set to ensure that all the students are paying attention!

  11. Take in students’ workbooks occasionally or provide photocopies of exercises that can be handed in. Though this does add to the teacher’s workload, it is worth taking a look at how students deal with more mechanical exercises that differ from extended written work which necessarily requires individual marking and feedback. Taking a look at a workbook can provide an idea of problem areas for individual students, again with a view to diagnosing problem areas in structures/ vocabulary or assessing difficulties that may be based on other factors such as lack of interest in the topic, unclear instructions etc.. It may also allow the teacher to gain insight into how much (or how little) homework an individual student is regularly putting in. Following the teacher’s appraisal of the students’ workbooks individual tutorials may be arranged to discuss issues as appropriate.

  12. Provide mini keys of individual exercises to distribute to pairs. Students then take it in turns to ‘play the teacher’ and check each other’s answers. Where more than two exercises need checking pairs can exchange keys and repeat the process as many times as necessary. The teacher can circulate and deal with queries as pairs are checking. However, remember to provide an opportunity for the discussion of problem areas at the end of the pair-work session or at the end of the lesson.

  13. Most workbook exercises that need to be checked are not specifically designed to practise pronunciation. Where pronunciation exercises are set make sure that adequate time is given to teacher modelling and student production of target items. In the majority of cases, i.e. where structures, vocabulary and functions are being practised, vary the correction procedure by taking time out along the way to focus on pronunciation/ intonation issues. Even the most boring feedback sessions can be livened up by a rousing choral repetition session!

  14. Spot check on lexis by occasionally eliciting synonyms/ antonyms/ similar expressions/ analogous idioms of items taken from the exercises being corrected. This also provides an added opportunity for those who did not do the homework to participate in the correction process and allows those who did not necessarily provide a correct answer in an exercise to regain their confidence in being able to answer extra questions. This technique is also useful for involving more competent or confident students. Spot check questions should therefore be carefully gauged to include the whole ability range. Extra questions can also include pronunciation issues by eliciting word stress, number of syllables, homophones etc. The teacher is obviously free to ask spot check questions at any point during the correction process. However, it may be worth just taking a quick look at the exercises that are to be corrected beforehand so that appropriate extra questions may be devised in advance.

  15. Using photocopies or an OHP transparency, create a multiple choice answer key for a few exercises where three possible answers to each question are provided, only one of which is correct. Students then compare their own answers with the alternatives given. They then choose the answer that they consider correct (which may or may not correspond with their own original answer). This activity gives students a chance to rethink their own answers before the teacher finally provides the key. It also gives less confident students and those who may not have completed the task an opportunity to take part in the correction process.

  16. Play the ‘Who wants to be a millionaire?’ game when correcting. In this case, students are placed in two teams. Students from each team are called upon alternately to provide answers to each question. Each team has a set number of ‘ask a friend’, ‘fifty-fifty’ and ‘pass’ cards which they can use at their discretion. (Numbers can be decided on the basis of how many students there are in each team. For a class of 12 students with teams of 6 players each, one card of each type should be ample. The ‘cards’ do not have to be made as such. They may be simply registered on the board for each team and rubbed off as they are used). For ‘ask-a-friend’ a student may ask another member of his/her team to provide the answer. For ‘fifty-fifty’ the teacher gives two alternative answers and the student must choose which he/she considers correct. (This may need some prior preparation, depending on the teacher’s ability to come up with sneaky alternatives!) If the student passes, the answer is given by the teacher and no points are scored. One word of warning – as this game has a strong competitive element, please make sure that an equal number of questions is given to each team and that a variety of exercises is ensured. It is a good idea to split individual exercises into two halves and give teams an equal number of questions each. If an exercise has an odd number of answers, the teacher can simply provide the answer to the first question as an example.

  17. Finally, be upbeat about homework correction. Camp up the performance if necessary with a round of applause for correct answers. Sound effects for applause can be recorded or included in power point presentations or the students themselves can be encouraged to clap when correct answers are given. With younger students, take care that clapping does not turn to booing wrong answers, however. If this is a risk, you might consider a collective round of applause at the end of each exercise corrected. Also remember that homework feedback which involves student participation may be an intense source of satisfaction when students are able to provide the right answer but it can also be a source of embarrassment for those who are unable to do so. Make sure lots of praise and encouragement is given for answers that are even partly correct and, where possible, give positive feedback for areas that are not necessarily the focus of the exercise (such as good pronunciation in the case of grammatical errors or wrong answers in comprehension exercises).

Remember: students quickly tune in to the mood of their teacher. If the teacher presents homework correction as a valid and interesting part of the learning process it will be infectious and homework corrections need never be boring again!

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