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Bellwork as Practice & How I Grade It

May 29, 2013

This post started as a comment on Lisa Henry’s post about Homework & SBG, but it was getting long so I decided to turn it in to a blog post. The essential question on Lisa’s post is: “what do you do about homework/practice problems when you are doing Standards Based Grading?”

Most of my daily practice comes in the form of bellwork and exit tickets. We have bellwork pretty much every single day – this is a very consistent part of my classroom. Bellwork is included as 5% of their grade in my class (very small). Here’s the typical routine:

The bell rings – I start a timer for 5-10 minutes. I take attendance, then I walk around and stamp students who have begun the bellwork. If a student hasn’t done anything more than write their name on the bellwork, no stamp. As I do this, I answer small questions but try not to get caught up tutoring individual students. When time is up, students take out a colored pen or pencil and we go over the bellwork as a class. This is mostly me calling on students to explain their answers (Cold Calling), unless there’s a specific point I want to clarify or a common mistake I’ve seen most students make. Students give themselves points when they have correct answers. If they don’t have a correct answer or they didn’t finish, they correct their bellwork with their colored pen or pencil, making notes about what mistakes they made. This last sentence is key. I collect the bellwork every day, but I never return it – I skim over it, then throw it away.

This is important because of how I grade bellwork: each bellwork is always worth 3 points. They get 1 point for the stamp – a motivation to not waste time and get started on time. They get another point for having every problem attempted, whether in pen or pencil. This means if a student doesn’t know how to do a problem, but follows along when we talk about it as a class and fills in their answer with a colored pen, they still get the point. However, if a student leaves a problem blank and doesn’t pay attention when we discuss it as a class, no point for this person. They get the last point for having corrected any mistakes in their colored pen or pencil. Notice that none of this has to do with whether or not a student answered a question correctly on their first try – what matters is that they tried to clarify their understanding as we discussed it as a class. I make a big deal about this at the beginning of the year – the purpose of the bellwork is to get practice, then reflect on that practice to determine what you need to work on, which is why you need to switch to a colored pen when you correct. Lots of corrections = come talk to me after school so we can see what’s going on.

A student who’s on-track should get 100% because they started on time and they know all the material. A student who is struggling should get 100% because they attempt every problem and realize where they get stuck, then correct their mistakes when we go over it as a class (which still earns them a point). A student who’s been absent for the last week can get 100% by asking a neighbor for help as I’m walking by with a stamp, then filling in the correct answers when we talk about the problems as a class. The only way not to  get 100% is to not care about the practice in the first place.

The purpose of this system is to encourage self-reflection and ownership of where they stand in terms of understanding the course material. When we talk about the bellwork, students are focused and ask questions – they know that their points come from fixing their mistakes and making comments about their work. Eventually, this attitude stops being about ‘earning points’ and becomes a habit for them as students – to analyze how they did and what that means for them as students. In my mind, the whole purpose of practice is to encourage students to realize where they stand with the material – to help students become more self reflective and realize where their weaknesses are and what they can do to turn these into strengths. So, I grade bellwork in such a way that encourages these reflective habits, rather than rewards completeness or correctness.

So, the answer I’m pursuing to the ‘homework/practice in an SBG world’ problem is finding ways of grading that rewards reflection, correction, and self-regulation about how much practice they need before the assessment.

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From → Classroom Theory

10 Comments
  1. vanvleettv permalink

    How long are your class periods? I love the system and want to try something like it, but I would be afraid it would take up to much time?

  2. Is there a particular reason that you don’t return the bellwork sheets or at least keep a running binder of them for individual students?

    • The purpose of the bellwork isn’t for the student to accumulate points – its for the student to get feedback about how well they understand the material. The way I do bellwork, it’s the student providing feedback to themselves. That feedback has already occurred once they turn it in – if I were to return it, there would be no ‘next step’ for the student other than to put it in a binder and forget about it.

      This is part of a bigger picture about feedback. If I pass something back, this means I’ve provided the feedback and I want students to take it seriously. I want my students to look over it carefully and for there to be a ‘next step’ – something like fixing mistakes or coming to tutoring or validating their knowledge. If I don’t intend to give meaningful feedback, I don’t pass it back.

      There’s a conversation I have with my class at the beginning of the year about the ‘purpose’ of certain types of assignments. There are three categories: for you, for me, for us. I tell them that bellwork, notes, and certain practice problems are ‘for you’ so you know where you stand – I try not to collect things in this category. I tell them exit tickets are ‘for me’ so I know where the class stands and I can make adjustments. I collect these, but then I don’t pass them back because they’re for me to make adjustments, not you. Then there are things that are ‘for us’, which is where you can keep turning something in and I’ll keep providing feedback. These are the things I pass back. Assessments and homework fall into this category – when I pass these back, take the feedback seriously.

  3. Kathy permalink

    What about the students that don’t have any wrong answers and don’t need to correct anything? Do they need to write something or lose that last point?

    • I make them put a little “+1″ next to anything they get correct. Sometimes a problem is worth 2-3 points, which I use to emphasize places where students may make common mistakes. At the end of the bellwork, they write their score at the top – “5/5″, “3/5″, etc. This is how I’ve usually seen bellwork scored whenever I’ve done classroom observations – however, in my system, this score doesn’t go into the gradebook. Bellworks are always worth 3 gradebook points, even if the bellwork itself had 5 problems on it. I tell students that how we grade the bellwork as a class is an insight into how I’ll be grading their assessments, which is where the bellwork derives meaning.

  4. I really like this. I have been doing something similar, the big difference being it hasn’t been for points. I would like to introduce this next year. I have also been getting their peers to make the comments and grade each other’s bellwork. This could get a little cumbersombe in terms of who to give the points to but I think it would totally be worth it.

  5. First of all, thank you for this blog–I have benefitted from each of the last four posts or so–I just discovered it via twitter last month.

    Anyhow, my question is about homework. How do you balance having both as part of your class’ daily ritual? I have several times had classes where handling both of these daily chores seemed confusing, like–which are we doing, the homework or the bell work? Like it’s too much. But maybe it isn’t too much? Maybe I just haen’t tried it for long enough?

    • Hi Mark,

      I don’t balance them – I’m more of a classwork person than a homework person. Some of my thoughts on this can be found here: http://mathymcmatherson.wordpress.com/2011/11/03/homework-centered-classroom-or-bellwork-centered-classroom/

      In your comment, you referred to bellwork and homework as ‘daily chores’, and I know exactly what you’re talking about – in some classrooms, these activities have more to with classroom management than with meaningful mathematics or practice. In my mind, the fundamental purpose of homework or bellwork is to give students the opportunity to practice and receive feedback. For most concepts, I don’t want practice to be optional, which is why I focus so much on bellwork and exit tickets – I make them do it in class so I can give them the feedback right away. When I do assign homework, it is usually after I’ve collected enough formative data to make sure most students can do the problems independently, and I make it clear that this is for additional practice and preparation for an upcoming exam/project. I usually don’t spend time going over the homework in class unless I notice a pattern with the kinds of questions I’m getting – instead, I have the answers posted somewhere so they can check their answers. I rarely collect this kind of homework – I don’t to reinforce that the goal of homework is to ‘earn points’.

      Hope this gives you more food for thought

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