Archive for October 5, 2017

The Homework Inequality: 1 Great Problem > 50 Repetitive Exercises

Yesterday, my sons Alex and Eli were completing their homework on fraction operations, which included 39 problems in 4 sets, wherein each problem in a set was indistinguishable from its neighbors.

The worksheet contained 12 problems of fraction addition, 9 problems of fraction subtraction, 9 problems of fraction multiplication, and 9 problems of fraction-times-whole-number multiplication. That’s 39 problems of drudgery, when 10 problems would’ve been sufficient. Here’s a link to the worksheet they were given, if you’d like to torture your children or students in a similar way:

Frustrated by the monotony of the assignment, I told the boys they didn’t have to do all of the problems, and they could stop when they felt that they had done enough from each set.

“No,” said Alex. “We’re supposed to do them all.”

My sons are responsible students, but I’m frustrated by teachers who take advantage of their work ethic. Just because they’re willing to complete 50 exercises for homework doesn’t mean they should be assigned 50 exercises for homework.

My colleague at Discovery Education, Matt Cwalina, puts it this way:

Cwalina HW Quote

Some say that a picture is worth a thousand words. I say,

A great problem is worth a thousand exercises.

Personally, I would much rather have students think deeply about one challenging problem than mindlessly complete an entire worksheet. Luckily, my sons take after their daddy and love number puzzles, so I spontaneously created one.

Find three fractions, each with a single-digit numerator and denominator, that multiply to get as close to 1 as possible. Don’t repeat digits.

Eli started randomly suggesting products. “What about 4/5 × 6/7 × 9/8?” He’d work out the result, say, “I think I can do better,” then try another. And another. And another. Finally, he found a product that equaled 1. (No spoiler here. Find it yourself.)

Alex eventually found an answer, too. At the bottom of his homework assignment, he added a section that he titled “Bonus” where he captured his attempts:

I don’t know exactly how many calculations Eli completed while working on this problem, but I know that Alex completed at least seven, thanks to his documentation. Wouldn’t you agree that completing several fraction computations while thinking about this more interesting problem is superior to doing a collection of random fraction computations with no purpose?

There is a preponderance of evidence (see Rohrer, Dedrick, and Stershic 2015; definitely check out Figure 4 at the top of page 905) that massed practice — that is, completing a large number of repetitions of the same activity over and over — is counterproductive. Unfortunately, massed practice feels good because it results in short-term memory gains, which trigger a perceived level of mastery; but, it doesn’t lead to long-term retention. Moreover, students who learn a skill by practicing it repeatedly get really good at performing that skill when they know it’s coming; but, two months down the road, when they need to use that skill in an unfamiliar context because it’s not on a worksheet titled “Lesson 0.1: Adding and Multiplying Fractions,” they’re less likely to remember than if they had used more effective practice methods. One of those more effective methods is interleaving, which involves spacing out practice over multiple sessions and varying the difficulty of the tasks. Whether you’re trying to learn how to integrate by parts or how to hit a curve ball, be sure to make your practice exercises a little more difficult than you’re used to. Know that interleaving your practice will not feel as good as massed practice while you’re doing it; but later, you’ll feel better due to improved memory, long-term learning, and mastery of skills.

Interleaving is one of the reasons I love the MathCounts School Handbook, which can be downloaded for free from the MathCounts website. The topics covered by the 250 problems in the School Handbook run the gamut from algebra, number sense, and probability, to geometry, statistics, combinatorics, sequences, and proportional reasoning — and any given page may contain problems of any type! Veteran MathCounts coach Nick Diaz refers to this mixture as “shotgun style,” meaning that students never know what’s coming next. Consequently, similar problems are not presented all at once; instead, students are exposed to them several days or perhaps weeks apart. Having to recall a skill that hasn’t been used for a while requires more effort than remembering what you did just five minutes ago, but the result is long-term retention. It’s doubtful that the writers of the first MathCounts School Handbook knew the research about interleaving and massed practice… but they clearly knew about effective learning.

The other reason I like the MathCounts School Handbook is the difficulty level of the problems. Sure, some of the items look like traditional textbook exercises, but you’ll also find a lot of atypical problems, like this one from the 2017-18 School Handbook:

If p, q, and r are prime numbers such that pq + r = 73, what is the least possible value of p + q + r?

That problem, as well as the fraction problem that I created for Alex and Eli, would both fall into the category of open-middle problems, which means…

  • the beginning is closed: every students starts with the same initial problem.
  • the end is closed: there is a small, finite number of unique answers (often, just one).
  • the middle is open: there are multiple ways to approach and ultimately solve the problem.

Open-middle problems often allow for implicit procedural practice while asking students to focus on a more challenging problem. This results in a higher level of engagement for students. Moreover, it reduces the need for massed practice, because students are performing calculations while doing something else. You can find a large collection of open-middle problems at, and the following is one of my favorites:

Use the digits 1 to 9, at most one time each, to fill in the boxes to make a result that has the greatest value possible.

Maximum Exponent Boxes

It’s a great problem, because random guessing will lead students to combinations that work, but it may not be obvious how to determine the greatest possible value. Consequently, there’s an entry point for all students, the problem offers implicit procedural practice, and the challenge of finding the greatest value provides motivation for students to continue.

I have a dream that one day, in traditional classrooms where 50 problems are assigned for homework every night, where procedural fluency is valued over conceptual understanding; that one day, right there in those classrooms, students will no longer think that math is simply a series of disparate rules with no purpose, but instead will experience the joy of attempting and solving challenging problems that inspire purposeful play and, as a side benefit, encourage students to practice the skills they will need to be successful learners.

There are myriad resources available so that teachers and parents can encourage their students to engage in these kinds of problem-solving activities, so it is my hope that this dream is not too far away.

As a special bonus for reading to the end, check out this Interleaved Mathematics Practice Guide that Professor Doug Rohrer was kind enough to share with me (and now, with you).


October 5, 2017 at 6:06 am 2 comments

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The Math Jokes 4 Mathy Folks blog is an online extension to the book Math Jokes 4 Mathy Folks. The blog contains jokes submitted by readers, new jokes discovered by the author, details about speaking appearances and workshops, and other random bits of information that might be interesting to the strange folks who like math jokes.

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