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Organizing Math Homework

Q: What suggestions do you have for helping my son become more organized about his schoolwork?
A: I have several! Here are some ideas to try.

Set up a homework/study calendar. Look for one that has a lot of space for writing. Encourage your son to use a red pen to mark the dates of tests or due dates for important projects. Then have him use a green pen for activities leading up to the due date. For example, spelling test may be entered on Friday and the spelling homework activities leading up to the test may be entered in green.

 Make a home-study kit. A lot of homework time is wasted looking for pencils and paper. Having materials on hand makes being organized much easier, so put the necessary tools in place. A shoebox will do, and I recently made a model home study kit using an easy-to-put-together box from a discount store. Keep the following in your son's kit (let him help you shop for these items if he's interested):

  • paper: lined, blank, and graphing
  • pencils and pens
  • ruler
  • crayons
  • marking pens
  • dictionary

File fix-up. Have your son set up a file folder for each of his academic subjects. He can do this with regular office-supply folders or make his own folders with construction paper. He can then label each folder and only keep important papers. For example, it is a good idea to look at old spelling tests to prepare for comprehensive tests at the end of the semester. Also, it is helpful to keep adding all the research for a paper to a folder so everything he needs will be in one place when he starts to write.

Teach him a 5-minute focus exercise. Before your son starts his schoolwork, encourage him to take 5 minutes to focus on what he needs to do. This can take the form of writing down what he will do. For example:

1. Math problems __
2. Look up information for report __
3. Study spelling words __
4. Read __

Then he can check off each task as completed. It feels great to check off items on a to-do list.

Mathematics is a language, and as such it has standards of writing which should be observed. In a writing class, one must respect the rules of grammar and punctuation, one must write in organized paragraphs built with complete sentences, and the final draft must be a neat paper with a title. Similarly, there are certain standards for mathematics assignments.

Write your name and class number clearly at the top of at least the first page, along with the assignment number, the section number(s), or the page number(s). If you are not stapling or paper-clipping the pages together, then put your name (or at least your initials) on all the pages.

Use standard-sized paper (8.5" × 11" for North Americans; A4 for others), with no "fringe" running down the side as a result of the paper’s having been torn out of a spiral notebook. Do not use sticky-notes, scented stationery, or other nonstandard types of paper.

Use standard-weight paper, not onion skin, construction paper, or otherwise abnormally thin or heavy paper.

Attach your pages with a paper clip or staple. Do not fold, tear, spit on, or otherwise "dog-ear" the pages. It is better that the pages be handed in loose (with your name on each sheet) than that the corners be folded or shredded.

Clearly indicate the number of the exercise you are doing. If you accidentally do a problem out of order, or separate one part of the problem from the rest, then include a note to the grader, directing the grader to the missed problem or work.

Write out the original exercise (except in the case of word problems, which are too long).

Do your work in pencil, with mistakes cleanly erased, not crossed or scratched out. If you work in ink, use "white-out" to correct mistakes.

Write legibly (that is, suitably large and suitably dark); if the grader can't read your answer, it's wrong.

Write neatly across the page, with each succeeding problem below the preceding one, not off to the right. Do not work in multiple columns down the page (like a newspaper); your page should contain only one column.

Keep work within the margins. If you run out of room at the end of a problem, continue onto the next page; do not try to squeeze lines together at the bottom of the sheet. Do not lap over the margins on the left or right; do not wrap writing around the notebook-paper holes.

Do not squeeze the problems together, with one problem running into the next. Use sufficient space for each problem, with at least one blank line between the end of one problem and the beginning of the next.

Do "scratch work," but do it on scratch paper; hand in only the "final draft." Show your steps, but any work that is scribbled in the margins belongs on scratch paper, not on your hand-in homework.

Show your work. This means showing your steps, not just copying the question from the assignment, and then the answer from the back of the book. Show everything in between the question and the answer. Use complete English sentences if the meaning of the mathematical sentences is not otherwise clear. For your work to be complete, you need to explain your reasoning and make your computations clear.

For tables and graphs, use a ruler to draw the straight lines, and clearly label the axes, the scale, and the points of interest. Use a consistent scale on the axes, and do a T-chart, unless instructed otherwise. Also, make your table or graph large enough to be clear. If you can fit more than three or four graphs on one side of a sheet of paper, then you're drawing them too small.

Do not invent your own notation and abbreviations, and then expect the grader to figure out what you meant. For instance, do not use "#" in your sentence if you mean "pounds" or "numbers". Do not use the "equals" sign ("=") to mean "indicates", "stands for", "leads to", "is related to", or anything else in a sentence; use actual words. The equals sign should be used only in equations, and only to mean "is equal to".

Do not do magic. Plus/minus signs ("±"), "= 0", radicals, and denominators should not disappear in the middle of your calculations, only to mysteriously reappear at the end. Each step should be complete.

If the problem is of the "Explain" or "Write in your own words" type, then copying the answer from the back of the book, or the definition from the chapter, is unacceptable. Write the answer in your words, not the text's.

Remember to put your final answer at the end of your work, and mark it clearly by, for example, underlining it or drawing a box around it. Label your answer appropriately; if the question asks for measured units, make sure to put appropriate units on the answer. If the question is a word problem, the answer should be in words.

In general, write your homework as though you're trying to convince someone that you know what you're talking about.

You should use your instructor or grader as a study aid, in addition to the text, study guides, study groups, and tutoring services. Your work is much easier to grade when you have made your work and reasoning clear, and any difficulties you have in completing the assignment can be better explained by the grader. More importantly, however, completely worked and corrected homework exercises make excellent study guides for the Final. Also, if you develop good habits while working on the homework, you will generally perform better on the tests.

In summary, schools today have made the development of essential skills, the provision of significant and meaningful learning experiences, and the development of the workforce some of its primary goals for student success. As such, they want their instructors to guide the students toward a higher level of confidence and competence. In math, that translates into a greater need for clarity in mathematical writing. The intention on these "Homework Guidelines" is that you and your instructor communicate better, and that you succeed both in your present mathematics courses and in future mathematical communication with co-workers and clients.

For further information, review these examples of acceptable and unacceptable solutions, and this sheet showing neat and messy papers.

Instructors: These "Homework Guidelines" are copyrighted by Elizabeth Stapel.

You are welcome to use these "Homework Guidelines," in part or in hole, as an asset in teaching your own classes. The only conditions of use are that distribution, if any, of the Homework Guidelines be made at no cost to the recipient(s), that the original copyright notice be retained on copies of this page, and that the following notice be included on all derivative works:

Based on "Homework Guidelines"
http://www.purplemath.com/guidline.htm
Copyright Elizabeth Stapel
Used By Permission

If you would like an example sheet for your students (displaying the differences between acceptable and unacceptable formatting), try this PDF.


URL: http://www.purplemath.com/guidline.htm