Thinking about homework

The teachers on our team all have different homework policies which confuses our students and their parents. Do you have any suggestions to help us become more consistent?
–Jacob from Virginia
My views on homework evolved throughout my years in the classroom, as I came to understand my students better and improve my instructional strategies. Rather than suggestions, I’ll offer some reflections to stimulate discussion with your colleagues. I suggest, however, that you examine some of the research on the effectiveness of homework (for example, the book Rethinking Homework has a chapter on this topic). I’ve created a resource collection with summaries of research studies and other readings.
Perception of homework’s value is mixed. Teachers who don’t assign homework are considered “easy,” regardless of what their in-class expectations. Teachers who give a lot are “rigorous,” even if the assignments are trivial, unnecessary, or unrelated to the learning goals. Some parents demand homework for their children, others make excuses or even do the assignments for the student. Some schools have formulas as to how much homework is appropriate (X minutes multiplied by the grade level), homework hotlines, and homework sessions at the end of a marking period for students to recoup some points toward their grades.
I once had lunch with teachers at an elementary school where their discussion centered on consequences for students who didn’t complete homework. The options included keeping students after school, reducing their grades, keeping them in at recess, calling parents, issuing demerits, or giving “gotcha” quizzes.  They also discussed whether to accept late assignments. But not one teacher mentioned the value or purpose of the assignments.
I observed a class where the “homework” was a find-a-word on the planets (it must have been an oldie—Pluto was still listed as the ninth planet) and a maze “Help the Astronaut Find His Spaceship.” I have no idea what the learning goals were for this busywork, but I suspect that if students did not do these worksheets, they would have suffered the “consequences.”

If a learning activity, such as completing a worksheet or study guide, is completed in class, it’s called classwork, but completed outside of class it’s categorized as homework and weighted differently toward a grade. The same activity is awarded points based on where and when it is to be completed, not on how it helps students with the learning goals. And I’m puzzled by students who claim that they finish all of their homework in class—is the assignment then reconsidered classwork?
I’m concerned when homework used as a punishment: “If you don’t settle down, you’ll have homework this evening.” Or when lack of homework is used as a reward: “You’ve all behaved very well today, so there will be no homework” or “You can earn a ‘get out of homework’ pass for doing Z,” a behavior unrelated to the learning goals.
What about students who don’t have support at home? Do all your students have parents who help or encourage them? Do they have access to technology, a quiet place free from interruptions and distractions, or even something as simple as a box of pencils and paper? How should students juggle homework with other meaningful activities such as music lessons, sports, family events and responsibilities, community activities, afterschool jobs, or personal interests?
What if we gave students ideas for pursuing topics of interest outside of school rather than busywork for its own sake—options such as reading lists, videos, or other science-related activities that engage students without the “grade” component?
However, it might be reasonable to ask students to practice skills, finish a lab report started in class, review the content presented in class, or prepare for a lesson (e.g., videos, podcasts, readings). You might be interested in learning more about the “flipped classroom” model (follow #flipclass on Twitter).
Some suggest homework teaches students to be responsible, but it seems this lesson is not learned very well. Teachers of juniors and seniors still complain about students not doing homework. We should ask what we’re asking students to be responsible for—for making decisions about their learning? Or for complying with the teacher’s directions?
Brian (not his real name), who had a reputation among the seventh grade teachers for not doing homework, gave me a lot to think about one morning when he met me at the door. “Did you see that TV show on spiders last evening?” he asked, referring to a PBS program. He talked nonstop about spiders and mentioned some library books he had read. Obviously something had captured his interest! I wondered what homework did not get done as he pursued his interest in spiders? Were other teachers punishing him for spending time on this rather than on their assignments?
Vatterott, C. 2009. Rethinking homework. Alexandria, VA: ASCD

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2 Responses to Thinking about homework

  1. Sheryl says:

    While I believe that are some valid points in the article, they are small. The best point lies in the actual question that was written for this response: homework policies are inconsistent and that confuses parents and teachers. Homework policies should be consistent not only within a team, but in a school.
    Homework gets a bad rap when it is perceived as a meaningless waste of time. On the other hand, it is unrealistic to think that every student will get a tailored homework assignment on a regular basis. There are good reasons for homework and they include individual practice of the daily lesson, particularly when we consider the area of mathematics, for example.
    I have a hard time ruling out homework in grades K-12 for the college bound student. Suddenly, at age 18, after never having homework, you miraculously know how to work independently and manage your time for assignments? That would be an interesting experiment. I also think about the US and how we need to be able to compete in a global market when students in other countries already outperform ours.
    Homework should be meaningful. That doesn’t always mean it’s fun. I’m concerned that our students are growing up thinking that everything has to be “fun” or it’s not worth doing.

  2. P R Guruprasad says:

    Brian’s story is a classic example of how `homework’ can be wrongly perceived by the teaching community. I think that the most important aim of any effective homework should be to encourage students to apply classroom concepts in their day to day world. (This is very possible with most math and science (physical science) concepts up to the middle school level, as I have seen in my career in different countries). Otherwise, the work is simply an extension of classwork and nothing else. Unfortunately, our syllabi, textbooks and recently, elearning materials do not address this important aspect. Thanks for the thought provoking blog.

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