My Homework “Why”

In recent years there has been much debate about homework.  Parents complain that homework takes away from family time or extracurricular activities.  Teachers complain that students aren’t completing their homework.  Students complain that the problem with homework is that there is simply too much.  Researchers have spent decades looking at the impact of homework on learning and retention.  As a teacher, I never questioned whether or not I would give homework.  Of course, I would!  We had homework, our parents had homework.  Homework is a tradition!

Traditions are great, but it all comes down to the WHY.  What is the “why” of homework in your class?  Recently I looked at my homework “why” and realized that I have, in the past, given homework for all these reasons that I thought, at the time, were valid: A) its good for them! B) homework equals rigor C) parents expect it D) this is the way it has always been E) it prepares them for college F) because I said so! (Just kidding! kind of.) Notice that none of the reasons above had anything to do with the curriculum, skills, or standards.  I realize that I need to look at homework in a completely different way and really examine why I assign it, when I assign it, and how I will use it to inform my own teaching.  As a result, I present three factors to consider when assigning homework.

 Quality

Is this a worthwhile assignment?  Ask yourself WHY the assignment is necessary and WHAT it is doing for the student.  For instance, is it extra practice, review, etc.?  Is it an assignment that students can simply copy from one another?  Can the student complete the assignment without the help of the teacher or parent?  Does the student need access to any type of technology and if so, is this available?  Are other materials required that a student may not have access to at home?  If it is a reading, can all students access the language on their own?  Is the homework appropriate for the students’ age and ability levels?

Time

How much time will the assignment take?  (And then consider:  is your time estimate accurate for all students–those struggling to those exceeding expectations?)  How much time do you expect students to devote to your class on a nightly/weekly basis?  Is this a realistic goal and does it take into account other classes, extracurriculars, family time, or just time to decompress in general?

Grading

How will the assignment affect the student’s grade?  If a student cannot complete the assignment accurately and needs more help, is he/she penalized?  Can students fail homework and still be given an opportunity to re-learn?   Is it graded just on completion? (If so, is it necessary?)  How are you using the results from the HW?

Other Points to Consider

  • Is this new material?  Is presenting new material best done with homework?
  • What if a student has already mastered the material?  Does that student still need to do the homework?  If a student does no homework but receives As on all the tests, should he be penalized?
  • Does the homework directly correlate to what students are learning that day in class?
  • Are you substituting homework for teaching that could take place in the class?
  • Do you consider how a student’s home environment affects their ability to complete homework? How do you accommodate those students?
  • Would it be more beneficial to observe students completing the work so that you could intervene as needed?
  • Are you giving homework because you have to “get through the curriculum”? If so, consider how you can slow down.  What you can change about the way the material is presented?  What can you change about classroom routines?  Are all of the projects/assignments/material absolutely necessary or can something be cut out?
  • HOW will you, the teacher, use the homework results?  Is the HW informing your teaching in some way or is it just done for credit/no credit?  Is the HW informing the students in some way?  Do they use the data from their own homework?

I have my own children in school now and this has really made me consider homework with fresh eyes.  I see my children’s frustration when they are not able to understand something.  They come to me for help, of course (because I am home, because I am educated, because I am willing…not all students have parents as a resource).  Sometimes I can help, sometimes I have to go online (because I have access…not all families do) to figure out the math (hey, Common Core math just looks different!).  I find or buy the materials, scissors, glue, pipe cleaners, etc. (who has pipe cleaners?!?) Also, Wednesdays are especially hectic at our house.  We arrive home and the kids quickly change clothes, grab water and snacks, and then we rush off to two hours of basketball practices.  We are at practice until 7 and the kids arrive home just in time to eat dinner and shower before they are off to bed at 8.  Squeezing in homework time is tough on those days.  The same goes for days when I have meetings.  And, honestly, just like the students, I don’t want to have too much homework!  After teaching all day, the last thing I want is to come home to hours of grading, planning lessons, or even answering emails.  I need me-time! (I realize that sometimes “homework” is inevitable for teachers, and especially English teacher, but days I don’t have work to do at home I am nicer to my family, less stressed, and just plain happier.  I know the same goes for our students.).

As you know from previous posts, part of my Edventure focuses on doing more in class with my students.  This means much less homework.  But wait, don’t you teach an AP class?!!? Yup! I teach an AP class and I this semester I have rarely assigned homework.  And my students are very engaged when they are in my class.  They are complaining less.  Here is the best part… my students are performing better at this point in the semester than my students did last year at this time.  The average AP practice multiple choice practice test was at 45% last year and this year the average is 55%.  Is this due to moving at a much slower pace and working on and practicing skills during class?  Does less homework play a part?  I am not sure.  There are probably other factors at play here as well.  However, I feel that having the time to answer questions in class and work with students one-on-one has helped them improve.  Students have said they feel less pressure and feel like they can be in the “learning zone” more often than the “performance zone.”  So I am going to continue giving homework only as needed. I will continue giving them time to complete the homework they do have (assign on Monday, collect on Friday, for example) so they can plan accordingly.  And I will continue to research homework practices to help improve my own. Recently, in fact, I learned about the history of homework.  If you don’t know the history,  take some time to read chapter one of Rethinking Homework: Best Practices that Support Diverse Needs by Cathy Vatterott.  (I am reading the entire book now if anyone wants to join me.  Let’s start a professional book club!).

I am sure controversy will continue when it comes to homework, but if we can be clear about our “homework why,” we can have meaningful conversations about the necessity and equity of homework.  In your departments, discuss ways homework may be helping or hindering students.  After all, happier, well-rested students will be more productive students and that means we will all be happier teachers. (I think I just found my big homework “why”!)

 

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2 comments

  1. One of the problems that I am having is that because I do not assign points to my homework, student will not do it. I explain to them that homework is for them to understand what things that they understood and what things they need to get further clarification on. It is an uphill battle to get them to understand the why behind homework that does not earn them points right away.

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  2. I had the same problem last year. If it wasn’t worth points or I didn’t collect it, they didn’t feel they had to do it. Now that we do most of our work in class and the homework is minimal ( for instance, one reading assigned Monday, due Friday via an online discussion. I have found when I have them discuss concepts online through Google Classroom they have more motivation since they like responding to one another). I also have made homework/classwork/projects/and quizzes all one category that is only 30% since writing is my big category at 50% so HW still seems meaningful as far as “points” go, but really it doesn’t count for much in the grand scheme of things. I have also considered making it like a 5% category because that could make the difference between a B and A in the end. I also tell them my expectations, as you have, and I am trying to get them to see the learning zone is even more valuable than the performance zone. I try to make them feel like they are part of the decision making when it comes to points/grading and ask for their feedback, too. But, yes, it is a struggle and one we have to keep at. And what works with one group of kids doesn’t always work with the others! Some student groups seem to have more intrinsic motivation to learn than others. This is something Pete Pew and I used to discuss…how do you teach or ignite intrinsic motivation?

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