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Rethinking homework and what its purpose is can raise a lot of hackles in education. It's always just kind of been there as a given, something every student gets to look forward to. As a result, it's never been questioned or refined as a concept. But maybe it should be.
When it comes to homework, we've all been at least one of these three things: students, teachers, or parents. You may consider yourself a pretty skilled adult when it comes to problem-solving. However, when your child's homework still isn't finished at 10:00 PM and you both need sleep, it gets tough to support the idea of homework at all.
On one side you have arguments stating that:
- Students need to practice
- Parents should be involved and reinforce the teacher’s goals
- Students should think about subjects outside of school
On the other side you have these points:
- Homework steals family bonding time
- Homework isn't differentiated
- Some struggle while others don’t even need it
- Homework creates stress and sleep deprivation
In the end, our goal in education is to provide the best learning possible. Rather than get into this debate, let's decide not to use the terms "good" or "bad." Instead, let's begin our task of rethinking homework using the terms "effective" and "ineffective."
Opinions on Rethinking Homework
Carol Dweck, author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, says:
“Homework assignments should not feel like mindless, repetitive exercises; rather, they should present novel problems for students to solve, require them to apply what they've learned in new ways, or ask them to stretch to the next level ... For example, suppose that students are learning about the rise and fall of civilizations. Their homework assignment might be to apply their learning by designing a civilization that would either thrive (by building in positive factors) or implode (by building in risk factors). They can write the story of their civilization and what happened to it. Or suppose students were studying Shakespeare's sonnets. For homework, they could write a sonnet to the person or animal of their choice in the style of Shakespeare.”
Kathleen Cushman, author of Fires in the Mind puts it this way:
"What would it take to turn homework into the kind of practice that would help students strengthen their skills and knowledge in academic subjects? Perhaps the most powerful steps in that direction would occur, we speculated, when students could start to think of homework as 'getting good' at something—and when teachers could welcome feedback from kids on what best supports that developing mastery."
Finally, consider this from Alfie Khon:
"When students are treated with respect, when the assignments are worth doing, most kids relish a challenge. If, on the other hand, students groan about, or try to avoid homework, it’s generally because they get too much of it, or because it’s assigned thoughtlessly and continuously, or simply because they had nothing to say about it. The benefits of even high-quality assignments are limited if students feel 'done to' instead of 'worked with.' "
In the end, our goal in education is to provide the best learning possible.
Making Homework Meaningful
Now that we've heard some other ideas, let's look at a list of concepts for rethinking homework.
- A growing number of teachers who understand that the proper role of homework is deliberate practice believe (rightly so) that homework should not be graded.
- Homework should be meaningful to each student. Cookie-cutter worksheet assignments will either be too easy for some or too challenging for others. Students should be able to deliberately practice what will make them become better.
- Homework, if given at all, should be completed in a reasonable amount of time by the least experienced student to allow for family time or rest time.
- Feedback must be given after assignments are turned in.
With that said, Cathy Vatterott, author of Rethinking Homework: Best Practices That Support Diverse Needs, gives us her 5 characteristics of quality homework:
- First, a quality homework task has a clear academic purpose such as practice, checking for understanding, or applying knowledge or skills.
- Second, the task is efficient in terms of time required to demonstrate student learning.
- Third, the task promotes student ownership of learning by offering choices and by being personally relevant.
- Fourth, the task instils a sense of competence—the student can successfully complete it without help.
- Lastly, the task is aesthetically pleasing to the student—it appears enjoyable and interesting.
Homework Advice from Students
Kathleen Cushman spoke to a bunch of students and asked what it would take for homework to be meaningful to them. They came up with some tips:
- Make sure we know what purpose the homework serves. Write it at the top of the assignment so we remember it.
- Use our homework. Look at it, answer our questions, and show us why it matters.
- Don’t take off points for wrong answers on homework. It’s practice!
- Cooperate with other teachers so our total homework load is reasonable.
- Give us time to start our homework in class so you can help if we have trouble. When appropriate, assign different tasks to match what each of us needs.
- Match homework to the time we have available. Let us know how long you expect us to spend on it and don’t penalize us if we can’t finish.
- Don’t give us homework every day. Having several days to do it helps us learn to manage our time.
- Create places in school for sustained academic support: tutoring time, study halls, and hours when you are always available for help.
Amy Winters via Teaching Channel has a routine which inspires students to complete their homework. As students enter the class, they immediately copy their assignments from the board. Then they take out their previous night’s assignment and begin discussing their conclusions among themselves.
According to Winters, problems are usually taken care of at this time through peer collaboration, but she addresses further questions after group discussions. This routine informs students that their work matters and that they can be trusted to work it out among themselves.
Use students' homework. Look at it, answer their questions, and show them why it matters.
A Real-World Example of Rethinking Homework
We know a teacher who was once a young band director. He used to have students fill out a practice record to show they were practicing. The students had to get their parents to sign them. Then he would count this little slip of paper as a grade—a certain number of minutes per day was required for an “A.”
After some time he realized three things. First, some students were not being truthful. Second, parents were signing blindly. Third, a whole lot of practice did not amount to better playing.
The lesson learned in all this was simple: what really worked was focused, deliberate, and individualized practicing. It was prompt, honest, and concise feedback which helped students become better.
It was careful planning by the students to decide what they should work on to get better. With this in mind we should truly consider rethinking homework policy. Whether you choose no homework or reasonably-timed homework assignments, all that matters is you make it count.
Editor's note: This post was originally published in 2017 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.
Originally published Dec 13, 2017, updated Dec 16, 2021