Forget “Love is a Battlefield”, HOMEWORK is a battlefield! For all parties involved- teachers, students, and parents, homework brings to mind frustration.
To an educator it feels like a battle to get students to comply and actually do it. Extra hours spent grading and following up with parents because of zeroes for not doing homework is exhausting. However, many teachers feel that assigning homework is necessary in order to be perceived as a “good” teacher or a teacher with high expectations.
Many parents agree with this assessment of the necessity of homework. They consider it a primary method to learn discipline, organization, and other personal skills necessary to being successful. Both teachers and parents will often label a student “lazy” if they are not completing their homework assignments. Other parents, however, feel that the school has their children for 8 hours of the day and that family time should not be encroached upon by what should have been covered in class. Time at home is full, with responsibilities such as chores and younger siblings, extracurricular activities that are also important for a child’s development, or even time to rest and recharge for the next day. Many parents feel ill equipped to check or help with homework.
As far as students are concerned, I’ve never met a single one that WANTS, much less ENJOYS, to do homework.
Why do we engage in this ritual that makes students antagonistic, parents feel incompetent, and ourselves feel defeated? Is the teaching practice effective for the mastery of the objectives for our subject? Is it necessary in our students’ development as successful and productive citizens? Many would argue passionately both for and against homework. The real focus should be, “Is it in the best interest of the student?” There are both effective and ineffective methods for using homework as a teaching method.
A few years ago, I read a book that was a pivotal point in my teaching career. It lays out research-based methods for assigning homework in a way that is effective and compassionate. After applying these methods in my classroom for the last few years I have seen dramatic improvement in the number of students completing the homework assigned, the quality of learning that is achieved by these effective homework methods, and my relationships with parents and students that have become partners in learning rather than antagonists. The book, Rethinking Homework, by Cathy Vatterott, is a well written, thought provoking, and helpful compilation of effective homework practices.
A Shifting Pendulum
Our nation’s acceptance of homework as a standard expectation for educating our children has actually been a pendulum shift from anti-homework to pro-homework, shifting every few generations. In the 1800’s student’s primary method for learning was to memorize their lessons at home and then recite them during class. In the early 1900’s, the sentiment shifted against homework and in favor of family time, fresh air, exercise, etc. Another major shift back to homework occurred in the 1960’s as a result of the space-race and Cold War tensions. Parents currently still accept homework as the expectation
of rigorous learning, especially for advanced classes. However, a shift is again occurring as parents and educators alike are noticing the high prevalence in stress levels and subsequent mental health issues arising in our nation’s children due to the rising emphasis on standardized test scores. Regardless of which camp you align with, homework is and always will be a point of discussion and debate between parents, students, teachers, and administrators. Considering what’s in the best interest of our children doesn’t always seem to be the priority, and Mrs. Vatterott takes a research-based look at pitfalls to avoid that cause more harm than good, and the most effective methods for implementing homework.
There are several things to consider before labeling students as lazy or non-compliant for not completing homework. First, students from low-income households may have second jobs, younger siblings to watch because their parents are working more than one job, or they may not have supplies or technology at home to complete assignments. Homework often widens the gap between the achievement of these at-risk students and their peers. It is important to take this into consideration when assigning homework. Second, there is a limit to how much mental work a child can accomplish during the day. According to research, and common sense, the brain needs downtime in order to process information. The National Education Association endorses a 10-minute rule: nightly homework should not exceed 10 minutes per grade level per night, period.
What does effective homework look like?
It should be a quality task that relates to a clear learning objective, not work for the sake of assigning homework. The type of learning desired should be at the forefront in a teacher’s mind when formulating a homework assignment. What is the desired outcome: facts, concepts, principles, attitudes, or skills? Homework should focus on pre-learning, checking for understanding, practice, or processing.
It is important that the level of homework is at a level appropriate to the student’s current stage of understanding. It should NOT be an exercise in which a student and their parent are attempting to learn the material on their own. Homework should not cause a student to associate learning with negative feelings of incompetence, frustration, or futility. Also, they may complete the work, but internalize incorrect methods that will take longer to re-teach than waiting and allowing them to do the practice in class. I have often found that if I give the students time to practice in class and I walk around and check their work as they go, they can ask for clarification before they become so frustrated they stop working, and I can point out errors in their method before they do the entire set of questions incorrectly. A homework assignment over a concept students are still learning often results in a waste of both their time (the evening before) and my time (grading and re-teaching). Along these lines, having students do a few problems which reinforces a concept is as effective, or more so, than working a large number of problems that results in wasting time and antagonistic feelings when they feel the concept has been learned and is now simply “busy work”.
Effective homework, just like effective teaching in the classroom, should take into account individual learning styles, student choice, and relevancy (both to the desired learning objective and the student’s personal life and goals). They should feel an ownership of their learning. Involving their opinion, asking them to solve a problem, friendly competition, or utilizing their creativity are emotionally engaging strategies.
Homework should be considerate of the student and their family’s time outside of school. Giving a window of time for the assignment to be completed allows the student to utilize time management if they are involved in extra-curricular activities and respects activities that the family may be involved with.
Just as class work should be differentiated, so should homework. Examples of ways to differentiate are altering the difficulty or amount of work and/or providing more or less scaffolding. The goal should be for mastery of a concept, and some students may need more assistance in reaching that than others. Giving students a set amount of time for working on the homework assignment is another method for differentiating and also being considerate of their time outside of school. For higher-level students, if a student has mastered a concept from their time in class, homework doesn’t have to be required, or a more in-depth assignment can be given to enhance their learning. In other words, one inflexible homework assignment does not necessarily fit all of your student’s learning styles and needs.
Homework is a formative assignment. A completion grade or checking and giving feedback in class is far more effective as a tool for furthering learning than grading piles of papers that are never returned to the student, or not returned in a timely fashion. Using homework as a tool to check for understanding, instead of assigning a grade based on correct answers, the teacher can remove the fear, anxiety and negative emotions associated with being graded on a learning objective that has not yet been mastered. Instead of penalizing a student who does not yet understand the concept, this can be a valuable tool for the teacher to gauge learning and adjust their teaching accordingly.
Communicate with parents and students.
If there is a clear line of communication between parents and the teacher so that the parents are aware of homework assignments, the parent can act as an advocate at home. Establish a web page, use the school’s web page if possible. If this is not an available option for you, smore.com is a free and very easy website on which to post assignments and links. Remind.com (another free resource) has also proven to be an extremely effective way to communicate with parents and students, reminding them of homework assignments and upcoming quizzes/tests along with links for help. The number of students completing homework assignments and studying for tests has gone up dramatically in my classes after utilizing remind.com.
Homework can be an effective tool in a teacher’s toolbox, or it can be a source of stress and contention between all parties involved. For more detailed examples of best practices utilizing homework, again I would highly recommend reading Cathy Vatterott’s book, Rethinking Homework.
1. Keep in mind the 10-minute rule. Nightly homework should not exceed 10 minutes per grade level per night, and that includes homework for ALL classes combined.
2. Be respectful of extracurricular engagements, family time, and older students’ work/childcare obligations. Allow a window of time for an assignment to be completed.
3. Have a clear learning objective that involves pre-learning, checking for understanding, practice, or processing. Differentiate the homework based on student’s learning styles and capabilities.
4. Use it as a formative grade. Grade for completion to remove stress and promote effort.
5. Communicate with parents and students through online media.