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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Homework is beneficial. Or it's not. Research supports both positions and all the contentious points in between. If you count yourself among the 70 percent of U.S. teachers who assign take-home work, you may find value in the following recommendations for making those assignments more effective, creative, and motivational -- in other words, with boom-bang academic power.

Two Fundamental Questions

1. How much homework do kids actually do?

According to the National Education Association's Research Spotlight on Homework, the "majority of U.S. students spend less than an hour a day on homework, regardless of grade level."

2. How much homework is recommended?

Multiple sources recommend about ten minutes per night in the first grade, then add ten minutes for every subsequent grade, for a maximum of two hours in all subjects by the 12th grade.

Successful Practices: Do's and Don'ts

The following suggestions were compiled from a dozen resources. Homework suggestions from the American Federation of Teachers (PDF, 951KB), Cathy "Homework Lady" Vatterott, the National Education Association's Research Spotlight on Homework, and the synthesis work (PDF, 1.4MB) of researcher Harris Cooper were especially helpful.

Do's

  • Communicate with parents so they that know what homework to expect. Also invite them to tell you if their child is experiencing anxiety.
  • Align your homework policy with colleagues. Determine how much to assign and how often, and what the procedure is for incomplete or late work.
  • Create engaging handouts.
  • Vary the types of problems that students can use to show mastery of a subject, using tools like PowerPoint or Canva.
  • Allow students to start homework during the class in which it is assigned so that they can ask clarifying questions if needed.
  • Keep homework under 10 percent of the total points possible in a course.

Don'ts

  • Make homework a punishment.
  • Assign homework every day.
  • Introduce new concepts, skills, or material as homework.
  • Over-complicate directions.
  • Make completion depend upon resources not available to students at home.
  • Give zeros. The consequence should be completion of the work.
  • Neglect to explain the purpose of the assignment or your late work procedure.

What Does Recent Cognitive Science Research Suggest?

An innovative approach to homework was reported in Science Daily. Although the 2014 study occurred at a university, the achievement effect was large, and the principles can be applied to any grade, according to researcher Richard Baraniuk. His homework innovation involved:

  • Retrieval: To compliment standard homework, the instructor assigned two follow-up problems on the same topic in additional assignments
  • Spacing: Instead of weekly homework, problems related to a week's topic were spread over three weeks.
  • Feedback: Response to their homework performance was immediate.

Boom-Bangify Your Homework Assignments

"Students find every homework assignment 100 percent meaningful," said no teacher ever. However, here are some suggestions for moving closer to that ideal and increasing your turn-in rate.

1. Assign Homework with 3 Parts

Sheila Valencia, a professor at the University of Washington, recommends that all homework assignments contain three parts:

  1. The purpose
  2. Directions on how readers are supposed to go about it
  3. What readers are supposed to learn.

Valencia also recommends applying what was learned during the next class. Here is an example:

Tonight when you read Chapter 12, I want you to think about the causes of the American Revolution. As you're reading, draw a T-chart to keep track of the British perspective and the American one. When we come in tomorrow, we're going to divide into two teams and debate.

2. Make Homework Apply to Real-Life Objects or Situations

Nancy S. Self, a professor in the Department of Teaching, Learning, and Culture (TLAC) at Texas A&M University suggests -- as an elementary math example -- having students count a set of items such as "windows, doors, eating utensils, chair or table legs, and then manipulate the numbers using addition, subtraction, multiplication, or division."

3. Incorporate Visual Thinking

As reported in Mind/Shift, former high school science teacher Dan Bisaccio asked students to follow up field-based assignments with an experience map, on which they drew where they were, what they had done, and the insights that occurred at those moments. Before making a class atlas out of all the maps, each learner wrote on the back of the map what they felt was the most challenging part of the field experience.

4. Differentiate

Give students homework choices, like St. Augustine School’s Takeaway Homework Menu (PDF) and this spelling sheet.

Motivating On-Time Completion

Before students leave your classroom, advises Michael Linsin, in Smart Classroom Management, ask one important question: "Is there anyone, for any reason, who will not be able to turn in their homework in the morning? I want to know now rather than find out about it in the morning." This strategy heads off excuses.

The next morning, ask students to place their homework in the left or right corner of their desks for you to quickly scan with an answer sheet while they complete bell work. "If you find an assignment that is incomplete or not completed at all," says Linsin, "confront that student on the spot." This immediately demonstrates that they are accountable.

Whether your students live in Orange County, Provo, or Pine Ridge, they will appreciate teachers who exert effort to create conscientious, principled homework tasks.

Tell us your homework success stories.

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Inspiring Student Engagement

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John S. Thomas's picture
John S. Thomas
First & Second Grade Teacher/Adjunct faculty Antioch University New England

Todd, you make good points for those of us who still do homework. Over the last few years I've reflected on homework practices. I don't assign much homework. My students are expected to take home book bags to read every night. I also send home word-work sorts to complete at home- less than 5 minutes of work. One night a week they complete a writing sort which takes about 10 minutes. For a writing sort they can choose pencil and paper (list, pyramid writing, color writing) or typing an email list, or wordle.net, Parents really like some word-work to be done at home so they have knowledge of words their child is learning. Starting this year I really didn't track homework, but just scanned for accuracy. The way I see it, if something is done correctly I don't know if a parent supported the work, but if I see mistakes I know the student doesn't understand it or simply rushed so I need to check in with the student. I like what you say about punishment. I used to have a serious conversation about the importance of homework when students didn't turn it in. Now I focus the students on the learning and simply attach a consequence such as "You may not know how to spell this week's words correctly unless you practice." All too often punishments such as working lunches, missed recess time, and 0's in the grade book were used by my peers in hopes of correcting the situation. Unfortunately none of those seemed to correct the problem. My students who struggled to turn in homework are now turning it in more reliability because I focused them on internal motivations and the learning they want to see for themselves.

(1)
Don Doehla, MA, NBCT's picture
Don Doehla, MA, NBCT
2015 California Language Teacher of the Year, Co-Director Berkeley WL Project at UC Berkeley Language Center

Super helpful post, Todd!

We all struggle with getting students to do homework these days. With so much to do, so many choices of things to do, and the possible distractions from the information flood, it is harder and harder to get students to do homework. We compete with more compelling content! So, how do we compete well? Your suggestions hit the mark. Work must be meaningful, not busy work. It must connect to things we all care about knowing, teachers and students alike. We need to ensure that students understand that we care about how we impose on their time. We already get them for 7 to 8 hours a day, so when we ask for more, it better be for a good reason!

What's more, we only have influence from 8 to 3 (or thereabouts depending on one's schedule). It may be worthwhile to accept that kids have had enough. Maybe we need to think about the social impact, and not just the tradition of homework and school going hand in hand.

As for me, I do assign homework, and I do want kids to do it, but I have made a deal with my students - if it feels like busy work, they can tell me. I am amazed, on the other hand, how students will spend hours and hours on something creative, like making a film or creating a book - they care about such work because it is personally relevant and meaningful. Plus, I get more from them than I would otherwise.

Thanks again for a great post, Todd. I always enjoy your good work.

Best wishes to you,
Don

Todd Finley's picture

Hey Don,

Thanks for taking the time to write down these excellent thoughts. I love the deal that you made with your students: if it feels like busy work, they can tell you. That shows that you want the homework to matter. I'd like to spend a week in your classroom. I bet I'd learn a lot!

Happy almost winter break to you!
Todd

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