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Debunking Homework Myths

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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"Do you have any homework tonight?" I asked my daughter Mercedes.

"No, I don't have any homework! Yeah!" she exclaimed.

"When is your next test or quiz?" I countered.

"It's Friday," she quipped.

"Today is Wednesday, shouldn't getting ready for the test be your homework?" I questioned.

"That's not homework. That's just study," she responded, as if I didn't know anything.

"Oh, I get it, homework is not study...it's..." I conjectured while Mercedes finished my sentence.

"...it's worksheets and problems at the end of the chapter. Just busywork," she told me.

It's an obvious myth that students think homework is for their benefit. I wonder how many other students also view homework as pure busywork, or as something you do just because the teacher assigned it for a grade? With that attitude, a student may think, "It doesn't matter how I get the homework done, just as long as it is done before the teacher checks it. Right?" This is why on the day the homework is due a group of students can typically be seen frantically huddled over the "smart girl" copying her answers.

This of course applies to students that are motivated by grades. If not motivated by grades, what is the incentive to do homework, for the joy of learning? Hm, let me think -- not! I know it wasn't until I went to college that I understood that I always had homework whether it was assigned or not. I had to review my notes, read the chapters, and prepare for the exams on my own homework schedule.

As a teacher, I became a proponent of homework in my master's degree program when I learned that by assigning homework, the teacher significantly extends the classroom learning time. I also learned that a teacher should never assign homework on a topic that has not been practiced first in the classroom. It should be focused on one concept and should be difficult enough to challenge a student, but not so difficult that the student feels overwhelmed.

Students need the habit of homework and that every day homework should be graded and feedback should be provided. Those ideas made sense to me at the time because I didn't really understand the conceptual myths that they engendered.

Myths vs. Reality

It didn't take too long for me to figure out that were some things about the homework strategies I had learned that were more mythical than real. For example, while daily homework was supposed to be a major part of the learning, the myth was that I typically only made it worth a quarter of the student grade. Additionally, I soon discovered the myth that in assigning homework, the students would be doing the heavy lifting. I realized that giving homework every day was exhausting not only my energy but also my time. I felt a huge burden in grading the 120 workbook papers daily. Another myth that I debunked was that homework would actually save time in the classroom.

Because I assigned homework every day, I felt compelled to take valuable classroom learning time to review the homework, that sometimes took half the class period, or more, leaving little for instruction and practice of new concepts and skills. I justified this investment of time because I wanted to make sure that the students were "getting it" before we moved on. Feeling defrauded about my fervor for homework, I began questioning my original thoughts on homework:

  • Why was I assigning homework?
  • Was I doing it to increase learning or to absolve myself of the responsibility for student learning deficits (the I-taught-them-so-they-should know-it syndrome)?
  • Was assigning all that homework helping the students learn more?
  • What about the students that struggled doing the homework, or the students that simply copied the work from another student, or what about the students that never did the homework?
  • What benefit were they getting from homework?

These were all poignant questions and I was fortunate enough to have experienced mentor teachers who were able to help me answer these questions and shared with me some of their strategies.

Homework: Facing Reality

I had to come to the determination that homework was extended learning time only if the students were inspired enough to want to practice the skills obtained in class. My worksheets were hardly inspiring, so I had to change what I assigned as homework. I heard other teachers, and I still hear teachers, recite this worn out myth, "I don't assign homework because my students aren't the kind of students that do homework. Now if I had Mr. Sullivan's students, I would assign homework because they would do it."

My answer then and now was, "Then make homework worth doing so they will want to do it."

A New Approach

I began assigning projects that required the students to apply their learning from class. Instead of filling in the blanks on a worksheet I requested that students find a Spanish speaker and have a discussion with them using what they knew. I asked the students to teach a family member how to introduce themselves in Spanish. I asked them to fill out a family history tree by interviewing family members. I had them reporting on Spanish language movies and television shows they watched at home.

I assigned the task of finding Spanish advertisements, news articles, and personal ads. I had them creating Spanish menus, trip itineraries, and illustrated dictionaries. I assigned groups of students to create reader's theaters, reenactments of historical events, game shows, detective who-done-it similar to CSI, Spanish class newspapers, fashion shows, sidewalk art, food bazaars, travel agencies, restaurants, and department stores.

I also had to change how I graded the homework assignments. I was savvy enough to know that if the homework was not recorded in some fashion, students would see it as optional and not do it. I also knew I could not sustain the daily grind of 120 papers to grade, dealing with late work, and keeping up with the grade calculations. One of my mentors suggested a method that simplified this for students and for me.

Homework was due at the beginning of class every day. Class started with a warm up sponge activity while I took roll. I asked the students to pull out their homework so I could see it as I walked around the class, recording one of three things on my grade book: full credit if the homework was completed, half credit for not fully completed, zero for less than half completed.

Stamp of Approval: Grading

Students needed to know that I had recorded their work so I stamped their papers with a smiley face if it was completed, a frowning face if it was not completed (I turned the stamp upside down).

Students who had done their work or even tried to do it were insistent that I stamp their completed papers. It took me five minutes to look at the homework and give feedback to every student. To check their understanding, I asked the students to teach their elbow partners what they learned in the homework.

They then traded papers and we quickly went over the correct answers to the homework on the overhead projector, again it took only five minutes. I found that the students liked this system because it was less tedious and provided immediate feedback. I liked it because I had more time to inspire learning and I got an immediate pulse of where my students were in their learning progress and what students needed my attention for that class period.

What About Blended Learning?

As a teacher I have never experienced blended learning; I have observed teachers in schools over which I was the administrator be successful in flipping the classroom and turning homework into the major learning tool. During my time as a high school principal, students all had iPads and some of the teachers set up learning management accounts (LMS) on places like Moodle. They assigned students work and research projects through the LMS and students did the work at home. When they came to class, the teacher would either review what they had done individually, or step up the learning by providing further opportunities to apply their knowledge in group projects.

So, as I understand it, in blended learning at home or wherever they are, students acquire the skills and gained content knowledge, and in class the teachers prepare scenarios, case studies and projects in which the students could apply the skills and content knowledge. This brings me back to the question of what is the purpose of homework. I would say that the purpose of homework is to not only extend classroom learning time, but to create independent and enthused learners.

Whether it is a blended learning environment or a regular classroom, we must make sure our homework is worth doing. What myths about homework have you debunked and what strategies have you discovered to be successful in engaging students in homework? Please share in the comments section below.

Was this useful? (6)

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

Comments (15) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Mark Noldy's picture
Mark Noldy
21st Century Educator

@bdonalds, two hours of homework in one subject is excessive (for high school). @Ben Johnson, my practice is to praise activity and accomplishments that are praiseworthy, and to provide coaching and encouragement otherwise. But there is an alarming proportion of students who think they deserve an "A" just for showing up. I don't clap for crap.

Corah's picture

4th grade teacher here. I assign a math and a spelling every night (except on days when they've had a test in that subject). They are also expected to read for 20 minutes every night, they can choose what they want to read. Homework should take about 40 minutes including the reading.

I go over the math homework every day. I have made smartboard lessons with the math worksheets and the students go click on the answers to reveal them. Takes about 5 minutes depending on if there's questions or not. All the math homework is to practice and reinforce what was done during the day.

Ivan's picture

Thank you for sharing your experiences and insights into challenges and dilemmas involved in assigning homework, Mr. Johnson. I enjoyed reading your article and reflecting on the issues it addresses.

I think one important responsibility, in addition to all the other important responsibilities that teachers have, is to help students acquire and maintain effective study skills, and I believe this is one issue that your article indirectly brings up.
Instilling good study habits in students is something that should start from the first day of school. Students don't learn automatically and by themselves how to listen attentively and participate actively in class, how to take good notes, and how to effectively organize information from the lesson. I think the onus is on the teachers to lead their students toward acquiring these skills. It is also up to the teachers to provide guidance on other effective study skills such as regular and continuous reviews, the importance of having no distractions (such as a cell phone) on their desks when students do homework or study at home, the importance of not sitting at the desk and over their books and notebooks for a prolonged period of time without taking a break, and so on. There is so much our students need to know about how to study effectively. As you yourself said in your article, it was only when you were in college that you understood that having no homework didn't mean that you had nothing to do, that there was material to be read, reviewed, and consolidated. What you described, indeed, is not homework - it is effective study skills. Engaging in these effective study skills should be, ideally, every student's daily habit, and therefore should not even be viewed as homework or work to be done when no other homework had been assigned.

By helping students acquire better study skills and habits, we help students learn more effectively, which, in turn, motivates them to learn more.

Ivan

(1)
Mike Morgan's picture

The greatest "myth" is that any child will regularly want to do homework. I teach in a progressive school. I am a progressive teacher. I assign work in class that is necessary and furthermore, largely create an environment that is personalized and student driven. Lots of choice...it is Montessori. The real deciding factor for kids doing homework? A kid who WANTS to do homework. I am sorry but I am sick of the nonsense. It has far less to do with the "quality" of the assignment than it does with the grit or complicit nature of the child. Actually, I do not assign homew

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Engagement Manager

@Bjorn Helge Graesli, that's a great flowchart! I shared it out on Twitter.

Oliver Schinkten's picture
Oliver Schinkten
Science Teacher

At what point is the 40 hours these 9-10 year olds put in during the school day enough? Why have homework outside of school. When do they get to play, hang out with family or friends, eat sleep, relax, etc.....

Oliver Schinkten

J.D. Staton's picture

I'm so very grateful that you choose this topic to bring up for discussion AND that I stumbled over it in my perusing. I attended a brilliant MAT program which I would highly recommend to anyone who requested advice on such a topic. However, with the passage of time and the gain of classroom experience, I'm keenly aware of the deficits my formal educational program contained. Thorough initial student assessment of education skills/familial supports and homework allocation were the two greatest weaknesses in my MAT program, IMHO. Despite graduating with nearly perfect grades, I cannot recall either classroom discussion time, nor books/articles assigned that were related to either of these two very important topics.

I first ran into problems coping with them, during my student teaching experiences in a fifth grade classroom. The first grade class I, simultaneously, worked within had a very simplistic homework system which I just adopted, in toto. My fifth grade mentor teacher wasn't interested in mentoring me, so just left me to flounder - to create whatever system I felt invested in. Without any real guidance from either my school adviser nor my mentor teacher on this topic, I set about creating an unrealistic homework, spelling, reading, and social studies regimen for my students (now aware it was geared more toward 8th grade students, rather than 5th grade ones, the result of never having been taught how to perform an initial educational assessment on this age group).

The complaints from the parents started coming in fast and furious. They were upset that their kids were now expected to do roughly two hours of homework/evening despite competing extra-curricular, familial, and other activities they preferred to engage in. While my mentor teacher was busy making apologies all over the place, on my behalf, along with rolling her eyes about my obvious ineptness on this topic, I was left feeling confused and unsupported.

I'm fortunate to have several friends who were formally educated in other cultures/nations. From talking with them, I'm keenly aware that American students/families often have very low standards, on the topic of education. Most only want education if it's "convenient" and "fun/entertaining" - like it's a purely "optional" or "disposable" product that doesn't impact every aspect of their present/future lives. Discussions surrounding the actual productivity of time spent at school are few and far between, let alone discussions about "on-task" study time during nonschool hours.

While I don't believe we need to follow in the rather extreme footsteps of the Japanese educational system, where students often attend school six days per week for 8 - 10 hours/day (with homework to follow, at home), I'm keenly aware of just how much classroom time is frittered away in most American classrooms (having been raised in the American public school system and having actively volunteered for decades within it, prior to becoming a certified teacher, myself). Additionally, I'm sensitive to the resistance by most students, parents, and other community members toward prioritizing learning activities, outside of the classroom. All the while, I cannot forget that 20% of our students are dropping out of school before completing 12th grade and our educational standing in the global community keeps dropping ever lower, despite the fact we spend more money per pupil than most westernized nations.

All the money on the planet won't replace wasted time and learning opportunities. My MAT program did spend a very large amount of attention on the topic of "focused learning" and "on-task" time, for which I'm extraordinarily grateful. This is where our educational process needs to shift, both inside and outside of the classroom, I believe.

As the author has suggested, unfocused time during "homework" periods is every bit as meaningless and wasteful as unfocused time during classroom lessons. Many thanks for the suggestions as to how to be more efficient in handling assignment grading/monitoring. So much wasted classroom time (and teacher home-time) is spent on these types of activities, along with transitions, unfocused conversations, institutional/administrative rituals, breaks/recess, meals/snacks, etc.

I will never forget just how shocked I was to learn that my fifth grade students could choose to opt out of class time to go "volunteer" to work in the school cafeteria. Of course, the least diligent, least skillful learners were ALWAYS the first students to "volunteer" to waste even more of their precious learning time playing around in the school kitchen (not even learning genuine cooking/food prep skills), rather than spending time in the classroom where they most needed to be gaining and practicing new skills. When I was in elementary school, only the very best students were ever allowed to act as "kitchen helpers" or "school bus monitors", as teachers/administrators were aware those students were the ones least likely to be harmed by such noneducationally-focused activities (let's skip the discussion, for now, about how unethical it is to use students as unpaid laborers, because our school budgets are so poorly prioritized for their learning to occur - other wealthy nations don't waste student learning time on school operations tasks like we do).

I'm just one person and a relatively new teacher, at that. However, I do believe in leading by example. Though I teach in primary grades, now, homework is very much a part of my educational strategy, right along with maximizing every bit of classroom time I have at my disposal.

By using thematic teaching strategies, I'm able to multi-layer lessons, so as to teach several skills/subjects, concurrently. Reinforcing to parents that they are their child's FIRST and most important teachers, I'm able to get them engaged in leading a wide range of learning activities with their child, at home (without it ever being "assigned homework"). The designated "homework" I do assign is often a multi-layered board game (created in class), art/science project, song illustration/performance, or similar activity they are to engage in with a certain number of family/friends/neighbors. Since it doesn't get formally labeled as "homework", but is expected to be done and is followed up on, I find there's less resistance to them completing it. It takes creativity to cram in as much education as possible into a child's world but I know what the consequences are for my students and our country, if they are not successful in perpetually gaining and honing new skills.

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