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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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We all struggle with homework and how to use it. In fact, many have said no to homework for good reason. It's often just busywork, boring, or not clearly connected to the learning. Many times, students come home and can't even articulate why they have a homework assignment. This is a problem of relevance. Worse yet, students receive hours of homework each night. They are required to read and take notes on material, produce papers, or more. This is what you might call "Do-It-Yourself School." If you are assigning work where students are learning a large amount of completely new material on their own, then you are actually doing a disservice to your students.

Students should not be required to be their own teachers outside of class (the keyword here is "required"). Instead, homework needs to be designed for intentional purposes that support student learning. Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey, in their book Better Learning Through Structured Teaching, articulate many of the points that I try to make here. When we focus on some of these examples and principles below, we can actually make homework a useful tool for learning, where students see the relevance and engage in it.

When Students Are Ready

We often assign homework when students are not ready for it. We've all been in a situation when we run out of time in a lesson, and mistakenly assign the rest of the work as homework. This is the wrong way, as it becomes DIY School. Instead, teachers need to know, through formative assessment, whether or not their students are ready for the homework. This could mean that not all of your students will get homework that night. Some students may not be ready, while others will be. While every student will get to that homework, they won't all get there at the same time. For those not ready, the assignment would be an unproductive struggle. When students are ready, meaning that they have the skills and background knowledge, that homework will be successful. Practice doesn't make perfect -- it makes permanent! If students do not have requisite skills or knowledge to complete the homework assignment, then they will make permanent errors that are harder to unlearn. Focus on assigning homework when students are ready.

Choice

In addition to assigning homework when students are ready, you could let students pick the assignment they want to do. Allowing voice and choice in homework assignments can increase engagement. Through reflection, students can self-identify content or skills they want to build or work on, and then choose the appropriate homework assignment. When they own the process of learning, then even homework can feel meaningful to them.

Limited Time

This is key! Students should not be assigned hours upon hours of homework. Homework time should be limited. Many argue over exact time, from ten minutes to an hour. This all depends on the age and grade level of the student. Although older students may be able to handle hours of homework, it doesn't mean they should do hours of homework. Teachers also need to have collaborative conversations about the shared workload for students and limit that workload appropriately. We have students that are actively involved in extracurricular activities, family duties, and the like. We need to be responsive to this, which means that time devoted to homework will be different everywhere.

Spiral Review

Learning and standards often spiral themselves in the learning and instructional year. Something that was learned earlier in the year or unit can be reviewed through homework to remind students of what they should have learned or help teachers identify what may have been lost. Just make sure the homework is based on something already learned, and that you know the student already learned it from you.

Application

If students are ready to apply their learning in an appropriate new context, then homework can be used for that as well. Again, the teacher needs to know that students understand the content and have the skills to apply themselves to the material. When this is done appropriately, students are stretching their thinking and feeling success in the learning process.

Fluency Building

There are some skills that students should practice to build their fluency. Homework assignments to build this fluency can help reinforce skills that students have already learned. Again, practice makes permanent, so fluency-building homework should be assigned only when teachers know that students have the needed skills.

Extension

We all have students who are ready for assignments that will allow them to be creative or take the learning to a new level. Extension assignments are also a great way to differentiate. Teachers need to know where their students are through assessment, and allow the students ready for an extension assignment to give it a try.

Homework as Formative Assessment

Remember that homework itself can and should serve as a formative assessment of learning. It can be a useful check for understanding, which means that it doesn't need to be graded. This view of homework can help tell the story of the student's learning and also inform you how to adjust instruction to ensure success for all students.

You can of course choose not to assign homework, but you can also have homework as a meaningful and useful part of your instruction. And you don't have to assign it all the time. If homework isn’t working for you, reexamine and reflect upon your implementation. Do you assign it too early in the instructional cycle? Does it not focus on spiral review, fluency, and the like? Do students have choice in their homework? These are just some reflective questions to consider. Remember, homework shouldn't be assigned when you want it, but rather when students are ready for it.

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Farah Najam's picture
Farah Najam
Teacher Trainer and write on education

I believe that a lot of these drills are intended to keep kids focused on something and to keep them out of trouble. We all learn at different paces, and in different ways, so teachers should spotlight on what we need to learn and how the homework is going to help us. I give students feedback on their assignments and when I did not follow up on their homework they felt they were left hanging. As a student I had the hardest time engaging when teachers asked me to learn a information by heart. I build student responsibility, perseverance, time management, self- confidence and a feeling of accomplishment in my students.

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