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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Making Homework Meaningful

Dominick Recckio

I am a student at Ithaca College in New York.

One thing that teaches the lessons of accountability, responsibility, diligence and an appreciation for knowledge is homework. Every student has to do it, and for most kids, it is a necessity in order to do well in school. But its usefulness and whether it's taken seriously are always topics of conversation among students.

A Survey of Homework Habits

In elementary school, we are brought up to do homework, and some kids like myself are lucky enough to have their parents there to reiterate that message. We are taught that homework is important for making the information stick in our brains so that we are ready for the next day's lesson. Beginning around middle school, kids start to question the importance of homework, and that continues into high school, where a definitive rift among students is formed.

Once I decided this post would be on the topic of homework, I set out to talk to students from multiple backgrounds, and with varying degrees of work ethic and success, about their thoughts and experiences around homework.

Starting with students in the top 10% academically, I learned that they all do their homework, plus extra studying on a nightly/weekly basis. Their mottos all seem to be along the lines of "I've built this into my routine" and "I have to do homework or else I won't do well and keep my grades up." These students push themselves and will continue to do well because they see the value of homework.

There are a few exceptions in this group, though. There always are a few students who make it into the top of the class and can get by without doing homework. From what I have experienced and heard, they tend to be auditory learners -- they listen intently in class and can retain the information without having to put it into their heads more than once.

The middle of the road students and those in danger of failing tend to tell me that they don't do any homework. The reasons that they cite include the fact that, under the policy of many schools, homework can count for only 5% or less of a student's overall grade. So if it doesn't count towards a grade, the reasoning goes, why bother? This is unfair to the teachers who have to continuously re-teach material, and to the other students who must endure listening to the same material over again.

A related reason these students don't do their homework is that they don't believe it will help them. It's been so long since they've done homework that they have either forgotten or never learned how -- and thus never reaped its benefits.

Time Management, Resources and Context

Here are a few ways that students I've talked to have had success, which I present with a couple of fresh ideas.

1) Use In-School Time

Doing homework during extra time in school helps. When students have the opportunity to do some of their homework in school with a large support base, I've noticed that they tend to get more out of it, and finish more. Yes, there are the exceptions, i.e., distractions, friends and goofing around. But the students that use the time wisely are no strangers to the ends justifying the means.

2) Do Homework in Period Order

Complete assignments in the order they are due the next day. Many students will suggest this as a means of making sure it all gets done. Setting it out by period and going in order has helped me in the past. A problem, though, is that it often encourages procrastination. When students set their work out like this, they are more likely to picture where their free time is during the school day and imagine themselves doing it then.

3) Use Social Media!

As I discussed in my previous blog post, kids love technology and are highly knowledgeable in social media. One thing I've often thought about is creating groups for classes on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. If a student is having trouble with a particular problem, they should be encouraged to seek help from a teacher or student that can respond with a picture of their own work within seconds. If schools started encouraging teachers to work this into just a few classes, I think we would see improvements in the quality of homework completed.

4) Make Real World Connections

What could be a better way of answering students' biggest question -- "When am I ever going to use this?" -- than by showing them? There are many ways this could be done. Teachers could assign students the task of finding their own applications of certain principles at home, such as how electrical circuits can illustrate a concept for physics class, or how chemistry is applied in the kitchen. Or you could give them a list of things to notice at home or around town. For example, my town is right on the Erie Canal, and it has more heritage and history than most small towns. But when we study the era in history class, we never go out of the building and realize that it's right there.

From Day One of school, homework needs to be shown as important and assigned as something substantial, not busy work. As we continue to move into the digital age, I am sure homework will change -- along with most everything else.

What are some other examples of meaningful homework you've seen?

(1)

Dominick Recckio

I am a student at Ithaca College in New York.
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Comments (14)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Jim Wysocki's picture
Jim Wysocki
US Math Dept Chair from Portland, OR

I'm so glad to hear a student's perspective on the homework question. It seems that often it's only teachers, parents, administrators, and/or politicians having the conversation. Your suggestions for students seem really helpful, but I'm curious what you would say to teachers that have a hard time connecting isolated homework assignments to the real world. Is this always necessary? I would also love to hear your thoughts on what I have been thinking about regarding homework on my blog: http://jimmy13.wordpress.com/.

Andy's picture
Andy
Technology Staff Development Coordinator McPherson Public Schools

Great job on the post, and kudos to Edutopia for including the student viewpoint. As a former elementary school teacher and proponent of education reform, however, I disagree with the fundamental premise: that homework serves any purpose in "getting things into your head".

Studies and meta-research on the effectiveness of homework show little if any correlation between doing homework and retention of material. In fact, homework often works against what is meant to be learned.

Homework is often used incorrectly, and students then are practicing things that they do not know very well. Their mistakes help to "get into their head" the wrong way of doing things, particularly in math in my experience. Additionally, brain research suggests that reviewing information right before you sleep is what helps "get things into your head", not the homework, necessarily. Still, if the wrong things are reviewed or practiced, those are what get cemented into long term memory.

Taking notes, not doing homework, is a far better way for students to comprehend and retain information. This is especially true for students who look over and review those notes on a daily basis (or at least frequently) and ask questions about things which don't make sense.

NoCAMom's picture
NoCAMom
Parent of 2 elementary-school students

Thanks for sharing Dominick. It's always wonderful to have a student's input on his own education. I recently came across this new white paper on homework produced by Challenge Success, a non-profit founded at the Stanford University School of Education. As someone who is neither an educator nor an education researcher, I found the information easy to digest. It also does a fabulous job of reviewing the pertinent homework studies conducted over the last 20 years and going thru the most often debated homework theories. The last part of the white paper is dedicated to teachers and parents, and offers reasonable and thoughtful ideas of how to deal with homework in the classroom and at home. I encourage people to download the white paper. It's free! http://www.challengesuccess.org/Research.aspx

Patricia's picture
Patricia
Kindergarten teacher from MN

Thank for posting on that topic. I am glad to see more people in favor of homework. I am a Kindergarten teacher in a language immersion program. When I started teaching 10 years ago, we did not assign homework in Kindergarten because we felt that they were still too young and we were not sure what benefits the kids would get from doing homework. When we noticed that young children LOVED homework, we decided to give it a try, with the goal in mind that it would create good habits for their future academic career. We also thought that homework, as a parent-child activity can be extremely beneficial to a student. Parent's support, especially in an immersion school where all the instruction is in a second language is one of the main components to a child's success in school. So we kept the homework in English and hoped for the best. Although we were quite successful with it, I have a few questions that some of you might be able to answer. First, why do many kids loose interest in homework and its value in the upper elementary grades? It seems like I have known many students who refuse or rather "forget" to do their homework starting in 4th grade or so. Also, I have been willing to use homework as another form of assessing what a student is able to do. However, if the parents help their child with homework, how can I count it as a real assessment?

Andy's picture
Andy
Technology Staff Development Coordinator McPherson Public Schools

I agree with you, Patricia, that homework can be a great opportunity for parents and students to work together. You will find, however, that the majority of households in America don't function that way. There are simply too many activities, too many late hours at work, and too many other obligations of a family's time to realistically expect that everyone complete assignments together. This is especially true in schools that have lower SES rates.

The reason I think kids begin losing interest in homework as they get older is twofold: first, I think kids are much less eager to please their teachers and parents as they grow older. Second, I believe kids begin to see through the facade of homework, realizing that, for the most part, it is a waste of time. Sorry to disagree with you about the importance or effectiveness of homework, but the research just isn't there to support your position. Further, you bring up the point yourself that it is not equitable to grade assignments that students do with help, and you can't count on all students getting help (or the same kind of help). The only fair option is to give a grade on completion/participation only. If that is the case, it's no wonder older students see it as a waste of their time. Why would Johnny do his homework for a grade knowing that Suzy's dad helps her with her assignments while he has to do his own work? It would be hard to get any student to buy into that system. If all I get for my time spent is a participation grade, I'm not going to put much effort into my work, which then defeats the purpose of practicing anything. Why practice it if you aren't practicing it successfully?

One last point: is it fair that we ask students and families to spend more time on school work at home when we complain at the same time that families don't have enough time for anything together? Many students are involved in sports, music, dance, etc. Making them do busywork just so we have something else to put in the grade book is futile. It doesn't accomplish what we want it to, and it stresses students out unnecessarily.

Let them have some time to be kids when they aren't at school.

Melinda Mericle's picture
Melinda Mericle
Middle School Sciences & Earth Science (h.s.) from VA Beach, VA

Dominick you are right on target with using social media as a means to engage students in homework. I use the site Schoology.com to provide students with access to class PowerPoint, notes, activities and handouts; as well as, online tests/quizzes and discussions. Students who refuse to do homework (vocabulary) will participate in the discussion groups and other online assignments. I firmly believe that your generation "peaks" technology, and as educators we have a duty to both incorporate that language into assignments and teach you how to navigate and utilize the language in an appropriate and responsible manner.

Aaron's picture

My school has debated the value of assigning homework. While I am still undecided on its merits, you provide some interesting ways to motivate students to complete after school assignments. I especially like your social media idea. Creating a class Facebook page would be a great way of posting homework, keeping parents informed of class news, and providing support for students who may have questions after school hours. This will be something that I share with my colleagues within my school district.

I also agree that teachers can do a better job of making real world connections with all student learning, not just homework. For example, when teaching a unit on propaganda, I may assign students the responsibility of finding specific advertising techniques in the commercials they watch that night at home. This homework becomes authentic and shows the students that the class content really is seen all around them.

You state that most of the top 10% of students consistently complete their homework. I would be curious to research this further to find out if their completion of homework has anything to do with their academic success, or if these strong students are simply more responsible than other students. Still, I think that you provide some suggestions that can somewhat assist lower-academic students improve their homework completion rate and, therefore, their learning.

Nicole's picture
Nicole
7th grade social studies teacher from Overland Park, Kansas

Great job on this post! Obtaining a student perspective is always a wonderful thing for us teachers!

One of the difficulties of teaching is that often times, as educators, there is no clear data on things such as the question of homework. We are also often times cornered into doing something we may not be sure of. As a student teacher, I saw my cooperating teacher give no homework whatsoever, yet her students were nearly all succeeding in school. On the other hand, when I was a first year teacher, I was required to give out homework to my students, which they proceeded to never do. On a few occasions, I was able to come up with authentic homework ideas, which did have a higher completion rate than the other tasks I would give.

Your additional ideas for getting students to buy into homework are very helpful in my personal opinion. The argument over the merit of homework aside (as it is not always a choice on whether or not we give it out), I feel like having an arsenal of ideas to help give students the motivation to complete homework is a wonderful thing.

Angel Daniels-Ray's picture
Angel Daniels-Ray
Eighth grade science teacher from Sumter, South Carolina

I teach five classes of eighth grade science per day. The issue of homework has been one of my greatest challenges this past school year. I talked to teachers who gave an abundance of homework and those who gave no homework at all. I tried to find a medium and decided to issue all homework at the beginning of each week. I posted homework on Monday mornings and it was due on Fridays, before the end of the school day. I figured that this would give the students ample time to complete the assignments. However, out of nearly 130 students, less than half would actually turn in completed homework. I found this disheartening.

I asked students why they did not feel the need to turn in homework and explained the effect on their grades. I also held one-on-one conferences with the students. This worked for some but not others. Many students thought that as long as they passed the class, it was okay to skip out on doing homework. Students that showed determination were the ones to always finish assignments on time and complete all homework. On the other hand, there were students that never turned in a homework assignment but completed all classwork. I tried getting parents involved, through phone calls and e-mails. Again, this worked for some.

I then decided to give homework choices. The students were allowed to choose from one of three to four assignments to complete. I tried to create assignments that would appeal to different types of learners; those who liked reading, writing, researching, visualizing, creating, etc. The students could choose from any assignment as long as it was turned in by Friday. More students began turning in homework, but not the quantity that I would have liked.

I have also thought about whether or not homework is necessary. Sometimes, I feel as if it is helping those that try and hurting those that do not. I have observed another science teacher that never gives homework, and her students (as a whole) performed very well on assessments. I am certainly glad to come across this posting.

Brian Callahan's picture
Brian Callahan
Fifth Grade language arts and history teacher from Greenwich, Connecticut

This is a great post. I have noticed the drop-off in interest in homework after the sixth grade. I run an after school program that caters to students who need extra time to complete or understand assignments. Interestingly, I had some of those students when they were in the fifth grade and it surprised me (a little) that they are being tugged away from the strong stance they one had toward homework. Currently, I have the use of Blackboard in my school, so I use one of its tools called virtual classroom. With it, I can set up a time for a group or individual chat. I have used it well whenever students have been absent for it allows me to upload lessons, etc. It also has a sketch pad component that can tap into the occasional tactile learning style.

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