Debunking Homework Myths

November 14, 2014

"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's..." I conjectured while Mercedes finished my sentence.

"'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.

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