Monday, October 8, 2012

Effective Homework Assignments

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During the first couple of weeks of school, I’ve had several conversations with teachers, parents and students regarding homework. One student frankly told me that homework turns her off of several her classes classes. She continued, “If I get a lot of homework, especially [work that is] boring, busy work, or too hard, I’m not going to want to do it and I’m not going to enjoy the class as much. I probably won’t do as well in the class as I could.”

I pressed the student further about what constitutes busy work; a couple of her lunch tablemates chimed in. It soon became clear that each had his/her own view of what constitutes effective homework and what could be considered busy work. As an educator, I began contemplating, how can a teacher create quality homework assignments that students will complete?  

First, homework must have a clear academic purpose, one that the students understand. For this reason, homework should never be used to introduce new material. Flashing back to my days as a teacher, I distinctively remember 2 times that homework was least often completed. First, when a substitute assigned homework on my behalf, fewer students than normal completed the homework. I believe this was the case because the substitute couldn’t sell the assignment’s purpose. The other assignment that stood out for all the wrong reasons, were the assignments I gave to cover material that I didn’t have time to cover before the standardized test, in other words, work that was introducing new material.

A second characteristic of effective homework is that students must be able to complete the assignment. Far too frequently, my daughter’s frustration at her inability to complete a homework assignment causes undo stress. “I hate this class.” “I can’t do it.” This frustration often spills over to family conflict as my wife and I attempt to provide our assistance, reassurance and motivation. As a teacher, I remember a homework assignment that I created on early river valley civilizations. I spent hours developing what I thought was a creative and effective assignment. I was excited to see my students’ completed assignments. To my surprise and dismay, few students completed the assignment. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that the assignment was poorly constructed and was too difficult (students were more than willing to share that information). What I don’t know, however, is what were the long-term ramifications of that one homework assignment? Even though I modified the assignment and we worked on it together in class, did it turn students off of my class? Did it make them less likely to try future homework assignments? Clearly, students must be able to complete homework without assistance.

This lead me directly to my third characteristic of effective homework, it must be differentiated. Working with the principle that all homework must be doable, it also is true that homework must not be seen as busy work. A struggling student might find questions 1-10 difficult, but doable, but a higher-level student might find the same questions easy and a waste of time. Why not design different homework based on student readiness and ability? In addition to differentiating based on readiness, I’ve always found it beneficial to give students a choice of assignments. After explaining the objective/learning target for the assignment, provide the students with several ways that they can demonstrate mastery of the objective for homework. Even better, allow the students to create their own assignments.

I know each teacher, student and parent has his/her own opinions and feelings regarding homework. But, I believe that if we clearly articulate the homework’s purpose, ensure that students can complete it with little outside assistance, and we make the assignment appealing through differentiation, we’ll see improved results.

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