Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Making Homework Purposeful

Homework’s value and purpose has spawned several personal conversations/debates in the last couple of months—too many to count. Some of the notable ones: #vachat conversation, a great post by Patrick Larkin (there are several articles in links to hw in his must-read blog), and my own conversations with staff, parents, and students. My first blog post was even about the issue. But, the issue of homework is worth revisiting as my opinions have been shaped by these recent conversations.

First, let me get my get this out of the way. In high school, homework can serve a valuable academic purpose. Homework should never be assigned just for the sake of assigning something, and I’m not even sure it’s effective to assign homework to teach responsibility, self-discipline, and time management. 

So how can teachers make homework purposeful?
1.     Homework should be started in class. This ensures that the students are capable of completing it successfully. Additionally, beginning the assignment in class enables the teacher to explain the purpose of the assignment to the students.
2.     Students must understand the value of the homework. Homework can serve different purposes: pre-assessing, checking for understanding, or practicing. Regardless of the purpose, students must see the value in it.
3.     If homework is assigned as practice, it’s important that students practice correctly.
As a basketball coach, I know the most difficult coaching task was to re-teach/correct a player whose shooting form was incorrect. Practice doesn’t make perfect, but it can make permanent. The same applies with homework. This is especially important in math classes, so why not provide the students with the answers—even the steps—for each question (not just the odd-numbered). By providing the students with answers, feedback is instantaneous and learning is reinforced.  
4.     Returning to the basketball analogy; one of the reasons so many players developed bad shooting techniques was because as youngsters they were forced to heave the ball at a ten-foot rim. A task too hard for little kids. I’m sure many children, like my daughter, became frustrated with their inability to get the ball to the rim and simply give up, while those who experienced initial success continued playing. Quality homework assignments must be doable so students can feel positive about their learning and themselves.
5.     Students should be held accountable for homework. If it’s worth assigning, it should be worth doing. If the student has already mastered the concept, why give them an assignment that will be seen—rightfully so—as busy work? In cases like this, we have an opportunity to differentiate our assignments. Failing students for not completing homework, despite their mastery of the material, is unfair. 
      Accountability doesn’t necessarily mean attaching a grade to the assignment, and it doesn’t mean that late work shouldn’t be accepted.
How can students be held accountable without coercing them with grades?
·      Provide students choices
·      Require students to self-assess and check for their own understanding
·      Check instead of grade.
·      Use homework for formative assessment purposes.
·      Ensure students see the value of the homework to their learning success.

 We've been fortunate to have conversations at our school about our homework policies. I look forward to hearing your opinions.  

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