Rethinking Homework Reviews

Homework is almost universally hated: most teachers despise nagging and bribing students to do it then having to grade it when kids finally comply, parents hate being the ‘homework police’ for assignments they neither understand nor find valuable, and students would rather be doing, well, nearly anything else. I’ve changed my own homework practices repeatedly over the years, but I always feel like I could make my assignments more meaningful and my policies more relevant. It goes without saying that I was pleased to open my mailbox and find an advance copy of ASCD’s summer release Rethinking Homework: Best Practices That Support Diverse Needs by Cathy Vatterott. Also known as The Homework Lady, Dr. Vatterott is a world renowned advocate for homework reform and an expert on ingrained beliefs about the inherent “goodness” of homework.

Her book is divided into five sections, the first proving most interesting to me personally, as it explores “The Cult(ure) of Homework”. Vatterott gives a brief and fascinating history of homework in America, then summarizes five largely unexamined intrinsic beliefs about homework. I found the most provocative belief to be that homework teaches responsibility:

Responsibility is often a code word for obedience. When we say we want students to be responsible, are we saying we want them to be obedient–to do what we want them to do when we want them to do it, to be mindless drones, blindly obedient to authority? One teacher said she thought not doing homework was a sign of disrespect for the teacher! When we say homework promotes self-discipline in students, does that mean being self-disciplined enough to do something they hate to do because its their duty?

More such introspective provocations are presented in the second section of the book, which explores homework in the context of the new family. Vatterott touches on the war between teachers and parents, exposing the tendency of teachers to perceive parents as incompetent or wimps when they don’t insist their children complete homework accurately and expeditiously. She juxtaposes this with the parents’ perception that teachers presume the right to control students’ lives outside the classroom and dictate how time is spent in the home. (Ouch.) The author thoroughly explores the importance of balancing academics and family-chosen activities and includes the effects of economic diversity, then gives five realistic tips for re-negotiating the parent-school relationship. The homework surveys and checklists provided are helpful and ready to use.

Homework research and common sense–a duo that many fail to connect–are Vatterott’s focus in the third section. She summarizes the findings of past and current homework research (which I was already familiar with), along with research limitations and common false conclusions that are unaligned with findings (which I was not familiar with). She points out the strong bias toward homework:

Both Cooper and Marzano, after stating that the research shows no benefit of homework for elementary students, nonetheless proceed to recommend homework for elementary students. Cooper claims it should be given for the purpose of developing good study habits and positive attitudes (a recommendation not backed by any research)…Both researchers have such clearly ingrained biases toward homework that they don’t appear to see the disconnect between the research they are citing the recommendations they are making.

Vatterott then dives directly into a common sense look into the research (Ten Things Teachers Know About Learning) and points out the correlation between homework research and the commonly held philosophy of ten minutes per night per grade level. The author maintains that classroom teachers have valuable knowledge of what individual learners need and should not be slaves to the research: just because homework has not proven to be useful in many cases doesn’t mean that teachers should abandon the concept.

So how then should teachers design effective homework practices? In the fourth section of the book, Vatterott discusses limitations of the old homework paradigm and how to shift to a new one, including guidelines for designing quality homework tasks, differentiating for student needs, and moving from grading homework to checking it through quality feedback. Her suggestions are surprisingly practical and relevant to the time-strapped and curriculum-inundated teacher, and in my own classroom, I’ve decided to immediately implement some of the ideas for helping students self-assess.

Vatterott uses the fifth and final section of the book to explore homework completion strategies and support programs. She gives many helpful tips on diagnosing completion problems and rectifying them through specific classroom strategies (including a critical look at both homework incentives and punishments). She then describes dozens of school-wide approaches to support students in completing homework, including programs that find time during the school day, curricular and scheduling options, and after-school arrangements.

I found myself resistant to most of these formalized ‘homework support’ programs due to my own bias: I believe homework SHOULD teach students self-discipline and responsibility, and resent the idea of using limited school time and resources to ensure students complete work I expect to be done independently. I bird-dog students all day long to make sure they complete the work necessary to succeed: homework is the only assignment for which they are required to be completely self-motivated. At what point do we stop trying to save students from themselves? If the assignments are high quality and the amount and type is developmentally appropriate, is it so unreasonable to expect students to consistently complete homework accurately and on time?

Vanderott directly confronts this traditional perception that students must prove themselves and their learning through homework:

When it comes to learning, it’s not about finishing the work; it’s about demonstrating learning. Can students prove that they know what they need to know? How can we determine how well they are learning, and how can we help them do better? If we can assess learning without all those homework assignments and the students have learned what we wanted them to learn, we don’t need the homework! This is a hard pill to swallow if we believe students must do as they are told, and that not completing all homework is a sign of laziness and insubordination. But if we become so concerned that children have not been compliant, we lose sight of the role homework should play in learning. Focusing on enforcing our own power as teachers, we become afraid to trust students, afraid they’re going to “get away with something”–so we sometimes resort to punitive solutions that backfire. Author and educational consultant Rick Wormelli raises an interesting point about homework. He asks, “Why do we expect 100% compliance in getting homework done on time? After all, we don’t expect all students to get A’s or to behave perfectly all the time.”

To that end, Rethinking Homework is certainly an apt title. It’s an informative read for anyone who questions the endless homework battle waged everyday between parents, teachers, and kids with no clear delineation of who is on which side. The author’s approach is equally respectful and non-condescending toward all parties; homework is not the enemy, nor are any of its participants or perpetrators. Vatterott makes it clear: homework practices can be improved through concrete and attainable steps so that reasonable amounts and types of homework are used to enhance learning, allow student practice, provide feedback to the teacher, and instill confidence in students. The quest for change is certainly work, but as Vatterott argues, it is valuable and important work.

 

While revising a unit on "Crime, Punishment, and Teens", I became nervous that I was short on time to complete all our investigations regarding the punishment teens face if they commit serious crimes. I feel so strongly about these investigations; they really help students develop objective positions on this topic and provide great springboards for spirited class discussions. Should I assign them for homework? Can I trust that all of my students will give it its due diligence?

In the end, I decided that they were critical to our unit and built them into our class activities. I felt like I was "copping out" on the homework front. Was I enabling a behavior and attitude amongst much of my school's population that assignments outside of the school day are not essential?

Many teachers DO hold the line on insisting students are assigned homework at some regular interval. My essential questions on this are always the same:

  • What is the outcome expected by assigning homework? 
  • What makes those tasks so important to do exclusively outside of school?

With the prevailing existence of standards-based instruction and standardized testing, I think it is time to rethink the homework tradition. While some teachers make strong, valid cases for homework, others say that teens are being forced to choose between homework and extracurricular activities or employment. In the end, a gentle balance is really needed by all.

It's a Multi-faceted Dilemma for Teachers AND Students

What is the argument IN FAVOR of assigning homework? I polled a few teachers on my campus and here are the most frequent responses:

  • There is not enough time to do everything in class
  • Class time is meant to begin investigations, students should dig deeper outside of class
  • There needs to be a gradual release of responsibility to the student
  • Parents can use homework as a measure of child's understanding
  • High school students need to build self efficacy to handle college life/ post high school life responsibilities

And the cases made AGAINST regularly assigned homework:

  • Extracurricular activities are much sought after by Universities. Students who want this reflected on their transcripts are sometimes forced to stay up very late at night to complete homework.
  • Students without access to technology suppresses the positive effects some homework can have on students/ parents
  • With 5-6 classes for each student, how many hours of homework do teens have each day? Teachers don't take this into consideration when they assign it.
  • Students have part-time jobs
  • Parents request homework, but don't always know how to gauge it's effectiveness

What does the Research Say?

The research available on homework regarding elementary and middle school is quite mixed. Some factors seem to be more consistently reported, however, for high school students. Several reports found that high school students who receive homework on a consistent basis performed better on standardized tests and have higher grades than do students who don't. While this points to the rise in achievement due to the quantity of homework, it doesn't always address what types of homework are most effective, how to use completed homework assignments, and the amount of homework that is appropriate to assign. These factors are frontline concerns for the teachers at the high schools in my community.

Finding the Gentle Balance

In working towards a gentle balance with assigning homework, rethinking WHAT is assigned is critical.  Students' class grades should show some correlation with achievement test scores, so it is feasible to expect homework to be standards mastery aligned if it is going to count in grades. In addition, the work, itself, needs to be meaningful and engaging for the student. In order to address these concerns, I have structured homework assignments to be aligned with these three areas:

1. Metacognition

One of the most effective strategies to increase achievement in at-risk students is to teach them how to think about HOW they learn and how that learning impacts their life (in and out of school). 

The strategies students employ when metacognitively reflecting on their day's work "...includes goal setting, monitoring, self-assessing, and regulating during thinking and writing processes; that is, when they're studying and doing homework" (Pierce). These strategies cross all content areas and answer the "Why do this?" question most teens ask about their assignments.

What's a good assignment?

Completing metacognitive journals for each class extends the learning process for students. This type of homework assignment has long-range positive outcomes for all students.

2. Student Generated Extension/Investigation

When students ask questions about the content we teach, they instantly transform into a self-motivated learner - a researcher. This is a much sought-after behavior for all teachers - it is the root of all learning that we are employed to nurture. Therefore, teaching students how to ask questions AND when to ask them are critical to student learning. 

What's a good assignment?

Homework assignments that challenge teens to question their learning on different levels (aha - Blooms Taxonomy!) are constructive uses of after school time and serve as springboards for discussion at the next class meeting.

3. Technology

A savory entry point for teachers who want to make homework meaningful is tapping into teens' keen interest in technology. In lieu of the traditional worksheet or review questions, online resources and message boards are interactive, immediate, and attract students to check out responses of their peers. 

What's a good assignment?

I have used freeforums.org for the past two years to host a book club message board for all of my students to post their independent reading responses in lieu of a traditional reading log. My colleagues have used nicenet.org for students to respond to questions about the day's learning, complete homework math problems, or to ask questions to their teachers. Use of websites such as these help promote self-efficacy - something we have found to be a common shortfall for our local college freshmen.

To give students the time needed to access a computer with the internet, I generally assign online postings as a weekly task. It is important that teachers consider the availability of universal access to technology when considering using the internet for homework. My school site publishes and regularly updates a map of our community where there is free computer internet access for students and parents (i.e.: public library, apartment complexes, etc.).

In addition, there are online tutorials for students in all subject areas. Assigning homework to access and practice skills or check for understanding of content via these types of web pages is gaining in popularity. I caution teachers to review the content and answers of these web sites, however, because my colleagues and I have found gross errors on several occasions on some sites.  I like the Holt Rinehart Winston website where students can access online textbooks, pull up review questions and take online quizzes to gauge their understanding of content ranging from English-Language Arts, Mathematics, Science-Health, Social Studies, and World Languages. 

Lastly, if you haven't perused this Scholastic.com website for students - you are missing a treasure trove of extension activities that are meaningful, are standards-based, and are completely interactive and engaging!

Wrapping it Up:

Since the first homework assignments were handed out in the 1800's the debate on homework has been on the forefront of educational issues. Addressing the concerns of teachers, parents, and students about it would take volumes of articles. However, we can rethink the way we structure homework assignments by addressing key essential questions such as:

  • What is the outcome teachers expect by assigning homework? 
  • What makes those tasks so important to do exclusively outside of school?

Employing some of the best practices for increasing student achievement and appealing to students' interests increases participation and promotes self-efficacy. There are a host of web articles on these subjects alone for teachers to garner ideas - all we have to do is do our homework!

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