But I Don’t Get It! The Late, Great Homework Debate

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February 26, 2019 by twunewteachers

A recent conversation in my house sparked interest in this current blog topic. The scenario goes like this….

I’m grading assignments for my undergraduate teacher education course in Canvas. I look up and hear my 8-year-old daughter crying in the other room. She’s working on her math homework and I hear her cry out, “I don’t get it!” This week, she’s learning about fractions and using pictorial models to compare different fractions (pictures that show ⅓ and ½ and she has to tell which one is more and why). Every week, she gets these items on her homework called “multi-step” problems. This week, the problem asks her to ADD non-equivalent fractions (so add ¾ and ⅓ and what do you get?) I go into the other room and ask her if she has learned this yet. She seemed to do okay on the other math problems that I checked, but has trouble with this one. So I ask her if she learned how to do that in class. Her answer? “No, Mrs. Smith did not cover that.” She asks if I can help her. So I take an ironic break from my own grading (as I’m in the middle of providing the most awesome, descriptive feedback) to draw pictures and basically provide a mini-lesson on how to add fractions that are not the same. She’s shut down and frustrated. I’m frustrated. I vented my frustration aloud and I think I said something to the effect of “why does your teacher assign homework on topics that she hasn’t covered yet?”

Okay, end of story. And I’m sure you can ask any parent who helps their child with homework and they will say it is a common scenario. But then I must stop and remember that as a former first and third-grade teacher, I likely did the same thing to my students. Thought I taught a concept. Assigned some quick homework assignment just so the parents would see what we were covering. Gave students some extra practice. I am also a guilty party!

In my experience as both a teacher and parent, homework is one of those things that carries a love-hate stigma. As a teacher, I felt obliged to assign homework, but it was time consuming find appropriate material, differentiate activities for my students, and then grade and provide feedback. As a parent, I love homework as it provides a connection to what my child is learning in her classroom, helps me to foster responsibility, and provides a method to reinforce academic content and the importance of education in our home. But it can be super frustrating if the purpose, mode, and impact of homework is unclear. Or when my child needs extensive help and re-teaching when she just, “doesn’t get it.”

Homework is most effective when students are practicing material that has already been taught. Teachers should ensure that when sending home practice sheets, students already know what to do and how to do it. Otherwise, there is a great risk of practicing the task incorrectly, therefore reinforcing incorrect learning. And let’s face it – it is easier to teach something the first time than having to unlearn and relearn a task.

The research on homework is mixed. Some say yes, homework is great! It improves student achievement! (Cooper, Robinson, & Patall, 2006; Marzano & Pickering, 2007). Some say no, homework is pointless, meaningless, and does nothing to facilitate learning (Bennett & Kalish, 2006; Kohn, 2006; Kralovec & Buell, 2000). Okay, so that is a bit of an exaggeration. But regardless of where you stand on the homework issue, there are some important key items to remember when designing these opportunities for your students. Marzano and Pickering (2007) maintain that “Teachers should not abandon homework. Instead they should improve its instructional quality.” This blog will focus on practical tips to help improve both instructional quality and implementation of homework assignments.

Homework Purpose

An important, if not the most important, question that teachers must answer when assigning homework is “what is it going to be used for?” Homework that is simply given as busy work or so that students will have something to do at home is not a good enough reason. Homework should be purposeful, should naturally extend learning from the classroom, should provide meaningful and independent opportunities to practice new learning, and should connect to real world learning applications. Students should be able to explain what they are doing and why they are doing it. Additionally, teachers should be using homework as a piece of the formative assessment puzzle to inform them on student performance and comprehension of the material. Which means that homework should have some sort of descriptive feedback when returned to students. Unfortunately, I’ve known teachers who, once finished checking homework for completion and accuracy, simply throw it away. If the homework is not important enough to provide students with feedback, then it is not important enough to do at all.

Amount of Time

Some research has suggested that students should spend no more than 10 minutes per grade level on homework assignments each night (Cooper, 2007). As a teacher, this is ideal, but not realistic. 21st century students are busy creatures with jam-packed extracurricular schedules. And we cannot underestimate the importance of play. Young children should be roaming, playing, and developing socially and emotionally. When too much homework is coupled with a heavy extracurricular schedule, students do not have time to engage in this free time. As a teacher and parent, I am personally in favor of weekly homework assignments given upfront. For instance, my third-grader always gets her weekly reading, writing, and math homework sent home on a Friday. The homework is always due the following Friday. Which means that she has the weekend or the week to complete her assignments and that we as a family, can look at our schedule and decide on homework time. Busy weekend – no problem, we can push it back. Busy week – no problem, we’ve got to plan ahead. Families greatly value FLEXIBILITY in home-based assignments. And so do older students with busy social lives. 

Type of Material

Types of homework range from reading assignments, essays, worksheets, research papers, science projects, and other more complex versions of student projects. The important thing to consider here is that the assignment should be meaningful, relevant, and an extension of classroom learning. The more engaging a homework assignment, the more likely the student is to complete it. Homework done right should not feel like homework. It should feel more like fun learning. It should help the student feel intrinsically confident in his/her ability to learn and meet learning goals. Extensive projects such as science fairs, creating models, and research papers will undoubtedly require more completion time. Thus, these types of homework assignments should be communicated well in advance to allow the student (and his/her parents) adequate time to plan and complete.

Differentiated Homework

Another important consideration when assigning homework is the complexity and difficulty of the task. Too difficult, and the student will become frustrated. Too easy, and there is really no point because students are practicing something that has already been mastered. Often, students receive homework that falls into one of these two categories – too hard or too easy. That is why I am in favor of differentiated homework – homework that is specifically designed around a learning task or goal rather than aimed at all students in general. I have seen this effectively done through learning menus, bingo boards, and other choice-activities where students can pick and choose assignments that are relevant and meaningful to them. My daughter is assigned 30 minutes of reading time each night. In addition to reading, she has to practice the reading TEKS that are being taught in school by choosing 5 activities to complete a 5-in-a-row bingo board. Examples of these activities include:

  • Explain to a parent the author’s purpose in writing the book.
  • Look up 3 unknown words and write down the definitions and an example sentence of each.
  • Summarize the chapter.
  • Tell the theme of the story you read.
  • Choose a main character and describe personality traits.
  • Describe the setting of the book you read.
  • Read a non-fiction book and identify/explain at least 3 non-fiction elements.
  • Read a biography and tell what you learned.
  • Explain something that you didn’t like about the story you read. Tell why.

Providing activities such as these allows the student freedom, flexibility, and most importantly choice according to the type of book being read. For more information about differentiating homework, check out the following resources:

I am also a huge fan of “flipped classroom” style homework where instead of assigning a typical practice worksheet AFTER instruction, the teacher assigns video homework BEFORE coming to class. For instance, let’s say that a teacher is introducing the concept of adding and subtracting fractions. The teacher would make a brief 5-10 minute recorded teaching video that the student is required to watch BEFORE coming to class. That way, when the student comes to class, he/she already has some foundational knowledge, the teacher can dive right in to guided practice, and can free up more time to provide individualized attention and instruction to students while they are working on practice activities during class. (This can’t be done if they work on assignments at home). My favorite tool to implement this type of homework is EdPuzzle. EdPuzzle allows teachers to use existing videos (YouTube) or to import their own created videos into a video-editing system. Once the video has been assigned, teachers can create corresponding quizzes, can freeze the video so that students are not able to skip ahead, and can actually track when a student watches the video and if it is completed. Best of all EdPuzzle is free, easy to use, and can track and monitor student data.

Another tool that I have seen effectively coupled with homework is the SeeSaw Class/Student/Family app. Last year when my daughter was in second grade, the teacher introduced a new unit on regrouping. She knew that most parents were familiar with the old method of teaching adding/subtracting through “borrowing” when subtracting numbers greater than ten. Using the SeeSaw tool already connected to parent and student accounts, this teacher created a short 5-minute video that went out to PARENTS that explained how she was teaching adding and subtracting with the new terminology. It was awesome and allowed me great insight into what my daughter was learning at school and how I could help her with her practice activities at home.

Homework is undoubtedly an important hallmark of school. Teachers must remember that when done right, homework can be a very important learning opportunity that extends and enhances classroom instruction.

References:

Bennett, S., & Kalish, N. (2006). The case against homework: How homework is hurting our children and what we can do about it. New York: Crown.

Cooper, H. (2007). The battle over homework (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Cooper, H., Robinson, J. C., & Patall, E. A. (2006). Does homework improve academic achievement? A synthesis of research, 1987–2003. Review of Educational Research, 76(1), 1–62.

Kohn, A. (2006). Abusing research: The study of homework and other examples. Phi Delta Kappan. 88(1), 9–22.

Kralovec, E., & Buell, J. (2000). The end of homework: How homework disrupts families, overburdens children, and limits learning. Boston: Beacon.

Marzano, R. J., & Pickering, D. J. (2007). Special topic: The case for and against homework. Educational leadership, 64(6), 74-79.

Additional Resources on Homework:

 

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