Quality Over Quantity Homework Assignments


Does homework help? Only if it's the right homework, expert says

By Jonathan Hepburn and Paige Cockburn

Posted August 24, 2016 19:47:50

Homework is not useless but its quality is far more important than quantity and schools should think very carefully about why they are setting it, an education expert at the University of South Australia says.

Over the past week an anti-homework note sent to parents by a teacher in Forth Worth, Texas, has spread around the world after being posted to Facebook by a parent.

"After much research this summer, I am trying something new," the note from Mrs Brandy Young, which has been shared more than 70,000 times, says.

"Homework will only consist of work that your student did not finish during the school day. There will be no formally assigned homework this year."

The note goes on to say that research has been unable to prove that homework improves student performance.

Instead, Mrs Young urges parents to spend their evenings doing things like reading together, playing outside, and getting their children to bed early, which "are proven to correlate with student success."

Not surprisingly, the note was posted to Facebook with the comment "Brooke is loving her new teacher already!"

External Link: Facebook no-homework note

Good homework is 'purposeful, specific, and reinforces learning'

However, "she's not quite right," says Brendan Bentley, a PhD candidate and lecturer in the Education Department of the University of South Australia.

In 2006, a review of American research conducted between 1987 and 2003 found that "there was generally consistent evidence for a positive influence of homework on achievement."

The review, led by Dr Harris Cooper of Duke University, found that evidence was stronger for students in grades seven to 12 than for kindergarten to grade six, and for when students, rather than parents, reported how much time they spent doing homework.

On the other hand, in 2013, Australian academics Richard Walker and Mike Horsley published Reforming Homework, in which they reviewed international research and found that for young primary school children, homework is of little or no value and students are regularly given too much.

The issue is that although if you do something more often you get better at it, you have to be doing the right thing in the first place.

"Homework has to be purposeful, specific, and reinforce learning. If it's just to finish work, that may not help the student at all," Mr Bentley said.

In fact, too much homework can be worse than useless: It can be detrimental.

"For students in grades three or four, more than 20 minutes of homework can exhaust them. They go into cognitive load, and their ability to learn goes into a decline," Mr Bentley said.

"They can develop a negative attitude towards learning. It's about getting the balance right."

Cognitive load refers to the total amount of mental effort being used: a heavy cognitive load creates errors or interference.

That 20 minutes is not a guideline for each day: "There needs to be a good argument for having homework every single night," Mr Bentley said.

"Schools have to understand why they are giving homework. Without a good purpose and a rationale: Reconsider it."

He says that homework can be ramped up as students get older, but even in grade 10, research shows that, "if it's more than an hour, it's a waste of time."

Designing effective homework also depends upon how much the student is able to learn.

"Adults can learn about seven things at a time. For young children, that's maybe two or three," Mr Bentley said. "You only need 20 minutes to reinforce that."

However, he says the benefits of homework are not just about reinforcing learning, and that if it does not turn students off, it can teach important study habits.

He agrees that family time and relaxation can be more important than homework.

"Developing good habits and attitudes through interaction with parents can be good — every time you interact with your children, you are teaching assumptions," he said.

On the other hand, too much homework can lead to conflicts with parents.

"Parents are keen for their children to be the best, so they may ask about homework, and may do it for their children, which defeats the purpose," Mr Bentley said.

Topics:education, children, secondary-schools, primary-schools, schools, youth, australia

Key points:

  • Academics agree that too much homework can harm learning
  • Good homework is 'purposeful, specific, and reinforces learning'
  • Time spent with family after school can be more important than more study

Most students are motivated by grades and if they know that an assignment isn’t going to be graded, it becomes about as important to them as finding a good mutual fund to invest in for retirement. So how do you assign meaningful homework when your district has a policy that doesn’t allow for it to be graded?

It has taken several years for my team and I to figure out what works best in our classrooms, and we continue to tweak the process. Here are some strategies that we have come up with for meaningful homework assignments.

1. Assign quality over quantity.

As a math teacher, I was used to assigning upwards of twenty problems a night that were often repetitive and lacked depth. Depending on the subject, try to assign only a handful of problems that allow students to practice what they learned, and one or two that really challenge their critical thinking skills.

2. Encourage more.

Even if I’m only assigning a handful of problems, there are always more available. Try to narrow down the problems to cover a range of difficulty, and a variety of strategies that must be used. There’s still no way I can get students to do every type of problem I want them to practice and keep their homework manageable. Let students know that if they find the problems that were assigned to be difficult, then they need to do more on their own. Most will. Some will do it on the nightly homework, some will do it when studying for the test, but the students who want to do well will always do extra when they’re struggling.

3. Don’t grade it, but still kinda grade it.

Many teachers used to grade homework only on completion and that inflated students’ grades. If we grade only summative assessments, then the grade accurately reflects what students know, which is how it should be. But, it’s still nice to keep track of completion both for ourselves and for parents. It’s nice to be able to say, “Well, maaaaaaybe the reason your son isn’t doing well is that he only completes 40% of the homework.”

4. Put homework problems on assessments—and let the students know that you’re doing it.

I have taken homework problems and put the exact same problem on a quiz or test. When we go over the quiz or test, I tell my students, “If you did the practice problems I suggested the night before the test, this was one of them.” If students didn’t understand that doing the homework will help them on the assessments before they took it, this idea will quickly become very clear to them and they will want to start doing the homework.

5. Make it a requirement for something else.

My district also requires teachers to allow test retakes, and teachers can decide what makes a student eligible to retake. No homework? No retake. You may choose to require only a certain percentage of the work to be done. Or, you may require that no assignments were late. You might even allow the retake on the condition that they go back and make up work that was missing. If students didn’t make an effort to learn the material before the assessment, then they don’t get to retake.

6. Grade it.

I know, I know. I said we can’t grade it. BUT, we can if it’s NOT practice. If the concept has been taught previously and students have had time to practice multiple times and come in for help if they needed it, you can go ahead and assign it as homework and grade it. You might tell students that once a week you will collect homework and grade a review problem. Then do it – don’t make it an empty threat, make it part of your homework policy. You can even wait until you have gone over it in class before you collect it. The only excuse for not getting it correct is that they simply chose not to do it and not to fix it when given the opportunity.

7. Invite them to a homework party!

If you have students who habitually fall behind on the homework and show no interest in catching up, invite them to a homework party after school. Give them an invitation and let them know attendance is mandatory. (Yes, this is a detention, but it’s disguised as a party! Kids love parties!). Often, students who aren’t doing homework need the extra help anyway and won’t come in without you requiring it. Some students will be pushed to do the homework to avoid your super fun parties. The students who really need extra help will see this as a more positive alternative to a detention.

8. No homework, no test.

I’ve known teachers who would not allow a student to take a test until all the homework was done. This can be a nightmare, because some students will simply choose not to take the test either! (Then they get their invitation to the homework party.) This one works best when nothing else seems to work with the habitual homework avoiders who really do need the practice to be successful. It also works better when you provide additional help to the student so they can complete the work, since it’s very likely that they’re not doing it because they’re discouraged.

9. Let them choose.

This one is especially useful when faced with a chapter review which has dozens of problems. You know what’s going to happen if you tell them to pick ten problems. They will pick the ten easiest problems. But if you assign ten problems, you might be assigning problems that some students don’t really need to practice. Tell them to pick one problem in each group of 10 in order to do some easy problems and some advanced problems.

What are your strategies for creating meaningful homework? Please share in the comments.



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