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NYC Helpline: How To: Get Started

Making Homework Worth the Time
Judy Fenton

Is the amount of time that your students are spending on homework worth it? Are they getting the most out of their out-of-school work?  If my own daughters’ experiences are any indication, I would have to bet that your homework hopes are not being realized!
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t assign homework (though I do believe that we assign way too much.) I am suggesting that in order to make homework worthwhile, it is necessary to ascribe to a few principles:

Less is more: One in-depth, carefully crafted assignment is worth a week’s worth of poorly thought out, last minute stuff. Think about that for a moment. You could frame an entire unit of study by starting off with one rich, provocative reading to complete at home with a few generative discussion questions or one complex, multi-step math problem to explore. Use the assignment throughout the unit as a reference point. In order to get parents involved, one night you can assign students to have a conversation with them (or another adult) about the reading and questions or how they might solve the problem, and record their perspectives. Not only is this a great way to keep parents informed about and engaged in what the class is studying, but students will also begin to see that there are always multiple perspectives on a topic and we have to make room for others’ views.

Have a clear purpose in mind and share it with students and parents: We feel that we have to give homework every night, but in order to do this, we send home so much work that doesn’t seem well thought-out or purposeful.  Ask yourself to articulate the purpose and goals of each assignment, if you can’t find a purpose that you are comfortable sharing with families and that ascribes to my next point, please don’t give the assignment.

Connect the homework explicitly to what you are doing in class: It may seem obvious, but you really need to give students the skills and knowledge that they will need to complete assignments independently at home. If students do not have the requisite skills and knowledge, they will get frustrated (and parents will wonder what you are teaching, if our children can’t complete the homework.) Do not give homework that will not be used in some way in class or that you will not give meaningful feedback on. As a parent, this is one of my pet peeves—if you don’t think it’s important enough to use in class, do not make my child spend her limited time on it at home. This is a good way to teach students that homework is busy work, intended to keep them from having free time, as opposed to a valuable learning tool.

Share your expectations: What should the completed homework look like? What form should it take?  I just spent a weekend with my sister and her family. At one point, her eighth grade daughters told us that they had to complete a science experiment using the scientific method. That’s all the instruction they got.  If you are not a parent, you probably do not know that nothing will ensure a heated debate more quickly than introducing an ambiguously worded piece of homework to a group of parents. We were arguing about what the assignment meant within 30 seconds! Your expectations around a completed assignment shouldn’t be a big secret. Please send home or post on-line written directions for the homework project (and a rubric with larger projects).  Make the rubric or check-list a good match for your expectations.  For example, don’t give students a rubric focused on the content and then penalize students for not typing the assignment. Communicate all of your expectations for content and format clearly in the rubric or check-list. Students and their parents need to know what you expect. 

It all comes down to thinking before we give an assignment and communicating with students and parents explicitly when we give it. You will find that when you pay attention to the principles outlined, you will give better, more connected homework assignments. Your students and their families will appreciate it and you will get better results in completion of homework and in student learning!

Do you have a comment or question about this article? E-mail Judi.


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