Wednesday, 13 July 2011

On Homework

I would love to see my students complete school work at home because they are excited about a topic they are studying or because they have a strong desire to improve their skills.

It's my blog.  I can dream, right?

In recent years, I have adopted the philosophy that if a student is using his or her time wisely, it should be entirely possible to meet learning outcomes within class time.  Additional time may be required for the student to review, exceed expectations, or make up for missed classes but, overall, my students should not have homework.  I try to assign a number of "in class only" tasks each term, giving me the opportunity to really observe and guide my students as they learn and make adaptations, as necessary.  Some assignments, usually multi-day projects, may be taken home if students want to spend extra time on them.

Please note that, in the paragraphs below, I use the terms "assignments" and "work" to describe a variety of assessment practices.  My draft on assessment has been sitting on this blog nearly as long as this entry on homework but, for now, know that "assignment" is not synonymous with "worksheet" in my mind.

A few thoughts to contribute to the ongoing discussions about homework online and in schools:

Some parents, students, and teachers believe that a "good teacher" assigns homework.  It seems that these people generally expect all students to be given the same homework, regardless of their progress in class.
Homework is mistakenly understood as a necessary component in a serious, academic course taught by a strong teacher.  The quantity of homework, however, does not correlate with the quality of a student's learning, nor a teacher's instruction.  I have memories of completing dozens of math problems long after I had mastered the concept.  Likewise, there were times when I could have benefited from extra practice not required by my classmates.

Homework needs to be personalized and motivated by the student (or family) in order for it to be meaningful.
If somebody had made this statement five years ago, I'd have thought they were nuts.  Some students require extra practice or review, but these requirements are not the same for each.  I now believe that extra practice, review, and studying must be completed at the suggestion of the teacher but with the student's active acknowledgment that this is a necessary assignment to improve upon skills.  When students are truly engaged in a project, they may choose to work at home; I think that is fantastic and strongly encourage that.  When students are motivated to improve skills, with the guidance of the teacher, they take ownership over the activity.  They will become equipped to succeed as they face future in-class assessment opportunities.

Some parents, students, and teachers believe that homework is acceptable if it is work that the student has not finished in class.
I agree with this, in part.  Some students require more time to complete work; why should they be "punished" for requiring more time to meet the learning outcomes for a particular course?  As well, teachers do feel that they need to "move on" and not leave other students waiting for the next assignment while a minority of the class finishes work.  My issue with this philosophy, however, is cases when students choose to waste time in class, then choose not to complete the homework.  The student still has to complete the assignment, and the teacher will find him/herself sending interim reports and reminding the student about the missing work.  This seems like a lose-lose situation to me.  While I do not assign homework, students who miss class then procrastinate end up having to do some at home.  I was commenting to a colleague that I wonder if some parents think, "That Family Studies teacher assigns a lot of homework" when, in reality, the student may have fallen behind due to absences or issues with time management.  I feel that the "It's homework if you don't finish in class" philosophy is only viable if the teacher holds students accountable for class time, as much as possible.  It is amazing how quickly students begin to work when something is "due at the end of class."  I am able to ensure that students have completed work to the best of their ability, while making adaptations and modifications for those who genuinely struggle.  As well, I want to see some work completed in front of me, even if extra time is required; allowing students to take every assignment home can lead to concerns about academic honesty.

If work is completed out of class, I do not know whose work I am assessing.
I am neither willing nor able to assess plagiarized work.  Period.  Dealing with plagiarism is unpleasant for all involved.  I spend time at the beginning of each year reviewing the school's code for academic honesty yet, on several occasions, I have received an assignment completed by Wikipedia's finest contributors, or another person who is not enrolled in my class.  It seems unwise to allow every assignment to go home unless I have a good sense of the student's current achievement and have observed the assignment in progress.

If work is being completed at home, I do not have the opportunity to differentiate assessment.
If a student genuinely struggles with written work, for example, I have an opportunity to reduce the assignment requirements and perhaps discuss another method of presentation.  I can make adaptations for any student, whether or not a ministry coding has been assigned, but must see the student in order to do this.  Students who genuinely struggle may also feel frustrated and choose not to complete an assignment or may feel motivated to cheat.  It is for these and a variety of other reasons that I designate several major assignments "in class only" each term.

Students have other interests, hobbies, and commitments.
While I began by mentioning that some parents and students expect homework in rigorous courses, others do not and see value in engaging their children in a variety of activities.  Many senior students are committed to jobs, babysitting, athletics, or volunteer positions after school.  Secondary school students should expect to spend some time dedicated to review and practice several days per week, but lengthy homework projects are challenging for many.

If we want to create lifelong readers, reading should not be a chore.
The last time I taught English, my students completed about 85% of the assessment activities in class, allowing me to adapt assignments as needed.  I told them that their homework was to read books of their choice, and gave them silent reading time in class in order to "hook" them on reading.  It was my desire to make English "homework" something they enjoyed, rather than a punitive or unnecessary exercise.  I told them that I was not going to install cameras in their homes to supervise this reading, but that reading would improve their skills in class.  I have no way of knowing if I succeeded in encouraging these students to read but hope that they left with a more positive attitude toward reading and school in general.


  1. I really appreciate you comments on homework. It's been awhile since I've taught in a 'regular' classroom, I now teach at a distributed learning school, but when I did I had the philosophy of not assigning homework. Students would still have to work at home to:
    - study for upcoming tests/quizzes (though we would also do review activity in class)
    - complete work that was not finished in class
    - complete projects (where there was already a large component of class time allotted for it.)
    Regarding my second point, I did have a significant number of students who did not use their class time well and therefore had to complete the work for homework (or not do it at all). You said "I feel that the "It's homework if you don't finish in class" philosophy is only viable if the teacher holds students accountable for class time, as much as possible." This is a good point. As our students get older though, I wonder if we need to give them more leeway in how they use their time? Are there ways that we can help them to see that they need to be responsible for using their time well? If we are too structured will they find it difficult when they move on from high school to the next stage in their life? I suppose as often is the case, we need a balance. Thanks for the thought provoking post.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Claire! I struggle with that question too. I want to teach my students to be self-directed learners, but I also want to keep them accountable.

    I think that balance is the key and, like so many things, needs to be different for each student. I have students who will ask if they can use the last fifteen minutes of class to review their notes for another class and I allow them to do so, knowing that they will have their assignment finished for the next class. It is a great chance for them to see the "logical consequence" of time management. They didn't study for the test, so they are using time in my class. Now, they will have a little bit of homework in my class as a result. If I know that these students will get their work done, so I feel that it is a good learning opportunity for them to manage their own time in class.

    Other students need more direct guidance, or need to remain in class until their work is finished. I know that certain students are unlikely to finish an assignment if it is not done in class. They don't understand, feel they can't do it, or just don't want to, so they procrastinate. They would rather receive no mark than attempt the assignment. These are the students that I try to target with more accountability and in-class work so that they can complete something, see that they are capable of succeeding, and hopefully work toward greater independence. If I know that the "homework" will seem unmanageable for the student later on, I need to hold him or her accountable in class and focus on time management skills later.

    It is definitely a complex issue but one that I'm thinking a lot about.