Homework: To assign or not to assign?


Teaching | Thursday, March 28, 2013

Homework: To assign or not to assign?


KayPat / SXC

I used to think I was weird.

What I’ve been doing is so countercultural to what many of my colleagues do. I’ve thought that maybe I’ve been failing my students even though it just seems and feels right.

My students love it, and that scared me just a little, too.

I don’t assign homework. (Well, I hardly ever assign homework.)

And now I’m realizing that I was right all along.

I am weird. And I’m OK with that.

For several years in my formative teaching years, I assigned homework in my high school Spanish classes. Usually it was mindless verb conjugation practice.

Some students had it done neatly every day. Others “forgot it at home” and I never saw it. Others raced to complete it before it was collected. It was generally not their best work. And they still struggled on quizzes and tests.

I got frustrated with homework and eventually cut way back. I had several reasons:

  • Copied work.
  • Sloppy, thoughtless work.
  • Kids’ busy lives. They don’t need hours of extra work at home.
  • There HAS to be a more effective way.

There was. For me, it was more conversational Spanish in class and more engaging, real-world practice. My students do their best when I rely on those two tenets.

[RELATED: 5 ways to use cell phones for homework]

Sure, students have to be held accountable for learning. But trivial homework assignments just can’t be the best answer.

I visited the #sbgchat (standards-based grading) on Twitter last week (an archive can be found here), and I found that I wasn’t the only one disillusioned with homework.

  • “Homework has a very low statistical correlation w/classroom achievement. If student doesn’t do it, there are still othr ways to lrn” – Rick Wormeli (@RickWormeli)
  • “I quit assigning homework because too many dogs were eating it. It’s not my job to feed the neighborhood pet population.” – Sean Junkins (@sjunkins)
  • “Worksheets are the definitive way for teachers to pretend to teach and students to pretend to learn.” – Joe Bower (@joe_bower)
  • “Students motivated more by descriptive feedback than grades, and they learn a lot more, too.” – Wormeli

Do I think that any homework has its place? I suppose it can. But I think it should be intentionally assigned by the teacher as the best, most relevant option for learning. Instead, I think many of us assign homework as the status quo instead of investigating if it’s a good return on investment, time-wise and effort-wise.

A student told me recently about his favorite Spanish homework. He visits an authentic Mexican restaurant semi-regularly and has made friends with a waiter. Effectively communicating with his new friend in a new language is powerful motivation for him.

Wow. Homework I didn’t assign and I didn’t grade, and my student is motivated to do it. That’s the kind of homework I aspire to.

How do you feel about homework? Have you done away with it or have you found a good system? Share your experiences with a comment!

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  • Alex says:

    Totally agree with you. In addition to the ideas of authentic and intentional learning, I also think about my students for whom homework is just never going to happen given the context of their lives. Those students then fall farther and farther behind because of what you’re asking them to do outside school hours.

    I wrote a post about this a couple of months ago here: http://shevtech.wordpress.com/2013/01/04/what-we-assume-when-we-talk-about-homework/

    • jmm7574 says:

      Alex — I work in a rural school with lots of free- and reduced-lunch students, and I think the same thing. I know of or have personally seen the squalor that a few of them live in. It makes me wonder how they get to school on a regular basis, let alone complete any homework there. Plus, their lives are so totally full of other valuable activities. Thanks for your feedback, and thanks for the link to your blog post! — Matt

  • Angelika says:

    I too struggle with the homeowrk question. We are on a every other day block schedule and I often see kids only 2 times in a 9 day period (inc.weekends) and if they don’t practice or do something at home, there is no retention. That’s the reason why I stated flipping! They take notes at home, I can give them the explanations in English or a mix of TL and English, then we can practice and use TL in class almost ALL the time.

    • jmm7574 says:

      Angelika — In that block schedule situation, I can totally understand, and I really like the flipping concept to combat that. I’ve thought about doing that with my Spanish classes and may still do it. Being on a traditional seven-period schedule I do get regular face time with my students every day, which certainly helps. I’d like to see a session at IFLTA where you show us your methods for flipping!

    • Matt Miller says:

      I can sympathize. I’ve assigned less and less homework as time has gone on, too. I’m also with you in thinking about the importance of what kids and their families do outside of school as well. The ones that want to learn in class are the ones that are going to do worthwhile things outside of school. The ones that just want to get by with as little work as possible are the ones that will fritter their time away. Thanks for contributing to the conversation!

  • Samantha says:

    Hello. I am a Senior in High School and I am planning on studying Spanish Education next year in college. After college I plan to teach in a low income school where, as you said, it can be unreasonable/ineffective to assign homework. I was hoping you might give me some practical ways that you accomplish this/what your classroom looks like on a normal day. Thanks so much for the food for thought!

    • Matt Miller says:

      Hi Samantha! How impressive that you’re already thinking ahead to what you’ll be studying in college. You’ll be in great shape in the future if you keep this up! I’m going to send you an email with a link to some things I do in my classes on a normal day. Hopefully it helps! Best of luck, and if you have any other questions, please be in contact!

  • Beth Wernz says:

    I seldom give homework either – for many of the same reasons. Another driving reason for us to look at changing is that by assigning a ton of homework, we actually put some students at at disadvantage. Those who’s home lives are extremely unstable (and we have more and more of those these days) are much more focused on helping raise siblings, getting fed, or staying safe than on some random worksheet. I say teach them in class – let them collaborate in class – and most importantly, give that feedback IN CLASS and IMMEDIATELY. They’ll learn more from it in the long run!

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