Homework: Many teachers assign it on an almost nightly basis, but are we considering why we do so? What is the purpose of assigning homework, and is it effectively fulfilling that purpose?
The purpose of homework varies based on assignment and content area, but most of the time homework is synonymously referred to as practice; it is meant to be a tool for students to independently utilize what they learned in class and better understand processes, vocabulary, content, etc.
This, of course, is the intended purpose of most homework, but is it fulfilling this purpose? I decided the best answers to this question would come from the students actually completing the homework, so I asked Sofia and Ben, two middle school students, to talk to me about the value of their homework assignments.
Ben, a quiet and creative 6th grade student, finds himself uninterested by most of his classes, and therefore unmotivated to do his homework. Though he is not assigned much, he admits he doesn’t often complete it when it is assigned; this doesn’t affect his understanding of the subject in most cases, he says, but it does affect his grade — in most of his classes, homework counts for 10% of his final grade. The exception to this rule being math; he says because he doesn’t complete the assigned practice, he doesn’t often understand the content and therefore underperforms on summative tests.
Sofia, on the other hand, is motivated by the kind of classroom environment her middle school provides, and though isn’t often assigned homework, she almost always completes the practice when it is assigned. She says it does have an impact on her grade — homework is also worth 10% in her classes — but that she doesn’t feel it has an effect one way or the other on her understanding of content. The exception is her music class; she plays the violin and must practice one hour per night, which she completes enthusiastically and says she can hear the practice improving her skill.
What I’ve gathered from theses two student testimonials is that students don’t often feel motivated to do homework — unless they have been explicitly told its purpose or it is somehow relevant to their interests. Sofia, for instance , know the purpose of practicing her violin and therefore approaches that practice enthusiastically. Ben, on the other hand, does not often complete his homework because he has not been explicitly taught its purpose, nor does he feel it pertains to his interests, which are primarily creative.
So the problem isn’t the concept of homework, it is what we assign and the way we assign it. Often times teachers can get caught up in their own lesson plans and the way they want students to learn, rather than figuring out the way each individual student learns best. To get out of that mindset, we must make differentiation our goal — not every homework assignment will work for every student, and we have to be willing to create and recreate new ways for students to practice.
This could look like different levels of practice — or even a flipped classroom structure — for math students, more hands-on learning or take home labs for science students, and self-timed writings, webquests, or character maps for ELA classrooms. Just as we plan lessons meant to keep students motivated and differentiate in-class assignments, we must use these strategies when we assign homework, and always keep in mind the goal you are trying to achieve: What are students supposed to know by the time they’ve completed the assignment? How can I help them reach that goal while also keeping them interested and motivated?
To sum up, here are some preliminary conclusions I’ve made based on my research this far:
- The purpose of homework is almost always practice and rarely to extend student thinking
- We must assign homework with a clear purpose/goal in mind
- We must differentiate our homework just as we differentiate our lessons
- We must consider student interest to sustain motivation when we assign homework just as we do when we plan lessons
Overall my research is going well, and my next step is to interview former K-12 public schoolers on their opinion on homework, motivation, and understanding.