“Simply assigning homework may not produce the desired effect; in fact, ill-structured homework might even have a negative effect on student achievement. Teachers must carefully plan and assign homework in a way that maximizes the potential for student success.”
-Marzano (2007, p. 77)
I have never been a proponent of copious amounts of homework; my default mantra has been: small, meaningful amounts. However, used properly, homework has the potential to extend learning opportunities beyond the classroom. In assigning homework and establishing homework policies, I defer to Marzano, Pickering, and Pollock(2001) and pass along their suggestions in this area for your perusal.
First, parent involvement in homework should be kept to a minimum. Some studies suggest that when parents assist with homework, minimal and even negative effects may result. Also, the purpose of homework must be identified and communicated. Two obvious purposes should be practice and preparation or elaboration. When assigned for practice, the material must have a high degree of familiarity. Practicing a skill that is unfamiliar may only reinforce errors and misconceptions. It is also important that assigned homework receives feedback. Studies show that the effects of homework vary greatly depending on the feedback provided by the teacher. I find myself in cahoots with the authors’ three tenets of classroom practice in assigning homework (Marzano, et al., 2001):
1. Establish and communicate a homework policy. This should be done at the outset. Explain to students and parents the purposes of homework, the amount you expect students to complete, consequences for not completing homework, and the amount of parent involvement that is appropriate.
2. Design homework assignments that clearly articulate the purpose and the outcome. Clearly identify the purpose of any homework assignment and communicate that purpose to your students.
3. Vary the approaches to providing feedback. Although the goal is to provide meaningful, specific feedback for all assignments, reality suggests that not all homework will receive the same degree of teacher attention. Try to employ different strategies in this area to help you manage the workload and maximize the effectiveness of homework.
Homework remains a hot-button issue in the education profession and is one for which there is no simple answer pleasing to all stakeholders. It is vitally important, though, that the professionals directly involved—teachers and administrators—examine this issue thoroughly and come to agreement regarding the purpose of homework and how we best achieve this purpose. Secretly, I was never much of a homework assigner as a teacher—at the elementary, middle, or even high school level. However, I generally support the widely-known rule of thumb suggesting the ten-minute-per-grade-level amount. In our middle schools, then, our sixth graders would have no more than sixty minutes of homework each night, whereas our eighth graders should have no more than eighty minutes nightly.
Marzano recommends three general types of homework: (a) homework that helps students deepen their knowledge (e.g., compare two political systems we have been studying); (b) homework that enhances students’ fluency with procedural knowledge (e.g., solve multiplication problems quickly, checking for speed and accuracy); and (c) homework that introduces new content (e.g., read a section of a book that the teacher has not addressed but will address the following day). For each piece of homework assigned, Marzano (2007) insists that teachers should communicate with parents regarding the assignment and even offers sample scripts, such as this:
“The homework tonight is to introduce your child to poetry terms before we learn more about them tomorrow in class. The assignment is to read pages 56-62. Remind your child that the content in those pages will be reviewed tomorrow. Please also remind them that it is important to complete the assignment so that s/he has some basic understanding of poetry terms. You can help by asking your child to summarize what s/he has learned as a result of reading those pages. You can also ask your child to write out at least two questions s/he has about what was read.”
It may be helpful to think of assigning homework for PRP: Practice (the material has already been taught and is being emphasized for fluency), Review (bringing all the facts, details, vocabulary together; applying what they have learned), and Preparation for future learning (careful, though, on this one; although OK to assign homework that asks students to begin thinking about a topic they will be studying, it can be counterproductive to have them read ahead to learn material that has yet to be taught). We might assign something that we think will take only twenty minutes when, in reality, it may take students much longer (we, as teachers, possess the “curse of knowledge,” meaning we may think something is easy, quick, or obvious to all because it is second nature to us as experts in our subject area).
A final issue to consider is how we maximize the likelihood that all students actually complete all homework assignments. The following tips—mainly from Jane Bluestein (2008), Linda Darling-Hammond, and Olivia Ifill-Lynch (2006)—may help:
- Assign work that is worthy of the effect: Does it make sense? Is it necessary? Is it useful? Is it authentic and engaging?
- Make the work doable: Be sure directions are clear and that students can complete the assignment without help.
- Match assignments to student needs: Reach out to students who are not completing homework and brainstorm strategies that work for them. Assign independent work at or near their proficiency level.
- Make work public: Display exemplars of proficient student work so they know what is expected. Talk students through the evening’s requirements.
- Encourage collaboration: Among students (eighth graders helping sixth graders or classmates occasionally working together on an assignment) and among staff (communicating about amounts assignments and supporting each other by sharing ideas and assignments with the highest return rate).
- Offer students choices: Find ways, when appropriate, for students to choose how they will extend learning, based on their interest or talent.
- Build flexibility into your homework policy: At the outset, plan for the likelihood of some students not completing work and find ways for students to recover, while still holding them accountable for completing the work.
As I have mentioned previously, O’Connor devotes a chapter each to 15 “broken” grading practices, offering a “fix” for each problem. This week, we look at the third problem, along with his fix:
Grades are broken when we offer extra credit and bonus points which can distort a student’s legitimate level of achievement. Grades are broken as a communication tool if we give points for “dressing like an Egyptian” when such performances do not demonstrate achievement of specified academic standards. The fix for this is to not use extra credit or bonus points. If students want to earn a higher grade, teachers can instead require them to provide “extra” evidence that demonstrates a higher level of achievement.
Grades are broken when teachers provide extra credit or bonus points that are just about points, not about higher levels of proficiency. Instead of doing this, we must communicate to students and parents that better grades come from evidence of higher levels of learning, not just points.