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Better, Saner Homework Tips, Pt 2: Make It a Good Experience for Students

By Dave Stuart Jr.

Last time, I explained why I assign homework and how I make it doable for myself. That sentence might sound like an evil, teacher-centered way of thinking about homework, but it's just practical. If the kinds of homework I give add undue frustration and overwork to my life, then I won't give much of that kind of homework, and as I'll explain in today's post, my students will miss out on opportunities.

Here are some tips for making homework a good experience for students.

1. Always be answering, in as many ways as you can, this question: What's the point? Articles of the week, review work, and reading assignments do all kinds of neat things for my students:

  • Academically, it gives them a chance to build knowledge, read, or write beyond the time that they're with me.
  • Motivationally, it gives them a chance to build an academic identity — to cultivate through experience the belief that “people like me do homework.” If we don't ever give homework, we don't ever give our students the chance to learn to think this way, to feel as though they can belong in settings where homework is a norm. In short, not assigning homework, particularly at the secondary level, seems a sure way to ensure that some of our students will not succeed in post-secondary settings where homework is expected. (The Belonging belief is one of the five key beliefs that underlie student motivation.)
  • In terms of rewards, good homework is its own reward because it gives kids a chance to learn. Knowledge is, indeed, power: to learn, to think critically, and even to read. This is why I don't give treats or prizes when students turn in their homework — the reward is learning. Learning is the point, not brownies.

2. Make sure your homework matches your arguments from #1. It's important to warn here that when we assign homework that we can't link to long-term flourishing, that we can't give great rationale for, then we're wiser to discuss this work's validity in PLCs or department meetings than we are to laud its greatness to our students. Teacher credibility is a fragile thing, and misleading students is the kind of behavior that undermines it. (For a brief overview of the kinds of homework I give, see my last post.)

The thing is, nearly all of our students have things that they would rather do at home than homework, and some of our students have home situations that preclude them for ever having a real shot at getting homework done. I don't believe that these realities mean that we ought not to assign homework, but I do think they should give us pause when considering what to assign.

3. Be mindful of how long homework will take students (and show students that you take this seriously). Researchers vary on their recommendations for how much homework students should be assigned, but a good rule of thumb is established by Robert Marzano and Debra Pickering in this Educational Leadership article: take the students' grade level, multiply that by 10, and there you have the total number of minutes of homework that students should have on a given school night. For my ninth graders, this means 90 total minutes, and since I'm only one of their six teachers each day, I get about 15 minutes per night.

So for example, a 250-word, Gallagher-esque article of the week response takes my students about 30 minutes, based on the amount of writing they can produce during our daily five-minute warm-ups. In light of this, I don't assign homework every night in an AoW class.

It's important to remember that this “grade level times ten” thing is a rule of thumb — no need to get legalistic about it, no need to freak out. But, I do think that once we start assigning more than that recommended amount, even the best kinds of homework will have a greater likelihood of being neglected by students.

4. The academic side of a homework assignment must be clearly taught, checked, retaught as needed, and monitored afterward. I wrote about this a bit in the aforementioned homework post, but it merits repeating. Every move involved in a given homework assignment needs to be taught, checked, retaught as needed, and refreshed from time to time afterward. If I want my students to read an excerpt from a history textbook, that means I need to use this basic instructional approach for at least these skills:

  • How to read to understand
  • What to do when they get stuck on the reading
  • How to extract big ideas and key concepts from textbook reading
  • How to create flashcards (or quizzable notes) that make reviewing key material easiest over time

Unless we've done this, we're consigning at least some of our students to needlessly frustrating homework experiences.

5. The behavioral side of homework — the sitting down to actually do it — must also be taught and discussed. A few times per year, I have my students write a 100-word, five-minute warm-up on the following questions:

  • What percentage of your homework, from all of your classes, would you say that you completed last week? In this estimate, include both the homework that the teacher collected and the homework that was not collected (e.g., the teacher told you to review key concept vocabulary from Chapter 10).
  • Where do you complete your homework? Do you have one set place, or is it many places?
  • At what time of day do you complete your homework? Is it a set time, or all over the place?
  • Which, in your opinion, is the wiser plan: doing homework at one set time and place each day, or doing it in various places and at various times?

After this warm-up, we Think-Pair-Share and then spend a few moments discussing (via a mini-pop-up or a Conversation Challenge) the last bullet point. My goal is to guide students to start understanding their homework habits and how they might improve them.

6. Frame homework, in your heart and in your explanations to students, as an act of respect. “Were I to refrain from giving you purposeful homework,” I explain to my students, “I would not be taking you seriously.” Homework, in my classroom, is a sign of my respect for my students. This is an important note, as so much of my credibility in their eyes comes from whether or not they sense that I take them seriously. This adolescent desire to be taken seriously isn't something unique to my students, either. Some two thousand years ago, Aristotle wrote that “owing to their love of honor [young people] cannot bear being slighted, and are indignant if they imagine themselves unfairly treated” (Rhetoric, Book II).  As this Dave Yeager, Ronald Dahl, and Carol Dweck paper explains, adolescents have an enhanced desire for respect.

Of course, with my Haddie at home (who, as a second grader, should probably have no more than 20 minutes of purposeful homework per night, according to the above-mentioned rule of thumb), I don't use the respect argument. Instead, I focus on homework as an opportunity to learn, and I explain how learning is fun and exciting and can lead to all kinds of possibilities. The age of the youngsters we're talking to dictates the way in which we frame the work.

As always, I'm happy to discuss any of this in the comments section.

3 Responses to Better, Saner Homework Tips, Pt 2: Make It a Good Experience for Students

  1. Tanya G Hoff March 21, 2018 at 7:43 pm #

    Dave, can you further explain #6, how homework reflects respect of students by me. I don’t understand what you mean. Thanks!

    • davestuartjr June 21, 2018 at 12:00 pm #

      Hi Tanya, sorry to be so late here, but here is what I mean. When I assign purposeful homework to my kids, I’m saying: 1) I’m going to treat you like an adult and give you a reasonable, useful thing to work on outside of class. 2) The work we’re doing and skills and knowledge we’re after are serious, so this homework is going to help.
      I hope that helps a bit 🙂

  2. Carol Barone March 27, 2018 at 1:55 pm #

    I teach three levels of Spanish, Homework in my class is what I call “left-over” for tomorrow. I always start it in class with clear explanations and then give them time to do it while I am there to facilitate their work, those that finish turn their homework in. The next day I collect from those who didn’t finish and we go over the homework as a class. Those who didn’t do it still have to participate, write it etc. depending on what the assignment was. All students know from my at the beginning of the year expectation list, that their weekly Quiz is from the homework. Very few students do not, not do homework. In order for giving out homework, there has to be clear instructions which need to be set up the very first week of the school year. I agree with your tips for making homework doable for students, parents and teachers.

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