Monday, April 29, 2013

Regarding Homework...

Why do teachers give homework?

I was a middle school classroom teacher for the first eleven years of my teaching practice. The longer I taught, the less homework I assigned. That's not to say I didn't give students assignments--but they rarely had to do them at home. I'm curious about how teachers use homework, and what role it really plays in students' learning.

It seems to me that teachers generally assign homework because they feel some pressure to do so. They may put that pressure on themselves; they believe that assigning homework for their students will afford the practice they need to master certain content or skills. Others feel pressure from colleagues: "The other 6th grade teachers are assigning I guess I should too!" Others may feel pressure from parents who don't want their kids left behind somehow. Still others may feel pressure from their school or district; there may be school- or district-wide policies in place requiring a certain amount of homework at different grade levels.

The argument often goes that homework will improve achievement--that students will learn more if they have homework.

The thing is, I'm not convinced that much of what is assigned as homework really does improve learning. (Many folks agree with this idea, by the way. Alfie Kohn is a particularly clear voice arguing against homework. You should also check out Pernille Ripp's page arguing against homework.)

Don't get me wrong; I'm a fan of kids practicing. "Practice makes permanent," after all. And much homework probably falls into the category of "practice." The real question in my mind is this: how does homework support learning?

Let's explore this a bit.


As an example: many teachers believe that students in the early elementary grades should memorize basic math facts for addition and subtraction, because once they have mastered these facts, children can compute more quickly and fluently. Practice will certainly help them to memorize these facts. But consider two approaches to practicing math facts:
  • The teacher assigns four worksheets with 100 addition facts each that must be completed during the week (at home) and turned in on Friday.
  • The teacher pre-assesses students to find out which math facts they have already mastered and which ones they still need to learn. Students then create flash cards in school for the facts they don't yet have committed to memory, and practice these for 5 minutes each night during the week (at home) and have a post-assessment on Friday to ensure their learning of these facts with which they had been struggling.
While the second assignment certainly takes more effort on the teacher's part, it is more responsive to the needs of the individual learner. If a student already knows the math facts, how tedious those hundreds of problems must be? And if a student doesn't know the math facts, will staring at a sheet of 100 exercises inspire them to want to learn them? How daunting that would be!

I'm not really arguing that 7-year olds shouldn't memorize math facts, but I would argue that the former assignment will likely turn them off to math. (Or maybe it just turns me off to math. 400 math exercises a week in elementary school--outside of school hours? Ugh.) Most kids don't need to do worksheets of 100 addition facts every night to commit these facts to memory. It may be true they should practice their math facts, but what is the purpose of the practice? Why should they memorize these facts? If the intent is that they will be able to compute fluently, knowing their basic facts will likely be helpful. But once they have the facts memorized, do they need to continue doing hundreds of addition exercises outside of school hours every week?


Another example: many teachers middle school and high school teachers often assign readings from a textbook to prepare for lectures and class discussions. Again, two approaches for encouraging students to read:
  • The teacher assigns several pages of reading, and assigns the comprehension questions at the end of the section. The students hand in their answers to these questions the next day in class, and await a lecture on the topics from the readings.
  • The teacher assigns several pages of reading, explaining that students will be working in groups the next day in class to put the ideas from the reading into practice.
In my own experience as a student, readings with comprehension questions quickly became "skim the reading to find enough of an answer to satisfy the teacher's quick check over our papers." I was enough of a people-pleaser to (usually) still do the whole reading, but the comprehension questions felt like jumping through hoops. If the intent is that students will actually do the reading, perhaps the second approach might be more useful? Particularly if the students really do work with the ideas in the readings in groups--there may be some positive interdependence that is fostered by sharing ideas from reading assignments this way.


Homework is complicated.

I think it's because there are quite a few interrelated issues going on here. Teachers feel pressure (from parents, from colleagues, from themselves) to assign homework. Parents (perhaps because of their own school experiences?) think that their kids should have homework. Students themselves may not like homework, but often have been conditioned to expect homework as a normal part of school. Politicians who rail about raising standards sometimes invoke homework as a means of doing so. Homework is often seen as an institutionalized part of schooling--it has a long and proud tradition! (Or something like that...)

Is there compelling evidence that homework improves learning?

I guess I'm just not convinced it does. I'd love to hear about your experiences with homework. Did you feel like you learned more in courses that required a lot of homework? Do you feel like your kids learn more when they have homework? What kinds of homework seem to make the most sense?

Image via SellTextbooks CC BY-SA 2.0


  1. A good balanced argument here! I agree with you that if we do set homework tasks, they should be of a more purposeful investigative nature. Games are a great way to consolidate learning at the same time as bringing the family together as often games need partners. I often set card games related to maths which they play at home with their siblings and parents, recording their scores along with a comment from the parent about how the game went.

    How is homework helping their learning is a great question! Read my article on HOME LEARNING LOGS which is a research based project that we set weekly. Every Monday my class come in and straight away share their projects with their friends because they are proud.

    What do you think? If you could take a look and leave your opinion on this, I would really appreciate it!


    The Staff Room

  2. Thank you for your post - I'll be sharing it next year when the students debate whether homework is helpful or harmful. Just some thoughts that came to me while reading... I assign "read 20 min or more" for homework for my 7th grade ELA classes. Other times, when I need students to do something (read a text I have to teach, write a blog post to reflect), I do give them time in class. It makes our discussions that much more valuable, when ALL students have done the work. It also makes me chase students less to get things "turned in." Instead, I'm asking them to learn in class.

    Another thought - if practice makes permanent, then I don't want students to be practicing wrong at home. I have a parent who is upset with me this year because I am not giving the drill worksheets her student's 6th grade ELA teacher gave. (She's also upset about the possibility of each child getting an A in the class due to re-dos and re-takes, but that's another topic.) Her child hates to read. So for her to read 20 or more minutes a night would substantially help her reading ability, I believe. And if she reads something SHE chose? Bonus - she might develop into a reader.

    Again, thank you for your post... and thank you for letting me chime in!