Sunday, December 6, 2015

No More Crappy Homework

Please forgive me for using "crappy" in the title of this post if that language offends you. But I decided to start things off this way, because it describes the quality of work so many teachers assign. I am pointing the finger at myself here first of all. I have assigned my share of shoddy, low-quality, busywork over the years.

I just read this brief piece from Edutopia, entitled "Homework vs. No Homework Is the Wrong Question." It's good stuff; thoughtfully written, and thought provoking. Here's one great quote to illustrate:
A realistic homework strategy should be a key topic of back-to-school night and the first parent-teacher conferences of the school year. But it should also reflect a considered school policy and not simply be up to each individual teacher to carry out according to his or own theory of student learning.
This makes sense to me. In every school I've taught in, homework is largely left to the discretion of the classroom teacher, other than some vague assumption that "teachers should assign homework, because homework helps kids learn." I'm not so sure that last statement is true--read on to find out more about this--but there are some strengths to this approach, I think. Teachers can be empowered this way to make the best decisions for their individual classes, and even individual students this way. Teachers are--in theory, anyway--the closest to the kids in terms of their learning, and should be the ones to determine the kind of homework that will help students learn most, and learn best. (Again, I'm not sure that is what is actually happening in schools, but in theory, this ought to be the way it works.) But all that said, I also understand the importance of a school homework policy. Having a school-wide policy makes it much more likely that the kind of homework assigned is in fact aligned with the mission and vision of the school.

I wonder if individual teachers who might clamor for the power to make their own decisions about the homework they assign would buck at a school-wide policy? I confess, I probably would, depending on the way the policy is written. For instance, if a school homework policy would prescribe a certain amount of homework that must be given each night...well, I would probably be pretty strongly opposed to that. My fear is that to meet a particular homework quota, even more shoddy, low-quality busywork (ah, crappy homework...) would be assigned.

It's not that homework has no benefit whatsoever. Some homework has been shown, in some situations, to have some positive effect on students learning.

Education researcher John Hattie has examined all sorts of influences on learning (from different teaching methodologies, to the presence of a library in the school, to the kind of feedback teachers give, to how much time kids spend watching TV at home, to curriculum approaches used.) About a decade ago, Hattie conducted a huge study made up of meta-analyses of all sorts of different influences on student achievement. (A meta-analysis is a synthesis of other research studies performed by other researchers to find out the overall results of multiple studies.) In his book Visible Learning, Hattie explains the research behind 138 different influences on student achievement, on how much kids learn. In the book, he ranks these influences in order of the size of the effect they have on student achievement. And you know what? Homework made the list.

Actually, homework comes in at 88th place of the 138 influences he examined. A few interesting things that made the list higher than homework in terms of the positive effect they have on learning include:
  • acceleration programs for kids who have already learned material
  • teachers providing formative feedback on student work
  • teachers not labeling students
  • phonics instruction 
  • student creativity
  • the student's home environment
  • the student's socio-economic status
  • outdoor/adventure curriculum approaches
  • interactive video teaching methods
  • second- and third-chance curriculum approaches
  • play-based learning
  • cooperative learning (as opposed to competitive learning)
  • bilingual education
  • high-quality professional development for teachers
  • schools offering enrichment programs
  • reducing student anxiety
  • computer assisted instruction
  • drama and arts programs
  • inquiry-based teaching
  • ability grouping for gifted students
Okay, that's just 20 of the things that have a greater effect on student learning than homework. There are 67 more in Hattie's list that have more of an effect on student achievement than homework...some of which schools and teachers can definitely work on (such as the teaching approaches and curriculum approaches) while others they have less control over (akin to home environment or socio-economic status.)

If we look more closely at the research specifically on homework, things get interesting. And, in fact, results from the research into the value of homework for learning is mixed. Hattie reports the following:
  • In the elementary grades there is a "near-zero correlation between time spent on homework and achievement."
  • Homework at the elementary grades has a very, very small effect on learning. At the middle school level, there is a moderate positive effect. In high school there is a greater benefit, "which probably reflects the more advanced skills of studying involved in high school."
  • "High school teachers are more likely to assign homework related to learning subject matter, and the effects are highest when the homework involves rote learning, practice, or rehearsal of the subject matter."
  • Task-oriented homework has a greater effect than "deep-learning" and problem-solving homework.
  • Any positive effects of homework decrease with the length of time the student spends working on homework.
  • The positive effects of homework are greatest in mathematics, and lowest in science and social studies.
  • "A lot of homework and a lack of monitoring seem to indicate an ineffective teaching method."
  • Homework can undermine a student's motivation to learn: "For too many students, homework reinforces that they cannot learn by themselves, and that they cannot do the schoolwork."
To sum up, homework may provide learning benefits for students if it requires only a short time to complete the work, if it involves rehearsal or practice of subject matter already learned.

But is this the kind of homework teachers are actually assigning?

In some cases, yes. But in other cases...I would say it's probably crappy homework, the kind I assigned to my middle school students 15 years ago. I am embarrassed of the quality of homework I used to assign, honestly. And rather than trying to improve the homework, I just stopped assigning so much.

Perhaps that is a step in the right direction, teachers? If we can't articulate how a particular assignment will actually positively impact student learning, maybe we shouldn't assign it. Or, maybe we should check out Hattie's list of things impacting achievement, and maybe we should focus on some of the items that have a stronger effect on students' learning than homework?

I'll wrap this with one final thought that is brought up beautifully in this thought-provoking graphic shared by my Twitterfriend, John C. Carver:

Maybe we can at least stop punishing kids with homework? Or punishing them with the way we grade homework? If homework is intended to be practice that helps them learn, we certainly want them to do it. Of course we do. But I continue to wonder this: why do we grade homework? This is a sincere question that I hope parents will ask their teachers, and that teachers will actually ask themselves: WHY are we grading homework? My suspicion is that that teachers feel that if they don't grade the homework, students won't do the homework. And if that is the only reason we are grading homework, maybe we need to get to the root of the problem: why aren't kids doing the homework?

Maybe because it's shoddy, low-quality, busywork?

To my fellow educators, I implore you: no more crappy homework. Please?

Original image by Michael Bentley [CC BY 2.0]
Modified by Dave Mulder [CC BY-SA 2.0]


  1. Hi Dave, thanks for this post. What do you think about flipped classrooms? I'm still working on it myself, but I like the potentiality of it. Homework is assigned in preparation for the next class. The obvious risk is, if the students don't complete it, you have to do it anyway. However, I believe it gets away from the busy work homework you have mentioned.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment! I am very intrigued with some of the possibilities of the flipped classroom, but I still have some concerns about this approach as well. One of the biggest benefits I see for this approach is that the teacher is more "present" during the practice phase--homework becomes preparation for class, as you mentioned, and the "homework" part happens in class then with the support of the teacher. This sounds pretty good in theory, but I'm not convinced that this is how it really works out in practice.

      Let's say you're a math teacher, so you create a video lesson for students to view, demonstrating how to find the greatest common factor of a pair of numbers. It might be the same sort of lesson you would teach face-to-face, but the "practice" wouldn't happen until the next day, right? My concern is this: how many students are going to require significant re-teaching of the concept presented in the video before they are going to be able to do the work themselves in class? Then did you really gain anything by flipping the lesson? I suppose you could assign the students to do some practice problems immediately after viewing the video, and then bring these to class the next day, but I wonder if that really all that different than the traditional math homework--just *more*, because now there is a video to watch first?

      Or let's consider a "content-heavy" subject like history. Perhaps you could deliver an online lecture for your students to view ahead of time, which would free up your in-class time to do a simulation, or a map activity, or a debate, or some other authentic learning opportunity. In concept, I love this idea! But in practice, how does it work out? I think the online lecture would have to be EXTREMELY engaging, and very "tight" to keep students' interest and focus. (There is a reason TED-talks are only 10 minutes long!) And...would students have to take notes on the online lecture as they would in class? Or would you provide them a transcript? What is the purpose of the lecture--simply conveying information? Or building background understanding? Or developing an argument? Your answer to this question will determine the kind of lecture you create.

      I guess I would sum up by saying that I like the concept of flipping the classroom, but I don't think this is going to be a panacea that "fixes" what's broken about homework. There is still the potential for crappy flipped homework, after all. I think we might be better off focusing on deep learning and high-quality teaching all around, and then thinking about the role out-of-class work plays in these.

      My 2¢... :-)

  2. Thank you for this - you have articulated my own instincts very persuasively. I am currently expected to give set homeworks to my KS3 pupils, and will be using some of the ideas here to put forward the case that this is not the best thing for them.

    1. Glad you found it valuable, Dermot! I have a piece in the works that actually articulates how we might be able to fix what's broken about homework. As I say above, *some* homework has been shown, in *some* situations, to have *some* positive effect on students learning...but most of the time, the homework assigned (especially in elementary grades) is pointless, because it doesn't affect student learning anyway!

      Thanks for reading, and for taking the time to comment!