Homework in a standards’ based classroom

Food for Thought

I am sharing a document from  @cvulearns (Emily Rinkema and Stan Williams, erinkema@cvuhs.org and swilliams@cvuhs.org“).  It was shared with me by Craig Kesselheim at Great Schools Partnership and by Christine Anderson-Morehouse, the Midcoast Superintendents’ professional development coordinator.

I know some schools have begun to address their homework policies and this document pulls together a few important rationales for some change.

Homework in a Standards-Based Classroom

We have learned so much about the brain in the past few decades, and it’s time to start applying what we know to our teaching practices. We know that in order to maximize learning, the brain needs:

  • Clarity
  • Time to consolidate new learning
  • To feel safe
  • To experience frequent success
  • To work within the ZPD (Zone of Proximal Development)

Traditional homework practices often go against most of these principles of learning. So…based on what we know about the brain and learning, here are some dos and don’ts for homework in a standards-based class:

If you decide to assign homework, it should be:

  • Clear and target-based: students should know exactly what they are doing and be able to explain why they are doing it. The work should directly connect to the targets for your class.
  • Differentiated: students should not all have the same work; base their assignments on their current needs, just as you would instruction and activities in class.
  • Engaging: we want students to want to do work outside of class; this will prevent cheating and will improve work completion.
  • Brief: students are busy. They often have 6-8 classes in addition to afterschool activities, family responsibilities, or work. Brains need time to consolidate—which means time to play and sleep.

If you decide to assign homework, it should NOT be:

  • Graded: But not-graded does not mean optional; if you assign it, it should be important, which means you need to ensure that students complete it, even if that means taking time in class. Not graded also doesn’t mean not checked; we must give feedback on homework if we want students to value it (and feedback within 48 hours, if we want it to affect learning). Related note: no student should fail a class due to homework—it’s not an accurate enough measure of learning to base such an important decision upon.
  • New Learning: when students are first learning a skill, we should be present to watch that learning and correct misunderstandings. If students practice a skill wrong, it is very difficult to undo the learning.

While the current research on homework is inconclusive and contradictory, almost all researchers agree that students from low-economic homes do not benefit from homework as much as students from middle- or high-economic homes, so if we are going to require homework, we need to have structures in place to ensure all students are benefiting. Support structures for homework help and completion need to be provided in a non-punitive way.

Resources for Further Reading:
Common Teacher Concerns and Brief (and opinionated) Responses

“If I don’t assign homework, we’ll never get through all the content.”

If you’re relying on homework to get through content, then you have too much content. Our job is to ensure learning, not to cover material.

“But what about reading. Reading is different, right?”

Reading homework is tricky. If it’s reading for fun, as in the student chose the reading and it’s at the student’s level, then reading homework is beneficial. If the reading is assigned, however, you need to ensure that the student can access it. That means you need to know that it is within the student’s independent reading level (which is usually different than their ability to understand within your class), and that you know their reading rates (a chapter of a novel may take some students 30 minutes, and others 2 hours—the latter is not a reasonable request).

“If I don’t grade homework, students won’t do it.”

Not true. Students will do work that is meaningful, clear, and that leads to success. There is a significant difference between not grading and optional. You need to set the expectation that the homework is a mandatory part of the learning cycle; and when it isn’t finished or accurate, students will need to do it (even if that means you rearrange your class time to get it done). Additionally, just because you are not grading it, does not mean you aren’t collecting it—if you assign it, you should look at it to ensure learning and catch misunderstandings. Just stamping “done” or “not done” is not effective.

“I don’t have time to create differentiated, target-based homework”

Then don’t assign homework. The good news is that not having to assess homework will clear up time for you to work more on differentiated, target-based classroom activities that will lead to better, more efficient learning, which will mean you won’t need to assign homework anyway!

“Homework teaches accountability, responsibility and time management skills. If we don’t teach these now, we are doing students a disservice. In college they will have tons of homework and it won’t be differentiated, so we need to prepare them.”

There are a few ways to respond to this. First, most traditional homework practices don’t teach these skills—they reward students who already have them and punish those who don’t. It is much more effective to actually teach these skills while you have students in front of you in class, not when they are at home. Second, by helping students maximize their learning, we are preparing them for future learning. We should not sacrifice good teaching practices now in order to prepare students for bad teaching practices later. In addition, in college, students most often have 2-3 hours of class per day (max)—in high school, they have 5-7 hours. If we teach students how to work independently and manage time (both of which can be done most effectively in class), then they will be prepared.

Brought to you by @cvulearns (Emily Rinkema and Stan Williams, erinkema@cvuhs.org and swilliams@cvuhs.org)


About shawncarlson

Assistant Superintendent
This entry was posted in AOS 98, BRES, BRHS, Edgecomb, Georgetown, Instruction, Southport and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Homework in a standards’ based classroom

  1. Jean Cucci says:

    Thank you for sharing this, Shawn. It’s excellent “food for thought” on homework, something all teachers contemplate. It renewed my perspective, especially on its questionable benefits for students from low-economic homes.

    • Mary Miller says:

      Shawn, Great post….”Homework in a Standards Based Classroom.” It certainly is an ongoing dilemma in our school. One that should have some type of coherence among faculty. The first resource for further reading, “Five Hallmarks of Good Homework,” had practical ideas about the value of work outside the classroom. Thanks for giving us a practical reading! I think we all understand the value of homework assignments, but we may not always have the right reasons, or the right assignments, for that matter. I look forward to some whole faculty conversations around this subject.

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