At the start of the 2013-14 school year, the Fentress County School District in Tennessee announced that it would enforce a district-wide ban on graded homework assignments.
Administrators explained their decision by pointing to the large majority of students who lacked at-home resources to help them with their homework. Anywhere between 65%-75% of each school’s student body qualify for free or reduced lunch programs, so it was decided that students should not be singled out for failing to adequately complete take-home assignments.
“We don’t want kids to be unfairly penalized for their work because they don’t have the resources or support they need at home,” explained Randy Clark, Fentress County Schools’ Curriculum and Instruction Supervisor. “Our new motto for assignments is ‘review and preview.”
That means that homework in the district now constitutes an ungraded review or preview of current course work that’s the students’ responsibility to independently complete. Spelling words, vocabulary practice, and study guides for testing all fall under this purview.
The Great Homework Debate
Some educators aren’t fans of the new policy. Tammy Linder, a sixth grade teacher at Allardt Elementary School, is one of them.
“Students have not had that daily homework practice in any subject that keeps the concepts ‘alive’ and moving in their brains, so that means that much of the practice time and teaching time and testing time had to come during the class time each day,” Linder says.
Still, other districts across the country are taking second looks at the practice. The principal of Gaithersburg Elementary in Maryland decided to ask students to spend only 30 minutes in the evening reading. The decision was reached out of the realization that worksheets and other assignments had been assigned merely out of a sense of obligation to dole our homework to students.
Across the country, parents, teachers, and students are also voicing their opinions in the homework debate. On the issue of the actual educational value of homework, it may seem straightforward to many educators that reviewing lessons and practicing concepts after school would correlate to a greater retention of course material, but studies suggest that the link between assigned homework and academic achievement is drastically overinflated.
Researchers at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education found in a 2012 study that math and science homework didn’t correlate to better student grades, but it did lead to better performances on standardized tests. And when homework is assigned, the help provided by parents often mitigated any of the positive effects of the work. Critics of this type of parental involvement say it can be counterproductive because parents may assume too great a role and/or may not fully understand the lessons being taught.
In April, Denise Pope, a researcher at Stanford University, found that too much homework can negatively affect kids by increasing stress and sleep deprivation and generally leaving less time for family, friends, and activities. According to Pope, homework should not be simply assigned as a routine practice.
“Rather, any homework assigned should have a purpose and benefit, and it should be designed to cultivate learning and development.”
Video: Do Students Really Have Too Much Homework?
No Homework the New Norm?
“There are simply no compelling data to justify the practice of making kids work what amounts to a second shift when they get home from a full day of school,” says Alfie Kohn, an expert on child education, parenting, and human behavior, as well as the author of The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing.
Should schools then assign less homework or at least reevaluate what they assign? No, says Kohn, school shouldn’t assign any homework. Teachers who do assign it need to have a very compelling reason for extending a student’s school day.
“My general suggestion is to change the default: No homework should be the norm,” Kohn says, “Six hours of academics is enough—except on those occasions when teachers can show strong reason to infringe on family time and make these particular students do more of this particular schoolwork.”
Still, homework is so ingrained in the fabric of schooling that studies revealing its minimal positive benefits have been largely shrugged off or ignored altogether. For most educators, completely cutting homework out of schools isn’t a viable alternative – at least not yet. And many, if not most, teachers are unconvinced that gutting homework from their repertoire of learning tools is the best idea anyway.
Tammy Linder says that teachers haven’t had the amount of teaching time they usually need to enforce classroom lessons and concepts. With the heavy focus on standardized testing already in schools, losing precious out-of-school homework time drastically diminishes how long teachers can devote to thoroughly covering a given subject, as well as the depth and amount of topics they can cover in a school year.
“I have calculated that I have averaged only two to three ‘teaching’ days per week, depending upon re-teaching for those hard to conquer standards and testing,” Linder says. “My students have not covered as much material as students in the past have because of these factors. Nightly practice of any concept keeps the brain engaged in the topic and helps the student focus.”
Karen Spychala, a teacher in San Jose, believes homework has value, but is concerned about its potential to consume too much time outside the school day.
“Homework has its place: to practice skills and most importantly to involve families in their child’s learning” Spychala explains. “But too much homework that takes over everyone’s lives should never happen. There should be agreed upon standard homework times per grade level.”
Are there ways to deemphasize the overreliance on standard homework assignments and allow students to learn through other conducive means?
One option is changing the paradigm of assigned homework to infuse hands-on, student-led engagement with class lessons as a way of piquing student interest in the material. And instead of simply limiting homework to the teacher/student/parent sphere, allowing students the opportunity to show off exceptional homework to a larger audience can give them a further incentive to put in their best effort.
Angela Downing, an elementary school teacher in Newton, Massachusetts, has found great success in displaying excellent student homework on the walls inside and outside of her classroom. By doing so, homework becomes disassociated from the standard teacher-student relationship and gains a whole new level of importance that draws students into the assignment.
“This practice sends the message to students that their work and their learning are important and valued,” Downing says. “Students take special care to do their best work when they know that the final piece will be displayed in the hall or on the classroom bulletin board.”
But for Bonnie Stone, an elementary school teacher in Tulsa, too much homework is too much homework. She saw the impact on her own children and vowed to curtail what she assigned her students.
“As a result of their experience, I vowed never to assign more than 30 minutes of outside reading enrichment for my students,” Stone recalls. “They work hard in class all day. After that, they need to be kids and teens. And I’ve seen no change in the achievement level of my students since I stopped assigning homework.”
Why You Should Give Way Less Homework
I think we teachers tend to view homework as our sacred cow. Or at least some of us do.
And, believe me, I really do understand the value of homework. As a math teacher, I firmly believe students need to practice on their own, and homework is a great way for them to see if they can solve problems on their own without the teacher’s help.
But while I believe homework is important, I’ve also come to realize that the amount of homework we give is important too.
And, unfortunately, we often give way too much homework.
Why We Should Give Less Homework
- Busywork is a waste of everyone’s time. If the homework we’re assigning is busywork (and, let’s be honest, sometimes it is), then it really is a waste of everyone’s time. It waste’s the students’ time doing it, the parents’ time helping it, and our time tracking and possibly even grading it. Just because a worksheet is part of the curriculum (or even came with a Teachers Pay Teachers lesson), doesn’t mean that we need to assign it. If it doesn’t serve a vital purpose, then what’s the point?
- More work doesn’t necessarily mean more learning. Sometimes we assign homework because we feel like it’s the studious thing to do. But just assigning more work isn’t necessarily going to mean our students learn more. Especially if the work is busywork, and especially if the student is already overwhelmed or if they don’t know how to do it correctly.
- Students can be overwhelmed if the homework is too long. The tough thing about homework is that the time it takes students to complete it is immensely different. What takes a sharp kid 5-10 minutes can take a struggling kid 45 minutes or even an hour. So imagine how a struggling student feels when he looks at a two-sided worksheet of 30 math problems that he doesn’t understand. The sheer volume of work is incredibly intimidating and often causes him to give up before he even tries.
- When you limit the quantity, you can expect more quality. When you limit how much homework you give and/or how long the assignments are, then you can expect the students to do quality work on what you do assign.
- Because family time is valuable. If we truly want our students to have strong families, then we need to not take up all their family time with homework. And, yes, I know that for lots of students it’s the TV that’s their companion at night instead of their parents. But that’s not how it is with all the students. There are definitely families out there who want to relax together in the evening but simply cannot do so because the kids are entrenched with homework.
- Less homework means less tracking and grading for you. If this were the only reason for giving less homework, then it would not be a very good one. But as it stands, there are lots of great reasons to give less homework, and this one is just a little perk for us teachers. 🙂
How to Give Less Homework
Okay, if you’re still reading then you’re at least intrigued by the thought of giving less homework. But exactly how to do that can be a bit challenging.
When I was teaching our administrators were continually pushing us to give less homework. Sometimes that would come in the form of a memo stating “You must immediately reduce the amount of homework you give by half.” I have to admit, I did not like getting those memos. They were a bit intimidating and pretty overwhelming to try to implement. But over time I found some great ways to reduce my homework and ended up being much happier with the results.
Here are a few things that helped me reduce my homework. I hope they can help you, too.
- Eliminate all busywork. Sounds simple, but the problem is that we don’t always recognize busywork for what it is. So before you assign anything, ask yourself what the point is of the assignment. If it doesn’t have a definite point and isn’t absolutely necessary, then don’t assign it.
- Assign as few problems or questions as possible. Instead of assigning all the problems in the book – or even half of them, I started to just assign 6 or 7 problems per section. This was the smallest number that I felt would still give them the practice that they needed. So instead of just assigning a whole worksheet ask yourself what is the smallest number of questions they can complete that will give them the knowledge or skills that they need.
- Ask students to write down how long each assignment took them to complete. Simply ask them to track this at the top of each assignment. While their answer won’t be completely accurate, they should give you a general idea. Pay special attention to how long it’s taking your struggling students to complete their assignments. If it’s taking too long, then you’ve really got to get creative to figure out how you can shorten it. And remember, the goal is to give as little as possible, not to add more if your students are getting it done quickly.
- Give time for students to start their homework in class. Work hard to finish your lesson a little early so that students can start their homework in class. Not only does this shorten the amount they have left to do, but it also allows you to answer questions, correct misconceptions, and gauge how quickly students are working.
- Turn some homework into classwork. Just because you used to assign something as homework doesn’t mean it has to be homework. Can you find time for the students to do it in class? You might be surprised how much the quality of work increases when you do this.
Want more help managing homework? Check out the post “How to Manage Homework Without Going Crazy”
I’d love to hear your thoughts about homework. Do you assign a lot or try to limit it? How do you determine what to assign? Share your thoughts with a comment below.
Photo by GoodNCrazy
September 29, 2014 in Academics (Teaching) , Teaching