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How to Assign Homework for Great Results
Homework? No one wants to do homework! There is a skill to assigning homework that can help your students retain and learn information. Successful homework strategies should be on their way to completion before your students ever leave the room. There are many things you can keep in mind when assigning homework to ensure your students’ success.
• Make sure the assignment length and difficulty is appropriate for the age of your students. One rule of thumb is that very young children should have no more than 15-20 minutes of homework a night (all subjects combined), students in grades 4-7 should have less than an hour (all subjects combined), and secondary students should have no more than 2 hours a night (all subjects combined). An alternative rule of thumb is that there should be no more than 10 minutes per grade level each night. For example, third grades have no more than 30 minutes, fifth graders no more than 50 minutes, etc.
• Follow your district’s homework policy, or make sure that your own policy is in line with that of other teachers in your school.
• At the start of the year, spend some class time each day for several days discussing how you want assignments completed. Practice together so that students can be confident about your expectations and their own ability to do the assignments correctly.
• Teach study skills every day so that your students can complete their work with less anxiety.
• Have a well-structured schedule for homework so that students can anticipate assignments. If you give your students a syllabus, you can avoid many homework-related problems.
• If you teach young students, make sure they put the work in their take home folders and actually take it home with them. Older students need time to write the assignment into an agenda or assignment planner.
• Inform parents and absent students of assignments by using the technology available at your school. Update your homework voice mail and your class Web page if you have one. Use a syllabus when appropriate. If you would like an electronic template of a sample homework letter for parents, please e-mail Julia at firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Spend enough time going over the assignment and checking for understanding so that students comfortable about how to do their work. Show examples, estimate how long it will take to complete, offer suggestions, and explain your expectations so that they know how to succeed.
• Don’t wait until the last few minutes of class to assign homework. If you want students to take it seriously, it should not be a last-minute item. Instead, many teachers take a three-step approach. 1)Have it posted on the board when they arrive and go over it as they copy it. 2)Discuss it as part of the lesson. 3)Review it at the end of class.
• Use varied modalities when giving directions. It is a good idea to write the directions on the board or some other easy way for students to see them, go over those directions orally, have students record them in an assignment book, ask a student to recap the directions, and, at the end of class, go over them one more time.
Adapted from The First-Year Teacher’s Survival Guide
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Julia G. Thompson
Julia Thompson has been a public school teacher for more than thirty years. Thompson currently teaches in Fairfax County, Virginia, and is an active speaker, consultant, teacher trainer, and workshop presenter. Her most recent book, Discipline Survival Guide for the Secondary Teacher, Second Edition, written with busy high school teachers in mind, has just been released. Author of the best-selling The First-Year Teacher’s Survival Guide and The First-Year Teacher’s Checklist, she also publishes a Website (http:juliagthompson.com) offering tips for teachers on a variety of topics, maintains a Twitter account with daily advice for teachers at TeacherAdvice@Twitter.com, and a blog at http://juliagthompson.blogspot.com.
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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.”