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Response: Best Homework Practices

Katie Ciresi asked:

What is the best approach teachers can take towards homework?

I think the guest responses today, along with numerous reader comments, provide a great perspective on the topic. If you'd like to read more research and discover additional ideas, you might want to explore my collection at The Best Resources For Learning About Homework Issues.

Todays guests are educator/authors Dr. Cathy Vatterott and Bryan Harris. Reader suggestions follow their contributions.

Response From Dr. Cathy Vatterott

Dr. Cathy Vatterott is the author of Rethinking Homework: Best practices that support diverse needs (2009):

1. Treat homework as feedback. Homework should be used as formative feedback about learning, not as a summative assessment of learning. When homework is used as assessment of learning, and students are penalized for incomplete or incorrect assignments, it's often easier or less embarrassing for them to not attempt the work. If homework is understood by students, teachers, and parents to be formative feedback about learning, we remove the shame of not understanding as well as the temptation of parents to complete or correct homework.

2. Check for understanding before assigning practice. Practice homework should not be assigned until the teacher has assigned homework to check for understanding. Sometimes teachers think they are assigning practice, only to discover that for some students it's new learning! Homework should not be used for new learning.

3. Track homework completion but don't count it as part of the grade. This approach is consistent with the use of homework as formative assessment. As more schools move to standards based grading, it is becoming increasingly common that homework is not graded, but given feedback and monitored for completion. If homework is not graded, homework completion is typically reported as a work habit.

4. Help students see homework as practice for assessments. While teachers fear students won't do homework if it's not graded, it shouldn't take long for students to see the relationship of homework to their performance on assessments. We are simply delaying gratification! Teachers can encourage this insight by having students chart the relationship between the percentage of homework assignments completed and their grades on assessments. For the teacher, this often reveals for which students homework is effective, as well as for which students homework is ineffective or even unnecessary.

5. Don't assume your homework tasks are infallible. We tend to assume that a specific homework task will lead to the learning we desire, and will work for all students. If we allow students to have input into the tasks that work best for them, we empower students to take more responsibility for their learning.

Response From Bryan Harris

Bryan Harris serves as the Director of Professional Development & Public Relations for the Casa Grande (AZ) Elementary School District. He is the author of two books published by Eye On Education and regularly speaks across the country on the topics of student engagement and classroom management:

Homework is a hot topic and your frustrations are felt by fellow educators all over the country. Some perfectly capable students don't seem to care enough to put forth even a little effort. For those of us on the front lines of educating kids, we can relate to the disappointment of working with students who don't seem to have the internal drive to continue their learning.

The research on the effectiveness of homework is mixed and inconclusive. While many educators value homework as a means to instill a positive work ethic and self-discipline in students, it is unclear if homework increases student achievement or long-term learning (Bennett & Kalish, 2007; Cooper, 2007; Kohn, 2007). With the research still inconclusive regarding the benefits of homework, these three questions can serve as a valuable starting point:

• Does the homework have a clear purpose and rationale?

• Can the student successfully complete the homework without assistance?

• How much time should it take for a student to complete the homework?

Once those questions are considered, there are some strategies that will help to increase the percentage of kids who turn in homework:

• Avoid calling it "homework". It is likely that some students have negative feelings towards homework...they hear the word and tune out or have a negative reaction. Rather, refer to the tasks, assignments, and projects that are to be completed for the following day.

• Make homework occasional and special. Reserve homework for those tasks that have a special purpose and are connected to an authentic task.

• Communicate exactly how the homework will be used. Give students a clear reason (beyond the assignment of a grade) that the assignment needs to be completed.

• De-emphasize extrinsic motivators. Many of our students are not motivated by grades, prizes, or rewards. Reminding them that their grades will suffer if they don't complete an assignment is not likely to help. So, emphasize how the assignment is going to help them learn something that is interesting, relevant, or immediately useful.

• Start the assignment in class. Give students a head start and build momentum. Before chronic non-homework-doers leave class, highlight how much they have completed and how little they have left.

• Ask for a commitment. Most people, even challenging students, prefer to follow through on their stated intentions. Therefore, in a non-confrontational way, ask the student to verbally commit to when and where they will be able to complete the assignment.

• Call home. In full communication with parents, call home to offer assistance on the completion of the assignment.

• Avoid lecturing and nagging the entire class. Emphasize the positive behavior of the majority. In nearly every classroom, most of the students are cooperative, helpful, and a joy to teach. However, teachers often spend time nagging the entire class about the inappropriate behavior of just a few students. Click here for a blog explaining the concept of Negative Social Proof.

Responses From Readers


When assigned, homework should be relevant and meaningful, and should serve as independent practice of a skill learned in the classroom. Or, in the case of a flipped classroom, homework can be initial learning of content when class time is used for guided or independent practice. I'm not a proponent of homework being used as a vehicle to "teach responsibility" thereby resulting in policies of downgrading or assigning zeroes for work turned in late.

Julie Harding:

My basic rule is that homework should be relevant and helpful.Homework should never be busywork. It should absolutely extend the student's experience with the learning with the goal of developing mastery. Acceptable homework in English is reading, writing and working towards a project or other goal. Never should students just be answering comprehension questions, defining vocabulary words, filling out worksheets, which are viewed by students as irrelevant.

If homework interferes with a student's ability to succeed in a class, it should be reduced or done away with. For instance, if a student works or takes care of siblings, he or she should not be penalized for not doing homework. That may be part of the culture of a class or a school, depending on demographics. In these instances, homework can be optional, extra credit, extension, etc. On the other hand, if a student masters the skills or content easily and doesn't do homework because he feels it's pointless, it should not significantly impact his grade (I have seen students move from a B to a F because of homework) because that would be harmful.

I've used Storify to collect many of the tweets that were sent in response to this question:

Thanks to Cathy, Bryan and to many readers for contributing their responses, .

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