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At the Association for Middle Level Education’s (AMLE) annual conference, my favorite of the year BY FAR, I always try and attend at least a few sessions that I think will challenge my thinking about a topic I’ve already made my mind up on. At last year’s conference, one of the All-Stars of education, Rick Wormeli, was presenting a session about improving homework. I’m a huge fan of Rick’s work and would highly encourage you to check out his article on this same topic via middleweb.com. Much of what I’m suggesting here is derived directly from Rick’s presentation, combined with my own experiences, so I want to give credit where it’s due.
Normally, I’m not a huge fan of giving homework at all (Check out 10 Reasons Why I Don’t Give Homework) but I’ve recently softened my stance on it a bit so I wanted to offer some ideas for making it better.
1. Make it meaningful. Homework has to be life altering, fun to complete, challenging and humorous. What!? You can’t do that!? Ok, fine. Just make sure it’s relevant to what you’re studying and hopefully, relevant to them as well. No random busy work.
2. Feed the feedback monster. If students show up with completed homework in hand and it’s never collected or used in class, it won’t take long for them to stop doing it all together. Even if they turn it in and never see it again, that’s not much better. To make the homework worthwhile, prepare to provide feedback on what students did well and what they still need to improve on. (Notice I didn’t say “grade”? That’s because feedback > grading.)
3. Practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice makes permanent. This is one of Wormeli’s favorite sayings. I think he has it on a T-shirt or coffee mug or something. Make sure students are proficient in whatever it is they’re practicing. Don’t create bad habits! Perhaps homework plays a role if it’s reinforcing work students are proficient in. Or perhaps if you’re using homework during the “input” phase of learning, for example in a flipped classroom model, homework has a role. But what about that window in between initial instruction and proficiency? I’d be really careful about assigning students homework as practice.
4. Consider the flipped classroom model. Flipping a classroom is about more than homework and videos. The jist of it is, change the work students do at home to being the basic “input phase” of their learning and use school for practice, project based learning, or other tasks where the teacher can facilitate learning and provide feedback. When you “flip” you’re really flipping the responsibility of learning off of the teacher and onto the student. But yes, having students watch videos, read, or listen to podcasts of class material at home so they’re prepared to work the next day is great. Just make sure they actually need that material the next day, or they’ll stop prepping ahead of time.
5. Keep them short. Shorter assignments are more likely to get completed by students. It’s daunting to know that when you start your homework, you’ll have three hours of work in front of you…so daunting you may never start. However, knowing that the assignment will take you ten minutes makes you more likely to say “Let’s knock this out during the next commercial break.” Furthermore, shorter assignments are more likely to be graded or have feedback provided. Teachers don’t’ want to sit down with three hours worth of homework either, so if I know I can provide feedback for the kids in a reasonable amount of time, that makes the assignment more useful to both of us.
6. Don’t assign homework. Inspire homework. I rarely assign homework anymore and often I ask students to leave course work in the classroom (I teach middle school…there’s a chance if it leaves I’ll never see it again!). Occasionally, I’ll have a student who’s feeling very passionate about what they’re doing and whisper to me at the end of class, “Mr. Clements, can I take this home?” I whisper back…”Ok…this time I’ll let you work on it at home.” That happens far more often than you might think. The key is to….
7. Provide students with choices. Choice gives the illusion of control. If you have an objective you want students to learn or practice from the homework, brainstorm two or three different ways of learning or demonstrating you learned it. Then, give the kids the option of which they want to do. You’ll get a bit more buy-in that way.
8. Have them do the lesson planning. One way to get a bit of buy-in and extend the learning is to tell the students that they’ll be in charge of the next day’s lesson. Tell them to research the topic at hand and bring in resources for the class to look at. I love to do this with my Social Studies students by asking them to bring in the primary sources we’ll be looking at the next day. Of course if they don’t, I’ll have some on hand, but it’s always neat to see what they come up with.
9. Call it “practice” not homework. It’s a subtle change, but it works. Referring to an assignment (in class or at home) as “practice” really does reinforce the idea that it’s the objective that’s the bad guy. “Hey, argumentative writing is tough, believe me I know. But it just so happens, I’m an expert on this. And if you do this practice activity, you’ll get better at it, I promise. And if you don’t? I’ve got a few more ideas that should work.” I like to tell the students I’m a doctor. I diagnose and give prescriptions. Also, remember excuses for not completing work are a façade, an antonym for what they really mean to say, which is “I can’t do it.”
10. Consider differentiating homework. Not every student always needs to practice the same skills. There’s no reason everybody should get the same assignment for practice. Again, you’re a doctor giving prescriptions. Give students practice they need. Usually this can be done by creating 2-3 different assignments for homework on a given objective. Most of your students will fall into one of those three camps.
Again, I highly encourage you to check out Rick Wormeli’s article on this subject linked in the first paragraph, or check out his website at RickWormeli.net. Can’t get enough Edunators? Check out these articles for some more thought-provoking ideas.