Iteach Homework

Like assessment, homework has taken a lot of flack lately; and unduly so, I believe.  There is a real push, and even a hashtag (#ditchHW), that aims to end the practice of teacher-prescribed homework for students.  In my best estimation, those who oppose homework cite either a lack of evidence for its effect or a more pressing need for quality family time in our current climate.  In all honesty, I totally sympathize with the argument for more family time.  I love teaching.  I love my students.  I love reading about the intricacies in teaching methods/research and thinking about how I can improve my classroom.  However, I value my family more.   I genuinely look forward to arriving home to see my wife and three children.  I love the conversations we have over dinner.  I love waking up to them jumping in our bed in the morning.  I get it.  Family time is incredibly important for the development of my children, my marriage, and my happiness.  

Unfortunately, I believe the idea that homework, especially at the high school level, is bad or useless is a dangerous notion.  Today, in a conversation with Ken Sheck (@KenSheck) on twitter, he mentioned three reasons for homework:

  1. Practicing procedures students have been thoroughly taught…think math homework to practice usage of formulas, etc.
  2. Retrieval practice of factual information students have been explicitly taught.
  3. Reading for background knowledge or extension of concepts/principles students have been explicitly taught.

*Ken pointed out, especially with middle school students, reading ability may hinder the effectiveness of this application of homework.  

I agree with Ken and see a time and place for all of the above mentioned types of homework.  Also, notice that in all three examples, homework is used as a review of material or procedures.  I do not generally believe homework should be used to introduce new material to students.  Especially with my subject matter (psychology), students can become confused by new information and perhaps create incorrect beliefs about the material which then becomes difficult to unlearn.  

I would like to propose another reason to not ditch homework.  I believe there are some real habit forming benefits of homework.  As I’ve stated before on my blog, I teach mostly 11th and 12th grade students who, statistically speaking, will attend a college or university in the next few years.  Depending on the graduating class, somewhere between 80% and 90% of students attend university.  Students need to know how to study independently…and I don’t mean independently in the classroom.  I mean independently where there’s no pressure from other students studying or not studying right beside them.  They need to understand how it feels to have other, probably more fun, ways to spend their time but instead choose to take a look back at their notes or wrestle with review questions/prompts.  It is naive to believe, if we expel homework from our schools, that students will somehow just figure out how to properly manage their time or know how to study/practice in college.

Like walking students through the metacognitive values of retrieval practice, they need to be taught how to study properly and effectively.  Most students who enter my room believe highlighting and rereading are effective for memory retention.  When they implore these methods in their studies and see no results, students usually give up on studying and homework. These ‘strategies’ are the only examples they see modeled by other students and, unfortunately, most teachers don’t have time to work through their curriculum and also instruct students on how to study/practice effectively.   

So, practically, what do I believe homework should look like?

As stated above, in my estimation, homework should only be a means to practice procedures already learned or to retrieve information from past class meetings.  There is certainly a lot of evidence for this spaced practice (Thank you,@AceThatTest).  In its simplest form, spaced practice is the opposite of cramming for an assessment.  Think about studying for an assessment at home for four nights in 15 minute increments over just studying for 1 hour the night before the test.  Evidence shows that the over-time, multiple retrieval of information assists with retention of memories much better than the one time cram session.  

*photo courtesy of

Knowing this bit of evidence with respect to spacing learning, I ask my students to take 10-20 minutes per night to review the information from that day or if there are particularly tricky information from lessons past, I may ask them to have a look at that material.  ‘Looking back’ is better than nothing, but an easy way to amp up the benefits of spaced practice is to have the students interact with the information.  More focused cognitive effort used while studying or practicing equals a greater level of retention.  Attempting to answer questions or formulate a short essay requires much more cognitive effort than simply rereading or highlighting notes.  

A very practical example of homework from my class includes ‘pre-loading’ the information for retrieval at home.  Here are the simple steps:

  1. After a class, elicit a quick discussion with or among students to extrapolate the important terms and/or concepts from the lesson.
  2. Have students write down these terms at the top of a piece of paper.
  3. When home, students should take out the piece of paper and write as much as they can about the terms; including a definition, but also how terms relate, how a concept operates or affects the environment, or even how these terms relate to past class material.

*This should be done with no outside assistance.  No book.  No notes.  No peers.  Just students using their brain to dump as much information as possible onto their paper.

That’s it.  This can easily be completed in 10-20 minutes.  Have them bring the paper in the next day to class for a discussion and review of the material.  There are a number of avenues that can be taken to revisit the material here…maybe a discussion among fellow classmates to complete any forgotten vocabulary or perhaps provide particular prompts to assist students with priming their memories of the material.  Point out, though, that although all information will be finished by the end of the activity, students only remember the material they completed without outside assistance from notes, textbook, and peers.  I believe this very important statement is often never mentioned and students need this prompting to assist with assessment of their learning.  

Yes, this homework helps with retention of material, which is of utmost important in school.  It also helps students cultivate a healthy habit of what homework should be.  For my students, particularly, I then ask them how easy an activity like this could be translated to their college classes.  Most easily understand how it is easily adaptable.  Unless we set up these opportunities for students to use proper learning strategies and practice homework, I believe we are doing a disservice and leaving them ill-equipped for their collegiate future.  Homework is an important cog in the wheel of success at the university level.  Ditching it would be a big mistake.


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Pat Powell, a math teacher in Connecticut

Found in:homework; tests and quizzes

I give frequent HW quizzes at the beginning (or end) of class. Students pick up a small piece of scrap paper (backs of extra worksheets collected from the copy center and sliced in half) as they enter. When class starts I remove the stack of scrap paper. Students who arrive late with a pass may write the answers on the back of their pass. Students without a pass are out of luck.

I have a template on the overhead which announces the assignment being checked -- usually last night's, but it could be the last two or three nights if we have not gone over them yet. The template also tells them how many of my answers will be WRONG. (I already have an answer key on a post-it attached to the prepared overhead.)

Students check their answers against mine (I read the answers from the overhead as I slide a cover sheet down) and tell which are the correct answers, and which are wrong. When I have finished reading all the answers, I leave the overhead on and allow them 3-5 minutes to check with their partner or the text to identify the errors and supply the correct answer. We get some terrific mathematical discussions since everyone wants to be right! While they are working I quickly circulate and enter absentees, tardies & points for homework on the plastic sheet covering my seating chart. 

I grade homework out of 5 points: 5 = completely attempted with work neatly shown; 4 = if one or two are not attempted or if it's complete but there are glaring errors; 3 = if it's somewhat incomplete; 2-0 = depending on the level of incompleteness; H = no HW. Since I'm reading the answers I give ZERO credit for answers only (My rule from September on is 'If you did it in your head or on your calculator, they write a sentence in English or math telling me exactly what you did in your head or on your calculator'; No Work = No Credit).

I have one person in each row bring me the quizzes. They supply the answers that they think were wrong. This way even the slowest child has had time to process what they want to say and everyone volunteers or is volunteered! We get most of the remaining misconceptions cleared away quickly. I mark the overhead as we identify the errors, and they fix their homework. I also get a quick grade for the day. I compute it as homework grade /5 times grade on quiz (# correct / number possible).

Students without homework learn VERY quickly to do the homework. Sometimes I teach a new lesson first and leave the HW quiz until the end with a new concept question included as a bonus. I collect it as they leave, and have students help return the marked quizzes the next day as they enter. I don't give make-ups for these snap-shot quizzes, they take no more than 5 minutes to correct, and I know quickly what concepts I need to re-teach within the context of the next lesson.

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