Do No Harm: Tips for Assigning Homework
Try these techniques to get the most out of homework assignments:
- Consider homework may have negative effects.
- Reset your homework to zero, and carefully reconsider what you do assign.
- Enrich learning during class before assigning more homework.
- Based on age level, don’t assign too much homework.
- Give students everything they need to complete homework.
- Make homework for practice, not evaluation.
- Tie homework back to class.
Homework is generally viewed as essential to the learning process. It can offer extra practice, self-discipline, and a connection between home and school. But, it can also be stressful, fatiguing, decrease motivation, increase the achievement gap, and possibly not increase student performance. Therefore, educators should be very thoughtful on the decision to give homework. If it is given, care must be taken to increase its benefits and minimize the negative effects.
Start at Zero
Adjust the way you view homework. Your primary goal should be to do no harm to what you accomplish in class, so begin with the stance that you will not assign homework. You’ll still likely give homework, but after a thoughtful process that minimizes any of it’s potential negative effects.
Enrich Class Time
If students are struggling, giving them more homework is not necessarily the solution. Instead, make changes to increase learning during class time or increase the impact of your current homework. Make your class more effective by finding active alternatives for times when students are not currently doing and thinking. In school, students have all available resources, especially their teacher and classmates. Therefore, the most difficult activities should take place in school where help is available. For example, listening to the teacher give information is easy, but applying what they said is hard. Students should do the application in school and receive the information in a different way at home. Better yet, both should be integrated into an active activity and completed in class with classmates.
As a rule of thumb, homework benefits students in high school and college the most. Middle schoolers gain some benefit, but elementary students gain little to no benefit. At any age level, too much homework has negative effects. The National Education Association recommends ten minutes of homework for each grade level (e.g., 10 minutes for first grade, 60 minutes for sixth grade). Keep in mind, that is total homework. The allotment needs to be divided among all classes giving homework.
College students spend less time in class and can be expected to spend more time on homework. Just like younger students though, the format and amount of homework determines its effectiveness. While the “2-3 hours of homework per hour in class” standard has been around forever, it may not be beneficial. A student taking fifteen credits would be spending 15 hours in class and then have 30-45 hours of homework, creating a 45-60 hour week. This view is unsupportable for several reasons.
Even if you could get students to study that much and be productive the entire time, you would just produce students who know a lot, but hate learning. Past a certain point, time spent and performance, motivation, and well-being have an inverse relationship. Forty to fifty hours of class and homework may be reasonable for a student living on campus with no other life obligations, but many students also have families, jobs, and other endeavors. An ideal amount of time could be argued on and on, but really, a teacher shouldn’t bump up against a time limit if class time is completely effective.
Give Students What They Need
Homework should not be frustrating. Students should be given everything they need to successfully complete homework before it is assigned including motivation, knowledge and skills, and equal resources.
Most importantly, why should students do homework? No matter how young your students, imagine they have been programmed to view homework as meaningless busywork only good for points in the grade book. You probably don’t have to imagine very hard. Deprogramming takes a sustained effort with a caring touch. An educator has to communicate repeatedly why they are asking students to do homework, how it will help them and you, and how it will be tied to class. The communication should take the tone of “I want more than anything for you to learn and be successful.” Don’t use high-stakes for motivation, students will simply do the homework to avoid failure. Therefore, most homework shouldn’t have a performance-based grade (see more below in Homework is for Practice).
Giving students what they need includes content knowledge and skills you ask students to apply on homework, and, more importantly, knowledge and skills for doing and learning from homework. Don’t assume students know how to learn while reading, how to study their notes, or how to write answers in complete sentences. Before assigning homework, model and practice how to do it, give examples, and ease into it while students learn the ropes. This will reduce student frustration and your own, because reviewing homework is less stressful when it’s done well.
Finally, make sure students have resources they need including time, technology access, materials, support, and a suitable environment to do homework. Give the type of homework every student can complete, or don’t give any at all. Home is a great place for relevance, creativity, and reflection. It’s also a useful place to come up with questions, instead of answers, since no one is around to ask.
Students who complete homework generally do better than students who don’t. But, picture not assigning any homework. Would the same students still do better than the others? If yes, doing or not doing homework isn’t the reason for success and failure. Instead, it’s an achievement gap, caused by a lack of resources and the knowledge and skills mentioned earlier. Minorities and economically-disadvantaged students are less likely to have these. Homework that doesn’t take the difference into account can increase the achievement gap.
Homework is for Practice
Practice says, “I know you still need to learn more.” Evaluation says, “You should have learned this already, prove it.” Using homework for practice and evaluation together is counterproductive. They give contradictory goals and create negative outcomes like cheating, avoidance, excuses, frustration, and poor grades. Failure is expected during practice, it’s punished during evaluation. Therefore, homework shouldn’t be graded based on performance, if at all. Your goal should be aligning homework with class activities that eventually align with evaluation. If a grade is needed, use complete/incomplete, or give students feedback and unlimited opportunities to make it right.
Tie Back to Class
When homework is assigned, it should be an integral component of the learning process—as necessary as anything in class. That doesn’t mean it needs to be as involved as in-class activities, but if homework is really necessary, the effects of missing it should be similar to those from missing class. A student would have a hard time understanding what’s going on in class the next day. You don’t want them to have a hard time, but it does mean the learning missed was meaningful and necessary.
Often, homework is the endpoint of learning a topic, but shouldn’t be. Learning from homework should be continued or reviewed in class to provide immediate feedback. Group review is effective and a great way to start class. Not giving attention to homework after it is completed is a sure way to make it look like busywork.