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Designing Better Homework

October 10, 2013

Over the past two weeks, I have convinced myself that homework, when properly assigned, is an integral part of the learning process because it allows students to practice skills, review previously learned information, and prepare for future classes.

Last night, however, was a battle.  My sixth grade son came home with more than an hour of homework, and that was on top of the two subjects he finished during homework club.  The math assignment, creating box and whisker plots, proved especially challenging because he couldn’t remember how to make the graphs and I didn’t either.  Thank god for Khan Academy; after watching a few videos, I was able to help him.  My son’s experience got me thinking about how to create meaningful assignments that students can complete.  In my research, I found an article from the September 2010 issue of Educational Leadership that is the best article i have yet seen on how teachers can design more effective homework for their students.

The article, written by Cathy Vatterott, makes the case that “the best homework tasks exhibit five characteristics. First, the task has a clear academic purpose, such as practice, checking for understanding, or applying knowledge or skills. Second, the task efficiently demonstrates student learning. Third, the task promotes ownership by offering choices and being personally relevant. Fourth, the task instills a sense of competence—the student can successfully complete it without help. Last, the task is aesthetically pleasing—it appears enjoyable and interesting.”

What made the article so useful was that it gave examples of how traditional homework could be improved by applying the five characteristics.  Inspired, I decided to recreate my son’s homework to fit Vatterott’s characteristics.  Here is what my son had to do: 1) spend 20 minutes practicing his typing skills, 2) finish an essay he was writing about the baseball parks he has visited, 3) read three chapters of Hatchet, 4) finish a worksheet about the food chain, and 5) prepare for an upcoming math test by working on a set of review problems.

Clear Purpose:  His reading teacher assigned three chapters of Hatchet  with the goal of improving his reading skills.  Research has shown that the more students read, the better they do in school and on standardized tests.  However, since he only had to read and wasn’t asked to do anything else, the assignment could be largely a passive exercise.  When you don’t ask students to do something with what they have read, you can’t be sure how well they did the reading.  So I would have added something to the reading assignment to show understanding.  Instead of assigning a specific task, I might have given my students the freedom to decide how best to present the information.  Maybe it would be to complete a reading log, write a poem, create song lyrics or draw a picture to sum up the action.

Demonstrates Learning: Writing is an essential skill that students can practice at home as long as they receive feedback from a teacher.  For that reason, I liked his writing assignment, and I also appreciated the fact that his Language Arts teacher made the writing more relevant by letting him choose his topic. However, the assignment could be improved by having students practice the elements of grammar that were being taught. If the class was learning the rules of comma usage, the essay would have been a perfect opportunity for students to practice and demonstrate those rules.  The teacher could have asked the students to cite why each comma was used.  That way, (introductory phrase) kids would have the opportunity to use the specific skills they were working on in class, and the teacher could assess the students’ ability to use commas correctly.

Ownership: Homework is a great opportunity for students to really master skills, and one of the most useful skills they might learn in middle school is keyboarding (as I hunt and peck while writing I wish someone had taught me how to use all five fingers!). While I liked the idea of practicing his typing skills, the text he had to copy didn’t interest him in the least. In fact, my youngest son was so bored that he wasn’t able to see past the text to understand how the practice would help him.  Based upon the idea of ownership, I would have had him retype an article from The Globe about the previous night’s Red Sox game.

Competence: The goal of the math homework was to help prepare students for an upcoming test.  The five worksheets that made up the packet covered all the relevant information, and I loved the fact that the cover page explicitly stated what would be on the test.  Having students complete worksheets can be a great way to review the material because they can build confidence while also showing what type of problems still need work.  I give the teacher kudos for indexing the worksheet so that if a student needed to review, he or she could find the section of the text that pertained to that type of problem.  The one change I might have made would have been to provide links where students could see a short video about how to do the work.

Aesthetically Pleasing: His science homework asked him to complete a two-page worksheet about the food chain.  As I have said, there is value in worksheets because they help the teacher assess understanding while providing the student a chance to review the material.  However, the way homework looks is important.  While the worksheet was comprehensive in that it covered the main ideas from the chapter, it could have been improved by making it more visually appealing.  For example, one of the questions asked students to list the plants and animals in the food chain beginning with the sun.  Instead of writing the word “sun”, the teacher could have substituted clip art for the text.  Also, I might have provided more space for students to write their answers.  My son has slight grapho-motor issues and his typing skills aren’t developed despite his keyboarding practice.  So, while I liked the fact that he could complete the work using Microsoft Word, I might have made the spaces bigger in case he wanted to use a pencil.  However, allow me to give credit where credit is due.  The teacher could have just printed off the worksheet provided with the textbook.  The fact that she went an extra mile to create her own worksheet, which could be downloaded and typed, showed me that she is willing to go the extra mile to create work that pertains to her class.

A final observation:  As a stay at home dad, part of my job is to help my kids with their homework, and I have noticed that my sixth and seventh grader are asked to complete a lot of formulaic homework in the form of worksheets or traditional question (read pages 80-86 in your text and answer questions 1-6).  Don’t get me wrong, there are times when students benefit from completing such traditional assignments.  In fact, middle school is the ideal time to make sure they have the skills to complete such assignments.  Yet, as teachers, we need to be aware that the quality of the homework we assign impacts the overall learning that takes place.  By creating assignments that follow the five characteristics, we can make homework a more beneficial part of the learning experience.

Postscript: Now that I have finished the post, it occurs to me how many of my son’s assignments are worksheets. In fact, earlier this week, my two sons had ten assignments between them and nine of them involved a worksheet.  That really bothers me.  As a teacher, I would want to work with my grade-level team to make sure we were assigning a wide range of homework assignments to meet the needs of all my learners.

Question – How would you have changed the assignments to suit the needs of your students?

Source: Vatterott, Cathy. “Five Hallmarks of Good Homework.” Educational Leadership Sept. 2010: 10-15. Educational Leadership. Web. 10 Oct. 2013. <http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/sept10/vol68/num01/Five-Hallmarks-of-Good-Homework.aspx&gt;.

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2 Comments
  1. I dislike worksheets. It forces the student to give us what we want, instead of giving us what they know.

  2. Jamie – I totally agree. Plus – they are formulaic – and don’t always ask the questions I cover in class. That’s not to say I never use them. I will assign them a few times a year – but I always make my own.

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