Monday, March 21, 2011

Homework: Meaningful Reinforcement or Families’ Worst Nightmare?

With 27 years of experience teaching high school biology and chemistry and two teenage daughters in high school, I have developed strong views about homework. Actually, my views on homework have changed over the years. At the beginning of my teaching career, I gave homework every night, whether it was needed or not. When my own daughters entered school, however, I quickly began to realize that homework can be a nightmare once it leaves our desks and arrives at home.

I have found that many teachers are unrealistic in their expectations concerning homework. We have to remember that in high school, a student has 5 other classes in addition to our own. If we each give an hour of homework, the student then has 6 hours of homework at night. Some homework is of little value to students since it is never assessed. Other assignments are irrelevant to the learning in class, include vague directions or expectations, or cover material that has not yet been taught. It’s time to change the way we think about homework.
I am still a believer in homework. Students must review the material learned at school, and they must practice using this material outside of the school setting, but my views about homework have definitely changed. I now put more thought into each assignment, making sure that it is a quality assignment that will be beneficial to the student.

When I am considering giving homework, I think about the following points when preparing the assignment. Some teachers may agree with these points, and some may not. Please feel free to write a comment, and let the discussion begin!
  • Homework is an essential part of the learning process, but should be assigned with care. The assignment should be meaningful and should contribute to student learning. What is your goal in assigning this work to the student?
  • The homework should be directly related to the ongoing instructional process of the classroom.
  • Homework assignments should be given to reinforce concepts already taught in class, not as a means of covering new material because the teacher ran out of time.
  • Consider how much time will be required to complete the assignment, remembering that students have homework in all of their classes. It is not possible for students to complete two-hour assignments in every class, every night.
  • Clear and concise directions for completing the assignment should be given. Students need to know specifically what they are expected to accomplish.
  • If the homework is important enough to assign, teachers should take the time to discuss the assignment and to answer questions about it. That will mean leaving enough time at the end of class to explain directions and answer questions before students leave.
  • Will students receive a grade for the assignment? Teachers should indicate in advance how the completed assignment will be scored, and how the scores will contribute to the overall grade.
  • When the assignment is due, the teacher should take the time to do one or a combination of the following:
    • take it up and grade it
    • give individual feedback
    • give some sort of credit for completion
    • ask if there are any questions about the assignment
  • Teachers should be cautious about making out-of-class group projects that require students to get together outside of school. Many students will experience difficulty meeting with their groups through no fault of their own.
I hope this provides food for thought and seeds for discussion in the comments section. Good luck in your teaching!

Amy Brown


  1. Have you ever read 'The Homework Myth' by Alfie Kohn? He discusses, in great detail, about why homework is hurting our students - rather than helping them.

  2. Great article Amy - and so true!
    What I find difficult are the expectations from parents. I teach Grade 7 and I've heard both sides: She never has any homework, why? AND She's so stressed out by all of the homework you teachers are assigning!
    I have made a habit of telling my kids what their homework will be at the beginning of class, as a method of trying to get the best out of them DURING the class. So, for Math, we'll be working on Pg 76 #1-20. What doesn't get finished is homework (and as you said - it's not new material). It's worked fairly well - it just ends up being those that don't use their class time wisely that have the most homework. The problem is, of course - they didn't do it in class, so why do I think they'll finish it at home? Any suggestions for those kids who just won't do it? (These are kids that do have a parent at home to help and there's nothing wrong with the student's level of ability - they just don't bother.)


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