In a high school cafeteria circa 1997, a certain young man who shall remain nameless sat during lunch furiously trying to copy his friend’s vocabulary booklet. In that booklet he was regularly asked to define 15-20 vocabulary words. Completion of that weekly vocabulary homework assignment was worth almost 30% of my – I mean his – final Language Arts grade. Each student was assigned the same weekly assignment because in 1997, homework was a one-size-fits all model. The educational community at the time subscribed to research such as that by Walberg, Paschal, and Weinstein who wrote about Homework’s Powerful Effects on Learning in 1985.
Fast forward to today and few would argue the importance of homework on academic achievement, but in today’s world the purpose, amount, and type of homework that teachers assign looks vastly different than that of 1997. In the time of the Common Core, according to researchers like Dr. Robert Marzano, quality homework is tied to specific learning goals for a course.
Educational author Cathy Vatterott, in her 2010 article Giving Students Meaningful Work, states that “homework shouldn’t be about rote learning. The best kind deepens student understanding and builds essential skills.” She goes on to describe five hallmarks of good homework:
1. Purpose: Homework must have a clearly defined purpose
2. Efficient: Homework shouldn’t take an inordinate about of time – it is not busywork
3. Ownership: Homework should be customized tasks to fit individual learning styles
4. Competence: Teachers must differentiate assignments so they are at the appropriate level of difficulty for individual students
5. Aesthetic Appeal: Presentation is everything – students are more likely to complete homework that is visually appealing
In 2014, Vatterott argues that it takes bravery to let go of homework. “Letting go of homework means allowing students to choose the task that will best help them understand, practice, or apply their learning. It also means letting them determine what amount of practice or study (if any) is necessary to achieve mastery.”
Let’s return to the 1997 vocabulary homework and update it for today’s world. Instead of asking students to complete a low-level rote task such as defining a series of vocabulary words, Vatterott suggests that students best learn the meanings of new words by using them in context. A better vocabulary homework task might be this: Show that you know the meaning of the science vocabulary words by using them in sentences or in a story. Or, consider this: For each vocabulary word, read the three sentences below it. Choose the sentence that uses the word correctly.
Do you make homework worth a large percentage of your course grade in your classroom? Blogger Myron Dueck hopes not. In a recent reflection The Deflating Effects of Grading Homework of his 2014 ASCD article The Problem With Penalties, Dueck reminds teachers that students are not motivated by the fear of getting a zero on an assignment. “When deciding whether to complete homework, many students, especially those most at risk, don't care about a potential zero. Faced with the choice to complete an assignment or take a zero, far too many students opt for the grading hit; thus, they render assignments "optional." In these instances, grading homework becomes a measure of behavior and compliance rather than of learning.”
How do you motivate your students to do homework, you ask? Try using assessment and grading strategies that enabling students to demonstrate their understanding. Use homework practices that reinforce the mind-set that struggle and persistence are part of the learning process. Most importantly, treat homework as a way to obtain formative feedback about learning, not as a final assessment of learning. If we are to continue to use homework as an instructional tool in our modern world, then we must upgrade to this new understanding of homework – call it homework 2.0.
This article originally appeared in MultiBriefs