Why Homework? And How?

As ‘Back To School’ evenings are being held across the country, I know that homework has resurfaced as one of the most hotly debated topics among all constituencies – students, parents, teachers, and administrators.

In my opinion, here are the three essential questions to ask of every piece of homework:

  1. What is the point?
  2. What is the timeline?
  3. How will it be assessed?

What is the point?

Is this a skill-building exercise such as writing practice or balancing chemical equations? If it is, and has been designed to help a student build what Teresa Amabile calls ‘domain skills’ so that the learner can move toward richer, more complex, and creative work, how can it be effective for all learners? Each student does not need the same, standardized amount of practice to master every skillIs the work needed to prepare for the next class? I have wrestled with this question for years. For a long time, I believed that it was essential for my middle school students to spend thirty minutes thinking about and preparing for upcoming lab experiments through pre-lab hypotheses and explanations. When I changed the assignment to a ten-minute “Read over the lab and try to decide why we are doing it” task, one that my students immediately renamed the “So what?” of every lab, I found a noticeable difference. Students came to class already connecting the activity to something important in their own life or dying to explain how it was utterly unimportant. In both instances, students arrived noticeably better prepared and more engaged.

Is this homework primarily exploratory? Is it used to allow the student to create or nurture an authentic connection with the curriculum, to experiment with a new idea or technique, or to share a personal interest with the class? Where can the learner be given autonomy regarding the topic, the method of exploration, the manner of recording any learning, and the process of presenting his/her discoveries?

If the work is neither for basic skill building nor class preparation nor for student-driven exploration, why do it?

What is the timeline?

How far in advance of the due date is the student able to work on the assignment? This will vary by assignment, by teacher, and by developmental stage, but it is still a critical question for every task. As a majority of students participate in a number of extracurricular activities, students need as much lead-time as possible to complete any homework. Last year, our fourth grade son had a ‘Wednesday to Wednesday’ set of tasks. He knew each Wednesday what all the weekly assignments were and was able to do each at his own pace. Middle and high school students, in particular, are learning how to look at the week ahead, predict which days will be packed and which may be free, and should be allowed to work on tasks in their own schedule.

How will the work be assessed?

This may seem ridiculous, but will the assignment be assessed? I am disheartened to hear so often from teachers that many assignments are never even glanced at, once turned in. Teachers in some schools are asked to hand out such a high volume of standardized sheets that they cannot possibly keep up with the paperwork. Why in the world did the students have to complete the task?

Do the learners know exactly how the assignment will be assessed? Frequently, students have only a vague sense of the grading scheme for each class and develop the idea that assessment is semi-arbitrary and out of their hands. Ideally, as we prepare our students for their future years, we are helping them build the skills to self-assess. The underlying goal of the assignment ought to be crystal clear. They should have practice creating assessment rubrics and grading systems. They can have input into the revision policy and determine point losses for certain deadlines. They should be empowered to contribute to the assessment of each undertaking.

No matter to which constituency you belong (for the record, I belonged to three of the four groups this year), I urge you to ask the questions of every piece of homework. Teachers, given that you are hopefully following reasonable homework guidelines to begin with, can you dig a little more deeply into the “so what?” of every assignment? Students, work with your educators to understand the idea behind the task and participate in the assessment. Parents, observe your learners and help them communicate how their process is going with their teachers. Administrators, create faculty work time to discuss the research surrounding homework and learning.

Stephanie Rafanelli was both a school coach and a parent education facilitator for Challenge Success. Stephanie has been a middle school science and math teacher for nineteen years. In addition to almost two decades in the classroom, she has served as department chair, both academic and also grade level Dean, a parent and faculty educator, and a leader of curriculum reform. She has founded and run several summer and afterschool programs such as Sally Ride Science Camp for Girls and Menlo Summer Explorations. Stephanie is an educational consultant for multiple organizations. When she is not thinking about education, Stephanie is usually creating chaos with her three children.

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