In Defense of [Meaningful] Homework

As a full-time education consultant, Allison Zmuda works with educators to grow ideas on how to make learning for students challenging, possible and worthy of the attempt. Over the past fifteen years, Zmuda has shared curricular, assessment, and instructional ideas, shown illustrative examples, and offered practical strategies of how to get started.

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I recently had a fabulous conversation with Mike Anderson about the value of homework and he was kind enough to allow me to cross-post a blog from his site on concerns about homework practices. As I reflected on the post by Uncle Curmudgeon, I do believe work outside of school has its value when it is personalized with and for the student. Here are three ideas based on my role as a consultant, parent, and teacher.

For the love of reading.

Most elementary schools expect families to provide space, structure, and support for daily reading. From setting up routines to asking about what topics and texts fascinate to engaging in the reading experience, this typical practice creates connections, fuels imaginations, and creates more opportunities to explore.

As the homework load becomes more significant and more rote, often times the joy of reading at home gets swept up in the obligations. We expect students to read with strings attached. Read and find quotes. Read and respond to questions. Read and use post it notes to interact with text. Each one of these strategies have some merit but to what extent does it make reading one more obligation?

  • Be clear on the goal of the reading experience. I remember a high school English teacher was awestruck about the level of sophistication a student was reading for pleasure in his 10th grade class. After engaging with the student about the power of the novel for a bit, the teacher openly wondered whether that would be appropriate to put on the reading list next year. The student was aghast and emphatically shook his head no and said, “Why would you ruin the reading experience?” If the goal is to encourage voracious readers, educators must consider how to support their love of reading while avoiding micromanaging.
  • Clarify how students are expected to demonstrate their reading. For example, expecting students to engage in conversation based on teacher prompts is very different from expecting students to ask questions that were on their mind as they read the text. Or providing a reading quiz to hold students accountable for comprehension is very different from having students use textual evidence to make and support a claim. Growing student comprehension and analysis can be personalized as we invite students to the table to offer feedback on how and when they think is most appropriate to guide their reading experience. This approach is done reflective of results rather than regardless of them. Students may need more structure or scaffolding than others not only based on reading level, but could also be impacted by other factors such as interest in topic, comfort level with genre, or author’s use of language/literary devices.
  • Teach various reader response strategies in class and engage students in conversation to better understand why and when to use them. Interacting with text as one reads is important, especially when there is an expectation to use evidence to support inferences, author’s craft, and/or comparisons amongst texts. But what approach to use should be driven less by preferred habit and more on what proves to be most effective for the reader. Ask students to individually develop and monitor a reading plan for a given text. Have students share strategy/approach and ask how that is impacting their comprehension of the text and understanding of the meaning. Examine summative performance with reading approach to determine reading success with the student.

For purposeful practice.

One-size-fits-all homework sets may not provide practice on what students really need to pay attention to. If a student is struggling with a topic and then has 10-20 problems or questions on that topic, unfortunately it may be more of an act of futility or frustration rather than helpful. If a student has mastered a given topic and still is expected to complete the same set of problems/questions, it may have the same result. How can we personalize homework more effectively while repurposing many existing assignments?

  • Use 5-10 minutes toward the end of class for students to “show what they know.” Your role is to observe their demonstrations and then identify appropriate problems/questions for homework. You are clarifying that the homework is tailored to what they need next. Sometimes it may be more practice, application, or analysis.
  • Ask students to look for and identify patterns they see in the problems or questions. This level of classification potentially will make them more efficient in their approach as well as understanding the distinctions or nuances of a given topic.
  • Explain reasoning… for why certain mistakes are common, for why a particular misunderstanding exists, or for why a particular strategy is more or less efficient/effective than another. Students are on the hook for a deeper-level of thinking with this type of explanation as well as more alert when they may be making one of these errors on a future assessment.

For deepening impact of projects.

I am a firm believer in the power of projects to motivate deeper investigation, creation, and communication. However, the project will only be another hoop to jump through unless students have a meaningful role in the definition of the problem, issue, or idea; meaningful control over the process (with clear parameters from the teacher); and most importantly, opportunities to grow the broader skills (e.g., deeper investigation, creation, and communication) that the project was designed for in the first place.

  • Teach them the requisite thinking skills the project requires. Questioning and problem posing can be taught to deepen the appreciation and complexity of a given issue, concern, or challenge. In Manchester Public Schools (CT), we developed a set of cross disciplinary capacities which included instructional moves the teacher can make to grow thinking such as questioning and problem posing. When confronted with a problem in which students must identify knowns and unknowns these questions go on inside the student’s mind as they question and pose problems: What do I already know about this problem and what do I need to know? How will I know if my solution makes sense?
  • Schedule conference time or office hours based on student need. Students are encouraged to identify an idea or a hurdle that they could benefit from teacher guidance. This approach continues to value student voice and self-discovery as well as providing another lens into what and how students are engaging with the work.

What other instructional approaches do you have to personalize homework for students? Would love to hear from you.

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