While revising a unit on "Crime, Punishment, and Teens", I became nervous that I was short on time to complete all our investigations regarding the punishment teens face if they commit serious crimes. I feel so strongly about these investigations; they really help students develop objective positions on this topic and provide great springboards for spirited class discussions. Should I assign them for homework? Can I trust that all of my students will give it its due diligence?

In the end, I decided that they were critical to our unit and built them into our class activities. I felt like I was "copping out" on the homework front. Was I enabling a behavior and attitude amongst much of my school's population that assignments outside of the school day are not essential?

Many teachers DO hold the line on insisting students are assigned homework at some regular interval. My essential questions on this are always the same:

  • What is the outcome expected by assigning homework? 
  • What makes those tasks so important to do exclusively outside of school?

With the prevailing existence of standards-based instruction and standardized testing, I think it is time to rethink the homework tradition. While some teachers make strong, valid cases for homework, others say that teens are being forced to choose between homework and extracurricular activities or employment. In the end, a gentle balance is really needed by all.

It's a Multi-faceted Dilemma for Teachers AND Students

What is the argument IN FAVOR of assigning homework? I polled a few teachers on my campus and here are the most frequent responses:

  • There is not enough time to do everything in class
  • Class time is meant to begin investigations, students should dig deeper outside of class
  • There needs to be a gradual release of responsibility to the student
  • Parents can use homework as a measure of child's understanding
  • High school students need to build self efficacy to handle college life/ post high school life responsibilities

And the cases made AGAINST regularly assigned homework:

  • Extracurricular activities are much sought after by Universities. Students who want this reflected on their transcripts are sometimes forced to stay up very late at night to complete homework.
  • Students without access to technology suppresses the positive effects some homework can have on students/ parents
  • With 5-6 classes for each student, how many hours of homework do teens have each day? Teachers don't take this into consideration when they assign it.
  • Students have part-time jobs
  • Parents request homework, but don't always know how to gauge it's effectiveness

What does the Research Say?

The research available on homework regarding elementary and middle school is quite mixed. Some factors seem to be more consistently reported, however, for high school students. Several reports found that high school students who receive homework on a consistent basis performed better on standardized tests and have higher grades than do students who don't. While this points to the rise in achievement due to the quantity of homework, it doesn't always address what types of homework are most effective, how to use completed homework assignments, and the amount of homework that is appropriate to assign. These factors are frontline concerns for the teachers at the high schools in my community.

Finding the Gentle Balance

In working towards a gentle balance with assigning homework, rethinking WHAT is assigned is critical.  Students' class grades should show some correlation with achievement test scores, so it is feasible to expect homework to be standards mastery aligned if it is going to count in grades. In addition, the work, itself, needs to be meaningful and engaging for the student. In order to address these concerns, I have structured homework assignments to be aligned with these three areas:

1. Metacognition

One of the most effective strategies to increase achievement in at-risk students is to teach them how to think about HOW they learn and how that learning impacts their life (in and out of school). 

The strategies students employ when metacognitively reflecting on their day's work "...includes goal setting, monitoring, self-assessing, and regulating during thinking and writing processes; that is, when they're studying and doing homework" (Pierce). These strategies cross all content areas and answer the "Why do this?" question most teens ask about their assignments.

What's a good assignment?

Completing metacognitive journals for each class extends the learning process for students. This type of homework assignment has long-range positive outcomes for all students.

2. Student Generated Extension/Investigation

When students ask questions about the content we teach, they instantly transform into a self-motivated learner - a researcher. This is a much sought-after behavior for all teachers - it is the root of all learning that we are employed to nurture. Therefore, teaching students how to ask questions AND when to ask them are critical to student learning. 

What's a good assignment?

Homework assignments that challenge teens to question their learning on different levels (aha - Blooms Taxonomy!) are constructive uses of after school time and serve as springboards for discussion at the next class meeting.

3. Technology

A savory entry point for teachers who want to make homework meaningful is tapping into teens' keen interest in technology. In lieu of the traditional worksheet or review questions, online resources and message boards are interactive, immediate, and attract students to check out responses of their peers. 

What's a good assignment?

I have used freeforums.org for the past two years to host a book club message board for all of my students to post their independent reading responses in lieu of a traditional reading log. My colleagues have used nicenet.org for students to respond to questions about the day's learning, complete homework math problems, or to ask questions to their teachers. Use of websites such as these help promote self-efficacy - something we have found to be a common shortfall for our local college freshmen.

To give students the time needed to access a computer with the internet, I generally assign online postings as a weekly task. It is important that teachers consider the availability of universal access to technology when considering using the internet for homework. My school site publishes and regularly updates a map of our community where there is free computer internet access for students and parents (i.e.: public library, apartment complexes, etc.).

In addition, there are online tutorials for students in all subject areas. Assigning homework to access and practice skills or check for understanding of content via these types of web pages is gaining in popularity. I caution teachers to review the content and answers of these web sites, however, because my colleagues and I have found gross errors on several occasions on some sites.  I like the Holt Rinehart Winston website where students can access online textbooks, pull up review questions and take online quizzes to gauge their understanding of content ranging from English-Language Arts, Mathematics, Science-Health, Social Studies, and World Languages. 

Lastly, if you haven't perused this Scholastic.com website for students - you are missing a treasure trove of extension activities that are meaningful, are standards-based, and are completely interactive and engaging!

Wrapping it Up:

Since the first homework assignments were handed out in the 1800's the debate on homework has been on the forefront of educational issues. Addressing the concerns of teachers, parents, and students about it would take volumes of articles. However, we can rethink the way we structure homework assignments by addressing key essential questions such as:

  • What is the outcome teachers expect by assigning homework? 
  • What makes those tasks so important to do exclusively outside of school?

Employing some of the best practices for increasing student achievement and appealing to students' interests increases participation and promotes self-efficacy. There are a host of web articles on these subjects alone for teachers to garner ideas - all we have to do is do our homework!