Homework As a Tool for Learning, courtesy of IStockphoto

These two questions have been debated many times, often with little resolution.  Many schools leave it up to individual faculty members, a grade-level team or department to determine its own policy.  I wonder why schools tend to relinquish the responsibility for setting a homework policy that is based on guidelines consistent with what research says about student learning.  As a former science teacher, department chair, director of studies, and principal, I think schools angst over setting policies that impact the day-to-day teaching practice of a classroom teacher.  Unlike some other professions, we give teachers a fair amount of autonomy, especially in independent schools.

I will not argue in this post that we should remove autonomy completely.  A great deal of creative teaching emerges when schools trust teachers and give them the autonomy to experiment with different methods.  However, I will argue that setting homework guidelines is an important responsibility that schools should not ignore because it assures that someone will use the research as a filter to guide how the school manages homework.  I believe a reasonable and fair set of homework policies can positively impact a student’s school experience.

Here are some ways in which a school with no policies in place impact students:

  • one teacher at the same grade level or in the same course grades homework another teacher does not
  • one teacher at the same grade level or in the same course reviews homework another teacher does not
  • one teacher at the same grade level or in the same course uses homework as a formative process while another teacher does not
  • one teacher at the same grade level or in the same course has students correct and redo homework as a learning exercise while another teacher does not

These are only four scenarios that could lead to a learning environment for students where the playing field is not level.  Students want to believe that regardless of which teachers’ classroom they are in their experience and chance for success will rest solely on their performance not on whether teachers have different policies for how to manage homework.

In her book, Rethinking Homework: Best Practices That Support Diverse Needs
, Cathy Vatterot discusses the homework dilemma and lays out an argument for constructing a program that meets the diverse needs of students.  In her mind, the “best homework” has five attributes:

  1. homework should have a specific academic purpose, such as practice, checking for understanding, or applying knowledge or skills.
  2. homework should be used to efficiently demonstrate student learning.
  3. homework should promote student owner ship of learning by offering choices and being personally relevant.
  4. homework should be designed to instill a sense of competence in the student so he or she can succeed.
  5. homework should be a worthy and pleasing experience and not merely a routine or drill to be completed

In addition to her five attributes, I would propose the following set of parameters that a good homework policy should have:

  • homework should be given only if the teacher is prepared to give students feedback on their performance.
  • homework should be formatively assessed which means that it should: (1) inform the teacher as to whether his or her teaching has been effective; and (2) inform the student if he or she has learned the material.
  • homework should be a component of the student’s overall achievement (grade) because if it is meaningful and the student is engaged with it and if it is formatively assessed then it is a good indicator of student performance.
  • homework should have two purposes; (1) assessing student understanding (Vatterot’s #1 above); and (2) preparing the student for future learning.  It should propel the student along the learning curve the teacher intends through the learning experience.

MET Life Foundation conducted one of the most exhaustive surveys, The MetLife Survey of the American Teacher: The Homework Experience, of its kind on homework practices and attitudes in the US.  It surveyed 1,200 K-12 public school teachers, 500 parents, and 2,000 students in 2007.  Here is a snapshot of what they uncovered in their survey.

  • Homework occupies an intersection between school, home and the community, and, as such, can serve as a channel of communication between the school and parent, as well as the parent and child.
  • Over 80% of parents believe that their child’s teachers assign the right amount of – or even too little – homework
  • 75% of students report that they have enough time to do their assignments.
  • 90% of parents report that helping their child with homework provides an opportunity for them to talk and spend time together. The majority of parents do not see homework as getting in the way of family time or as a major source of stress and disagreement in their family.
  • The 25% of students who report that they do not have enough time have higher rates of risk factors related to student achievement and other areas. Those who lack enough time for their homework are more likely to get low grades and are less likely to plan to go to college.
  • Frequent failure to complete homework may be an early signal of student disengagement that can lead to school-related problems.
  • The majority of parents, students, and teachers believe in the value of homework. They think homework is important and helps students learn more in school.
  • Parents who do not believe homework is important appear to be more alienated and less connected to their child’s school.
  • Overall, most parents (and teachers) report that the quality of homework assigned by their school is less than excellent.
  • 33% of parents rate the quality of homework assignments as fair or poor, and 40% believe that a great deal or some homework is busywork and not related to what students are learning in school.
  • 50% of parents have a rule for their child that homework should be completed in a quiet place.
  • Yet 75% of students agree that it is important to have a quiet place to do homework, this is not necessarily a goal that they put into practice.
  • Among secondary school students, 90% are usually doing other activities, or “multi-tasking”, while doing their homework, including 70% who listen to music and 51% who watch TV.
  • 50% of teachers frequently use homework to help students practice skills, prepare for tests, develop good work habits, develop their critical thinking skills, and motivate them to learn.
  • Teachers also use homework as part of assessment and, less frequently, because they did not have enough time during class to cover all of the material; these usages are more common among secondary school teachers than elementary school teachers.
  • Highly experienced teachers (21+ years of experience) are more likely than new teachers (5 years or less experience) to believe that homework is important: that it helps students learn more in school or that it helps students reach their goals for after high school.
  • New teachers are less likely than highly experienced teachers to provide students with feedback on homework or to review completed assignments during class discussions.
  • New teachers feel less prepared to create engaging homework assignments.

There are many implications from the MET Life survey.  I only refer to a small window of what was learned through the data analysis.  The outcomes are clear that teachers, parents, and students value homework.  That students’ attitudes towards homework and success at completing homework impact their overall success in school.  Finally, that many teachers, parents, and students believe that most homework is busy work that is not an interesting and engaging part of the learning experience.

We have our work cut out for us in schools to get a handle on the homework issue.  The only way we will succeed in this adventure is if the SCHOOL is willing to take on the conversation with its faculty and create a set of homework policies that ensure homework is an effective and meaningful part of a student’s learning experience, one that counts towards their overall achievement.