Smart Homework: 13 Ways to Make It Meaningful

In the first installment of Rick Wormeli’s homework advice, he made the case for take-home assignments that matter for learning and engage student interest. In Part 2, Rick offers some guiding principles that can help teachers create homework challenges that motivate kids and spark deeper learning in and out of school.

These articles are adapted and updated from Rick’s seminal book about teaching in the middle grades, Day One & Beyond: Practical Matters for New Middle Level Teachers. Rick continues to offer great advice about homework, differentiation, assessment and many other topics in workshops and presentations across North America. Check back in Part 1 for some additional homework resources.

RickWormeli-hdsht-130by Rick Wormeli

I’ve been accumulating guiding principles for creating highly motivating homework assignments for many years — from my own teaching and from the distilled wisdom of others. Here are a baker’s dozen. Choose the ones most appropriate for students’ learning goals and your curriculum.

1. Give students a clear picture of the final product. This doesn’t mean everything is structured for them, or that there aren’t multiple pathways to the same high quality result. There’s room for student personalities to be expressed. Students clearly know what is expected, however. A clear picture sets purpose for doing the assignment. Priming the brain to focus on particular aspects of the learning experience helps the brain process the information for long-term retention. Setting purpose for homework assignments has an impact on learning and the assignment’s completion rate, as research by Marzano and others confirms.

2. Incorporate a cause into the assignment. Middle level students are motivated when they feel they are righting a wrong. They are very sensitive to justice and injustice. As a group, they are also very nurturing of those less fortunate than them. Find a community or personal cause for which students can fight fairly and incorporate your content and skills in that good fight— students will be all over the assignment.

perky-homework3. Give students a real audience. There’s an audience for the students’ work and it isn’t always us, the teachers. For example, when students work on something that uses a lot of technology – whether it’s a PowerPoint talk over the internet, a project blog, or Twitter and other social media, it’s not the technology that’s motivating—it’s the fact that there will be an audience other than the teacher. Somebody will see this, they realize. What will they think of it? they ask themselves. So how can you create real audiences for homework?

4. Incorporate people whom students admire in their assignments. Students are motivated when asked to share what they know and feel about these folks. We are a society of heroes, and young adolescents are interested in talking about and becoming heroic figures.

5. Allow choices, as appropriate. Allow students to do the even-numbered or odd-numbered problems, or allow them to choose from three prompts, not just one. Let them choose the word that best describes the political or scientific process. Let them identify their own diet and its effects on young adolescent bodies. Let them choose to work with partners or individually. How about allowing them to choose from several multiple-intelligence based tasks? If they are working in ways that are comfortable, they are more likely to do the work. By making the choice, they have upped their ownership of the task.

6. Incorporate cultural products into the assignment. If students have to use magazines, television shows, foods, sports equipment, and other products they already use, they are likely to do the work. The brain loves to do tasks in contexts with which it is familiar.

7. Allow students to collaborate in determining how homework will be assessed. If they help design the criteria for success, such as when they create the rubric for an assignment, they “own” the assignment. It comes off as something done by them, not to them. They also internalize the expectations—another way for them to have clear targets.

With some assignments we can post well-done versions from previous years (or ones we’ve created for this purpose) and ask students to analyze the essential characteristics that make these assignments exemplary. Students who analyze such assignments will compare those works with their own and internalize the criteria for success, referencing the criteria while doing the assignment, not just when it’s finished.

8. Avoid “fluff” assignments. For example, assigning students to create a life-sized “dummy” of a person found in a novel (or in history, in science, in math, etc.) doesn’t further understanding. It’s a lot of coloring, cutting, wadding paper, and stapling (or stuffing old clothing with newspaper) for very little return. Make sure there is a clear connection to curriculum, not just something that would look cool when displayed in the classroom. Students will figure out how empty these assignments are very quickly. They’ll see homework as serving little or no purpose other than to give them something to do, which sinks motivation like a big chunk of granite.

9. Spruce up your prompts. Don’t ask students to repeatedly answer questions or summarize. Try some of these openers instead: Decide between, argue against, Why did ______ argue for, compare, contrast, plan, classify, retell ______ from the point of view of ______, Organize, build, interview, predict, categorize, simplify, deduce, formulate, blend, suppose, invent, imagine, devise, compose, combine, rank, recommend, defend, choose.

10. Have everyone turn in a paper. In her classic, Homework: A New Direction (1992), Neila Connors reminded teachers to have all students turn in a paper, regardless of whether they did the assignment. If a student doesn’t have his homework, he writes on the paper the name of the assignment and why he didn’t do it.

sleepy-homework-2I’ve had students add their parents’ telephone number so I could call home and share what the student said about his homework. Calling parents usually results in a terrific homework completion record for students—at least for a few weeks. An added dividend is that classmates don’t get as many opportunities to see who didn’t do their homework—a reputation to avoid.

11. Do not give homework passes. I used to do this; then I realized how much it minimized the importance of homework. It’s like saying, “Oh, well, the homework really wasn’t that important to your learning. You’ll learn just as well without it.” Homework should be so productive for students that missing it is like missing the lesson itself.

12. Integrate homework with other subjects. One assignment can count in two classes. Such assignments are usually complex enough to warrant the dual grade and it’s a way to work smarter, not harder, for both students and teachers. Teachers can split the pile of papers to grade, then share the grades with each other, and students don’t have homework piling up in multiple classes.

There are times when every teacher on the team assigns a half-hour assignment, and so do the elective or encore class teachers. This could mean three to four hours of homework for the student, which is inappropriate for young adolescents.

13. Occasionally, let students identify what homework would be most effective. Sometimes the really creative assignments are the ones that students design themselves. After teaching a lesson, ask your students what it would take to practice the material so well it became clearly understood. Many of the choices will be rigorous and very appropriate.

happy-girlConsider your true goal with homework: learning that moves into long-term memory, right? Cramming is the stuff of partial memories to be parroted for a quiz that week, then dumped in the brain’s recycling bin, never to be seen again.

This is one reason I always recommend that, as a basic premise, we avoid Monday morning quizzes and weekend or holiday homework assignments. Sure, there will be exceptions when long-term projects come due. But if we are really about teaching so that students learn and not about appearing rigorous and assigning tasks to show that we have taught, then we’ll carefully consider all the effects of our homework expectations. Our students will be more productive at school for having healthier lives at home.

▶ More resources from Rick Wormeli:

Although Rick never mentions the word homework in this article about helping adolescent students improve their “executive function,” you will immediately see the connections! At the AMLE website.

NEXT: In our final excerpt from Day One & Beyond, Rick Wormeli shares his approach to homework assessment – with an clear emphasis on maintaining teacher sanity.


Rick-at-AMLERick Wormeli was among the first National Board Certified teachers in America. His education career spans 35 years – teaching math, science, English, physical education, health, and history and coaching teachers and principals. He is a columnist for AMLE Magazine and a frequent contributor to ASCD’s Education Leadership magazine.

His books include Meet Me in the Middle; Day One and Beyond; Fair Isn’t Always Equal: Assessment and Grading in the Differentiated Classroom; Differentiation: From Planning to Practice; Metaphors & Analogies: Power Tools for Teaching Any Subject, and Summarization in Any Subject, plus The Collected Writings (So Far) of Rick Wormeli: Crazy Good Stuff I Learned about Teaching Along the Way.

He is currently working on his first young adult fiction novel and a new book on homework practices in the 21st century.


MiddleWeb is all about the middle grades, with great 4-8 resources, book reviews, and guest posts by educators who support the success of young adolescents. And be sure to subscribe to MiddleWeb SmartBrief for the latest middle grades news & commentary from around the USA.

3 Responses

  1. This is a really great article. It has helped me tremendously in making new and better decisions about homework.

  2. S.Gilbert says:

    Fabulous sage advice! Although I love every single suggestion you’ve included, I am particularly fond of the elimination of the “homework pass”. As a former middle-level teacher and administrator, I too found the homework pass diminished the importance of follow-up work – a necessary component in determining the level of student understanding.

    • Cheryl says:

      I do give 2 passes, but they just extend due date by a day. And if not used, they may be returned at the end of the 9 weeks for extra credit.

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