Homework Policies That Support Diverse Needs
Reviewed by Brian Taylor
There is no more loaded topic in education than the discussion of homework. Are teachers assigning too much homework or not enough? Is homework a productive use of a student’s time outside of the regular school day? Is it good for all ages or only students of a certain age?
These are just a few of the questions that are discussed from national leaders in educational research down to an individual teacher with his/her students. Dr. Cathy Vatterott’s book Rethinking Homework tries to bring sanity to this ongoing argument.
I think the most thought provoking piece of this book is the discussion of how family dynamics have changed and how they are constantly evolving. Many families are single parent/guardian households, and many with two parents/guardians in the home see both of them working full time. Parents/guardians may not have the time and in some cases the ability to help their son/daughter complete homework. Also kids are more active than ever before outside of school.
Teachers need to understand that there are some nights where completing homework may be impossible (p. 40). Teachers must work with families to help students complete worthwhile homework when it is assigned, understanding that judging parents/guardians who can’t or won’t help students is an unproductive and damaging exercise.
Vatterott goes through some of the research about homework. The takeaway from this section is that you can find research to confirm or refute whatever your position is on homework.
If you are assigning homework, the homework needs to have a specific purpose (pre-learning, diagnostic, check for understanding, practice, or processing), and the student needs to receive specific, usable feedback that will help them reach the learning goal. This feedback can come from the teacher, their peers, or themselves.
Grades, especially punitive ones (i.e. zeros for not completing homework), not only do not motivate students to complete homework, they give students an excuse from ever completing the assignment. If the assignment is worthwhile, then students not doing it are missing out on a learning opportunity. “[W]e cannot punish students into completing homework,” Vatterott states succinctly (p. 96).
Ways to help students complete homework
Many students need support in completing homework; however, if a student cannot complete an assignment without help, then it is not a good assignment. If the homework is meaningful and appropriate, we need to figure out why students are not completing it. The first step goes back to open, honest communication with the family. Vatterott details many support strategies that can be used at the classroom and/or building level to help students complete their homework. Some that stood out to me are:
• Classroom Level
– Set a maximum amount of time that students should work on homework.
– Give assignments well in advance of the due date.
– Give weekly assignments. Assign homework on Friday to be due next Friday.
• Building Level
– Provide homework support programs.
– Shorten each class by a few minutes per day to have an hour long weekly homework time.
– Schedule small, focused study halls.
Practical advice on developing homework practices
This book is a must for classroom teachers and administrators who want to bring some sanity to homework policies in their classrooms or building. Vatterott provides practical advice as well as documents at the end of the book that help implement her ideas.
Homework is practice. It should be treated as such. Students may need time outside of class to pre-learn or understand certain concepts. The homework assigned should then be focused with clear learning goals, and students should be given specific, usable feedback once the assignment is complete. We have to stop making homework another reason why students don’t become life-long learners.
Brian Taylor is the Director of Science and Engineering Technology K-12 for the West Islip Union Free School District on Long Island, New York. Brian has also been a Dean of Students and a Chemistry teacher.