The Homework Debate

homework

photo credit: Anthony Kelly (apdk on flickr)

People who are new to the concepts of differentiated instruction can get pretty concerned when you say that homework shouldn’t count towards a student’s “grade”. This post is an attempt to alleviate that concern.

If homework is assigned to a particular student, that homework assignment should definitely be checked by the teacher (what some people call “grading”) and feedback should be given to the student as to how well they did on it, where they need work, etc. That’s not the issue. What we’re talking about here is only whether homework should be mandatory and whether the scores for homework assignments should be calculated into students’ course grades.

As I stated in a recent post, “students should be graded solely on whether they’ve mastered, or learned, the particular standard, or competency they’re working on”. The methods they use to reach the level of mastery can vary.

I think some of the confusion around homework (whether it should be required, included in the grade, etc.) comes from thinking that all students are working on the same thing at the same time and that all students would get the same homework. In that case, people might think it only fair that all students should be required to do the homework.

However, with differentiated instruction, different students will need different homework assignments. A great homework assignment for teaching one student might be totally inappropriate for another student. The reason for assigning homework – or any “practice” work to be done during class time or outside – is for the student to reinforce, through practice, what has already been learned and to help shift the new skills into more long-term memory. One student might need (or benefit more from) more practice than another student.

If a student can pass an assessment on a concept and prove he/she has mastered it, it shouldn’t matter whether they did any homework or what style of learning they used to reach that accomplishment.

Here are the main concerns I’ve heard from people about not grading homework:

1)      Fairness

If all students were being taught the same things in the same ways all at the same time, it might seem only fair that all students should be required to do the homework. But that’s not how things work with differentiated instruction. Different students will need different homework assignments – and some students might not need any homework. Imagine if a student did poorly on a homework assignment because he didn’t understand the standard it covered. Then imagine that student working hard to fully understand the material and eventually master it. I believe it would be unfair to penalize this student by incorporating the earlier poor score into his grade, since that doesn’t reflect his true current level of understanding.

2)      Increased workload on teachers

I think it’s more of a shift in how teachers spend their time and not necessarily an increase in workload. Whether homework is graded should have no impact on a teacher’s workload. The teacher is already differentiating instruction for their students based on their individual needs – it has nothing to do with whether homework is counted in the grade or not.

Much of the extra work from instruction differentiation (not homework grading) can be automated with technology and online teaching resources, assessments, etc. The teacher should already have a large collection of teaching materials (worksheets, practice problems, assessments, videos, websites, educational games, etc.) for the concepts that they are responsible for teaching. If not, things should be moving in that direction.

3)      Getting kids to learn (force them to do homework)

A concern a parent might have is that, “if my child doesn’t do the homework, how will they learn? I don’t want them to fail the test or get a bad grade.” As stated earlier, different students need different homework – and some may not need any. Much of this concern comes from thinking about non-differentiated instruction. The teacher will work with your child until they understand the material and can pass the relevant assessment.

4)      Students falling behind if they don’t do homework

If my child doesn’t do the homework and thus doesn’t learn and thus can’t pass the assessment for that standard, won’t they fall behind the other students and not get through all the standards they should for the year?

I understand this concern, but I don’t think this problem will be as prevalent as some people think.

First of all, just by having homework required and graded, it doesn’t mean all students will do it.

Second, if a student doesn’t understand the concept and you force them to do homework they don’t know how to do, they can develop bad habits that will have to be un-learned and/or they can also grow to resent school if the challenges they’re faced with don’t match their skill level.

Third, students (and people, in general) want to learn. They want to accomplish goals. They want to succeed at challenges. It’s why we work on puzzles and play games. As long as the student has learned the pre-requisite concepts, they should have the skills they need to learn the new one. The new concept should be just the right amount of challenge – not too easy, but not too hard – right in the goldilocks zone. This situation – in which skill level and challenge level are matched can increase the student’s intrinsic motivation for learning.

The peer pressure of their friends moving on to new concepts will also be a factor.

Ultimately it should be up to the teacher and their experience with the student to decide what the best approach is for teaching the concept to the student. And the teacher will use her/his skills and experience to help motivate the student as appropriate.

5)      Keep parents informed about what their students are learning

Parents want to know what their children are working on in school. Some parents may fear that if their child doesn’t have a homework assignment to work on, then they won’t see what it is they’re learning in school.

My hope is that teachers will have collections of learning resources online each linked to the different standards. Each student should have a list of the standards (possibly including dependency relationships) and where they stand on each of them (which ones they’ve already mastered, which ones they are ready to work on, etc.). Ideally this system could be a tool to facilitate discussion between a student and their parents about what they’re learning.

Then if a student is working on a particular standard, all they (or their parent) need to do is look up the standard and find a learning resource that fits with the student’s learning style.

6)      Keep parents informed about their students’ behavior

Some parents express desire to hear from teachers as to whether their children are doing the homework assignments.

I agree with parents who want to know whether their children are exhibiting desired or undesired behaviors in school. However, doing homework isn’t necessarily a desired behavior.

If however, a teacher seriously recommended that a particular student do a particular assignment and then the student refused, then that could be a behavioral issue – if the student was simply “acting out”. However, in my opinion, a more common reason would be that the student didn’t understand the homework, needed some different instruction, felt overwhelmed from other school work or a home situation and didn’t have time, or perhaps needs some time management instruction or more in-class work.

Behaviors (good and bad) of students should be reported in some form as feedback to the students themselves and to their parents, but student behaviors should not be a part of grading.

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2 comments

  1. Andy Kleinschmidt

    Jake, I really appreciate your well-developed responses to parent’s concerns regarding homework not counting towards a grade. I am more concerned about having my children mastering topics than I am about a set level of homework. Good post Jake.

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