Like assessment, homework has taken a lot of flack lately; and unduly so, I believe. There is a real push, and even a hashtag (#ditchHW), that aims to end the practice of teacher-prescribed homework for students. In my best estimation, those who oppose homework cite either a lack of evidence for its effect or a more pressing need for quality family time in our current climate. In all honesty, I totally sympathize with the argument for more family time. I love teaching. I love my students. I love reading about the intricacies in teaching methods/research and thinking about how I can improve my classroom. However, I value my family more. I genuinely look forward to arriving home to see my wife and three children. I love the conversations we have over dinner. I love waking up to them jumping in our bed in the morning. I get it. Family time is incredibly important for the development of my children, my marriage, and my happiness.
Unfortunately, I believe the idea that homework, especially at the high school level, is bad or useless is a dangerous notion. Today, in a conversation with Ken Sheck (@KenSheck) on twitter, he mentioned three reasons for homework:
- Practicing procedures students have been thoroughly taught…think math homework to practice usage of formulas, etc.
- Retrieval practice of factual information students have been explicitly taught.
- Reading for background knowledge or extension of concepts/principles students have been explicitly taught.
*Ken pointed out, especially with middle school students, reading ability may hinder the effectiveness of this application of homework.
I agree with Ken and see a time and place for all of the above mentioned types of homework. Also, notice that in all three examples, homework is used as a review of material or procedures. I do not generally believe homework should be used to introduce new material to students. Especially with my subject matter (psychology), students can become confused by new information and perhaps create incorrect beliefs about the material which then becomes difficult to unlearn.
I would like to propose another reason to not ditch homework. I believe there are some real habit forming benefits of homework. As I’ve stated before on my blog, I teach mostly 11th and 12th grade students who, statistically speaking, will attend a college or university in the next few years. Depending on the graduating class, somewhere between 80% and 90% of students attend university. Students need to know how to study independently…and I don’t mean independently in the classroom. I mean independently where there’s no pressure from other students studying or not studying right beside them. They need to understand how it feels to have other, probably more fun, ways to spend their time but instead choose to take a look back at their notes or wrestle with review questions/prompts. It is naive to believe, if we expel homework from our schools, that students will somehow just figure out how to properly manage their time or know how to study/practice in college.
Like walking students through the metacognitive values of retrieval practice, they need to be taught how to study properly and effectively. Most students who enter my room believe highlighting and rereading are effective for memory retention. When they implore these methods in their studies and see no results, students usually give up on studying and homework. These ‘strategies’ are the only examples they see modeled by other students and, unfortunately, most teachers don’t have time to work through their curriculum and also instruct students on how to study/practice effectively.
So, practically, what do I believe homework should look like?
As stated above, in my estimation, homework should only be a means to practice procedures already learned or to retrieve information from past class meetings. There is certainly a lot of evidence for this spaced practice (Thank you,@AceThatTest). In its simplest form, spaced practice is the opposite of cramming for an assessment. Think about studying for an assessment at home for four nights in 15 minute increments over just studying for 1 hour the night before the test. Evidence shows that the over-time, multiple retrieval of information assists with retention of memories much better than the one time cram session.
*photo courtesy of https://www.marketing91.com/forgetting-curve/
Knowing this bit of evidence with respect to spacing learning, I ask my students to take 10-20 minutes per night to review the information from that day or if there are particularly tricky information from lessons past, I may ask them to have a look at that material. ‘Looking back’ is better than nothing, but an easy way to amp up the benefits of spaced practice is to have the students interact with the information. More focused cognitive effort used while studying or practicing equals a greater level of retention. Attempting to answer questions or formulate a short essay requires much more cognitive effort than simply rereading or highlighting notes.
A very practical example of homework from my class includes ‘pre-loading’ the information for retrieval at home. Here are the simple steps:
- After a class, elicit a quick discussion with or among students to extrapolate the important terms and/or concepts from the lesson.
- Have students write down these terms at the top of a piece of paper.
- When home, students should take out the piece of paper and write as much as they can about the terms; including a definition, but also how terms relate, how a concept operates or affects the environment, or even how these terms relate to past class material.
*This should be done with no outside assistance. No book. No notes. No peers. Just students using their brain to dump as much information as possible onto their paper.
That’s it. This can easily be completed in 10-20 minutes. Have them bring the paper in the next day to class for a discussion and review of the material. There are a number of avenues that can be taken to revisit the material here…maybe a discussion among fellow classmates to complete any forgotten vocabulary or perhaps provide particular prompts to assist students with priming their memories of the material. Point out, though, that although all information will be finished by the end of the activity, students only remember the material they completed without outside assistance from notes, textbook, and peers. I believe this very important statement is often never mentioned and students need this prompting to assist with assessment of their learning.
Yes, this homework helps with retention of material, which is of utmost important in school. It also helps students cultivate a healthy habit of what homework should be. For my students, particularly, I then ask them how easy an activity like this could be translated to their college classes. Most easily understand how it is easily adaptable. Unless we set up these opportunities for students to use proper learning strategies and practice homework, I believe we are doing a disservice and leaving them ill-equipped for their collegiate future. Homework is an important cog in the wheel of success at the university level. Ditching it would be a big mistake.