Homework Isn’t A Bad Word

How can homework be appropriately used to increase retention of material and foster proper study habits in students?

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:

  1. Practicing procedures students have been thoroughly taught…think math homework to practice usage of formulas, etc.
  2. Retrieval practice of factual information students have been explicitly taught.
  3. 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.  

Screen Shot 2017-10-15 at 9.55.05 AM

*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:

  1. After a class, elicit a quick discussion with or among students to extrapolate the important terms and/or concepts from the lesson.
  2. Have students write down these terms at the top of a piece of paper.
  3. 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.

 

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5 Comments

  1. First, I want to really second everything you said about family time. That’s an under-discussed part of this debate, I think. Kudos to you for raising it.

    At different points of my career I’ve had different attitudes to homework. When I started out, I was fairly against HW, mostly because I thought it was a waste of time. This was mostly because my students didn’t take HW seriously (or, at least, this was what I saw and my colleagues told me). It was a widespread problem in the school, partly an artifact of our VERY long school day (from 8 to 6) but also because of a sort of school-wide sloppiness. If kids weren’t going to take the HW seriously, then how much effort should I really put in to it? Better to just ditch it and give kids their practice opportunities in class, which is what I tried to do.

    When I switched schools, I took this attitude with me. After fielding several phone calls and complaints from students about how little homework I was assigning, my department chair asked me, in as kind a way as humanly possible: what the hell are you doing? And then I realized that, with this very different population and very different school, homework mostly got done, and so was valuable as practice.

    I suspect the value of homework really differs widely according to school, population, age, etc. At least, that’s what my experience tells me.

    As far as your arguments, I remain unconvinced. You point out that there can be spaced practice benefits from homework. True, but that’s just because homework is practice. Homework is always going to have some value for learning when it’s compared to no homework, since no homework is e.g. playing video games, reading for fun, spending time with family, having a job, doing stupid teen stuff, etc. It’s also true that e.g. 7 hours of homework is better for learning than 1 hour (if it really gets done). That can’t be an argument in favor of HW, though. More practice is always going to help kids learn.

    As far as for helping kids learn what it’s like to study when there are other choices, to feel the sacrifice of studying…I’m not sure. Are we talking about a (domain general) skill here, that of “studying independently”? Can it really be taught? How do we know? I’m not so sure that it can be.

    If we’re talking about HW as an opportunity to learn some domain-specific study skills — how to study vocab, how to rehearse info from a textbook effectively, how to prepare for a science quiz — that makes more sense to me. But I don’t see this as an argument for assigning HW, but as an argument for teaching these domain-specific study skills.

    And if the argument is that kids will need to learn this in college, well, why not just learn it in college? (Many will also need to learn to balance studying with a job in college — should we assign every student a job in high school?)

    In the end, though, I don’t feel as if I have a whole lot to say about HW. I like the idea that a school should decide together with parents how much HW their kids should have. In a lot of schools, HW will be a waste of time for the teachers and kids. In other schools, it will certainly provide good practice opportunities. I’m OK with leaving this up for local debate.

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  2. I think homework – what it consists of, how much time it takes, and who should and should not be doing it – is very personal. There are many things I could respond to, but the one I think you should know is that the hashtag you’re referring to – #DitchHW – is from a recent book written by Matt Miller and Alice Keeler. As with Matt’s other book – DITCH THAT TEXTBOOK, he isn’t saying to toss it in the garbage. They’re providing the history behind homework, reasons why much homework teachers assign doesn’t work, and alternatives. Please check it out before you ditch that hashtag. There’s been a lot of good conversation about homework – at various levels.. Let’s keep it going!

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    1. Thank you for your comment. I have had a bit of conversation, via twitter, with Mr. Miller on this matter. I have also participated in several edchats with the #ditchHW hashtag. Thanks.

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  3. In each of the conversations that I’ve participated in regarding homework like this one, “homework” is limited to a review or extension of taught material. What about independent reading or reading an assigned novel? Is that “homework”? The temptation for online support is real, but reading every page of a long work in class does not support the independent discipline required by colleges either. Most teachers try to strike a balance between the two, but all who teach novels or extended nonfiction works need to have the students encounter the ideas in the text before the class begins. Otherwise, the lesson becomes summary instead of in-depth analysis. If reading is not “homework,” then I believe that we should be having a discussion that handles those ideas separate from the “recall and extension” type of homework discussed in the novel.

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