Simple Activity to Prepare Homework in the Classroom

I’ve written a bit about this before…homework.  It isn’t a bad word.  I see it discussed often on edutwitter.  While I agree there is little point of elementary school-aged students working through copious amounts, I see a lot of purpose for high school students; especially those who are planning on attending college.  I have a few rules for homework in my AP Psychology classes of high school sophomores, juniors, and seniors:

  1. Homework should only be used as a review (spaced retrieval practice) of information already covered in class.
  2. Homework should only be as long as necessary…vague, I know.  If I’m following rule #1, a review of a day of class shouldn’t really be any longer than 10-20 minutes.  This works for me as a psychology teacher…practice for a math, language, or any other course may require more time.
  3. Homework should be low or no-stakes.  I believe this is a very important point.  Students should focus on the process of studying/practicing properly.  Also, I want students to use this homework as a way to assess their learning.  I find that students are less likely to cheat on homework if they’re not trying to simply earn a 100.

So, above, I mentioned the process of practicing and/or reviewing at home.  I want this to be as practical, efficient, and effective as possible for students.  They, typically, have quite poor study habits; which include highlighting their notes or simply rereading their notes or the text.  These strategies have little effect and only serve to frustrate students when their grades do not improve via their usage.  From the beginning of the semester, I discuss this with my students and introduce the more effective strategies of spaced practice, retrieval practice, dual coding, etc.  We practice these strategies almost daily, with the hope of creating better study/practice habits in class and at home.

Specifically, for homework, I like to ‘preload’ the work in class.  Typically, this requires the following common resources:

  1. Paper.
  2. Pen/pencil.
  3. A discussion.

The first two are quite self-explanatory.  Number 3 (the discussion) focuses on the importance of the day’s concepts/skills/terms.  I simply ask my students to chat about the most important concepts/skills/terms from that day’s lesson.  Most days, this equates to 5-7 ‘things to know’ in my class.  The students next write those terms down on the top of the paper.  Then they place the paper in their notebook or bookbag.

Once they arrive home, they should pull out the paper and simply write down as much as they can about the terms/concepts…definitions, applications, how the terms relate to each other, how do the terms relate to past terms, etc.  Again, this should take no more than 10-20 minutes.  That’s it.

What is so great about this simple homework technique is its wide applicability and flexibility.  From the standpoint of flexibility, here are a few ways I modify the above activity:

  1. When home, students should use a highlighter to delineate between what they know without help and what they know after consulting their notes, text, or friends.  What they know without help is what they really knew.  If they had to use a study aid, they didn’t really know it well enough.  I’ve written about how I use this a bit more here.
  2. Students always want a study guide before a test…well, they can use this technique to create their own study guide, lesson by lesson, section by section, major topic by topic, etc.  

Finally, a major goal of my class is to better prepare my students for how they should more effectively and efficiently study in college.  Around 90% of my students will continue to a college or university.  Nothing pleases me more than seeing or hearing my students talk about how they use this technique, or any other technique I introduce, either on their own or in another class.  The principles of spaced and retrieval practice should become the habit of studying/practicing.  Widely applicable activities making use of these strategies should be incorporated as much as often in the classroom because they show evidence of increased retention of material and because they demonstrate to students healthier ways of studying/practicing, moving them further away from the inefficient techniques of simple highlighting and rereading for review.  

How can you adapt the above strategy for your classroom?

What other strategies and activities assist students with creating better habits for study/practice?

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