8 Keys to Effective Homework
Motivating your students to complete quality projects on time
Homework is an issue for many students and teachers. In almost every workshop that I do on classroom motivation, a teacher will ask, “How do you motivate students to do homework?” Of course, the answer is complicated. You can make students do homework by increasing rewards or punishment, but that rarely works in the long term. The real solution is to create homework assignments that students are most likely to complete and then provide the support necessary to help them be successful. Effective homework is based on 8 key principles:
H Has a clear purpose
O Opportunity for success
M Makes quality the focus
E Extends, reinforces, or previews content
W Work is done independently or with appropriate support
O Ownership felt by students
R Receives feedback of some type
Homework should have a clear purpose, and students should understand the purpose of the assignment or activity. During my first year of teaching, another teacher told me to assign homework every night. I didn’t realize that by following her advice, I was teaching my students that homework is an item to check off a list, not something of authentic value. Homework is an extension of your instruction, so it should always have a specific purpose, just like your lessons. As Shannon Knowles, a sixth-grade teacher says, “Explaining why I’m assigning the homework helps to get it done; I don’t give homework just to give homework.”
Opportunity for Success
Homework should provide students an opportunity to be successful. On one occasion, I was in an elementary school classroom watching a lesson on fractions. I’m not sure who was more frustrated—the teacher or the students. As the students became more confused, the teacher finally stopped and said, “This isn’t working. Do the rest for homework.” The students had absolutely no idea how to proceed, and their likelihood of success was minimal. As Christy Matkovich, a math teacher, points out, “If the day doesn’t go well, if students are lost and confused, I just scratch through the lesson and we start over the next day. If I send home practice after a day like that, they’ll create a way to do it, then have to unlearn what they did wrong.” Don’t waste your time or your students’ efforts on work that offers no opportunity for success.
Focus on Quality
Homework is more effective when the focus is on quality as opposed to quantity. More is not necessarily better, particularly when students are just beginning to understand a concept. I once heard a speaker say, “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.” That made me think about homework. If students don’t understand how to do something but practice it 50 times, they will learn the wrong thing. I would prefer to give my students small opportunities to show me they understand so that I can build on that foundation in the future.
Extend, Reinforce, or Preview Content
Effective homework assignments extend, reinforce, or preview content. If students have mastered the material, you may choose to assign an independent project to enhance their understanding or allow them to apply their knowledge. After a unit on creating spreadsheets, you might ask students to build a budget using a spreadsheet. However, if students are just beginning to understand a skill, you may want them to complete additional practice to reinforce the knowledge. When I taught parts of speech, for example, I would ask students to find examples in newspapers or magazines and bring them to class. At times, my homework previewed upcoming content. For example, one day, I asked my students to make a list of places that they or their family had visited. The next day, when we discussed the regions of the state, we plotted their vacation sites on the map and categorized them by region.
Effective homework can be completed independently with minimal and appropriate support. If the assignment is too difficult, students are more likely to ask someone else to complete it for them. When I taught, I tried to create homework assignments that allowed for family members to be involved, but in an appropriate way. For example, I would ask students to write a paragraph and then ask someone else to read it and tell them whether they had clearly stated the main idea. Or, students would interview a family member or a friend about a topic, and we used the responses in our lessons to provide context or build background.
This leads directly to the sixth principle—ownership. Students are more likely to feel as though they have a stake in the assignment if it has some direct link to their lives. It’s helpful to provide choices and even ask students to help you choose specific homework options.
It’s important to provide some type of feedback on homework assignments. This may not be a formal grade; sometimes informal feedback is far more effective. Usually, it’s not practical to grade every single activity that your students complete. But students need the opportunity to share and receive feedback on work they have completed, even if it is by sharing their answers with a partner or a small group.
All of these characteristics add up to kid-friendly homework. Although the exact format of your homework may depend on the age and skill level of each student, generally, effective homework is practical, doable, and interesting.
A Final Note
Students will likely never ask for you to assign homework. However, if we show them why the homework is important, create homework that allows each student to be successful, and then use the homework as an integral part of learning, students are more likely to complete the assignment.