Getting Homework Right

Designing homework with students of poverty in mind

Homework, like taking a daily vitamin, is supposed to be good for us. So why all the angst over a seemingly benign antidote? For teachers, homework is frequently just another piece of paper to grade; for parents, another evening chore to be done; and for students, a competitor at odds with their extracurricular events.

But when properly planned and executed, homework can become a valuable part of a lesson plan that challenges students, extends the learning day, and informs the teacher.

Homework is generally expected by students, parents, and teachers but how to assign it, manage its completion, and review it for optimum results often escapes even the most enthusiastic educator. Homework that works ideally promotes student learning. It gives students the opportunity to practice skills just taught, prepares them for upcoming units, promote application of learned concepts to real life situations, and encourages creativity.

So why do we get it wrong so often? Much like an iceberg whose appearance makes one think that it is deceivingly small, there is more to well-designed homework than meets the eye. Give them a worksheet, assign a due date, grade it. Great practice right!? Not so.

Designing homework, like designing good lessons, requires an investment of time and planning. But teacher beware: if you teach students in poverty, as a growing number of us do, homework is particularly tricky. Students in impoverished homes have the potential to benefit the most from homework, yet these students often lack the resources to get it done.

Students from struggling homes often do not have the adult supervision needed to help with homework questions, do not have resources to buy supplies needed for projects, and are often laden with evening childcare responsibilities that make night time homework assignments unreasonable.

Despite these challenges, do not despair! With a little planning and a lot of thought, homework can be an important and fruitful part of your lesson plan.

Getting homework right for students in poverty means providing adequate timing for its completion, limiting the resources needed to complete it, helping students who have questions, pacing the work, ensuring follow-up, and giving generous feedback upon its completion. For teachers to create effective homework, each of these aspects must be considered in design and implementation.

Consider the timing and resource needs of homework assignments. It is often helpful to extend the due date for homework completion so that it spans a weekend. This allows students with limited access to adults during the week to ask questions over the weekend. This is particularly true of students who live in single parent homes where the adult is often too busy or working during the weeknights leaving only a grandparent, sibling, or the student himself in charge of the weekday evening schedule.

Ensuring that the homework assignment spans a weekend, also helps students in homes where custody is shared. Often, and for various reasons, students prefer doing homework with one of their parents. Increasing the time frame to complete assignments improves the chances that they will be able to work with the preferred parent.

Regarding tangible resources, teachers need to be sensitive to family budgets and make sure that homework projects do not require costly supplies but can be done with common household items. This also applies to assignments that require internet access in the home. Students who live in poverty do not have access to this luxury that many of us take for granted.

Consider the amount of assistance a student may need to complete the homework assignment. If it requires that each student have a firm understanding of the math concepts that were recently taught, then it is important that teachers give students a chance to get started on the assignment during class. This will give them the opportunity to make sure they understand the directions as well as ask any questions they have about the skill. Teachers can also build in the necessary scaffolding by providing examples of correct answers and the accompanying math work that is expected.

Students will also benefit from teachers who assist them in pacing homework assignments. Without reminders and encouragement, many students will put off even the largest of assignments until the day before it is due with dismal results.

While allowing a flexible time frame for homework completion is necessary for some students, others will benefit from help breaking homework assignments into manageable parts. If 20 homework problems are assigned on Monday, it can be helpful to require that 5 problems be completed each night.

It is critical that the teacher check for homework completion each day and respond to any questions about the homework. This ensures that the teacher identifies those who need help and clears up any questions. Despite this suggestion, there is only one constant with homework, and that is the need to remain flexible with scheduling.

To improve the chances that students do their homework and benefit from its completion, teachers often play the role of disciplinarian, cheerleader, and advocate. Sadly, students who live in poverty often lack an adult who has time to closely monitor assignments and continually push students to complete them. As a result, they lack the pressure often needed to get work done.

To more teachers can fill this role, the better. Providing these students with generous and positive feedback goes a long way to ensuring the current and future success of assigned homework.

Reality is such that students from impoverished households often lag their wealthier peers in academic performance. For these students it is important to do whatever possible to extend their learning time if we are to “catch them up.” Designing and implementing effective homework is one way to do this. Considering these recommendations in your homework design will go a long way in helping students get ahead and stay there!