To assign homework or not to assign homework? To grade homework or not to grade homework? Educators, parents, students—they all have an opinion. So, what is the value of homework and should it be graded?

Giving Feedback

Cathy Vatterott

When you ask teachers about the value of homework, they often say it teaches responsibility—to complete the task you’ve been given and return it on time. That may encourage obedience and responsibility for working, but the more important purpose is to encourage students to take responsibility for learning. When properly designed, homework encourages students to self-evaluate and reflect on their learning. “What do I know and how well do I know it? What am I confused about?”

For the teacher, whether homework is for practice, to check for understanding, or for application, homework is feedback about learning. Homework allows teachers to assess student understanding, diagnose problems, and prescribe remedies. Homework creates a private conversation between the student and the teacher. But students will only have that conversation if there is no shame or penalty for not understanding. “I didn’t do it—it was a stupid assignment” often means “I couldn’t do it—it made me feel stupid.” Struggling students would gladly take the zero. Then the question becomes: “Why grade homework?”

The most common reply is “If I don’t grade it, they won’t do it.” But teachers can wean students off their addiction to points. The other common reply is “Homework grades help poor test takers.” But a passing grade is no gift to a student who goes on to advanced classes without mastering prerequisite skills. A better solution is to rethink the test and create alternatives.

The current consensus is that homework is formative assessment that informs the summative assessments. Does it “count”? Yes, because it helps you pass the assessment. Should homework be graded? No. Should homework receive feedback? Absolutely!

Teachers who don’t grade homework still monitor completion of assignments and communicate with parents about missing work. They just don’t count it as part of the student’s grade.

Coaches don’t keep score during practice, but they do give lots of individualized feedback and they do require their athletes to practice.

Cathy Vatterott is professor of education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. vatterott@umsl.edu www.homeworklady.com

Removing Pressure

Lee Jenkins

First, the premises:

  • Homework is a method; it is not a subject.
  • No method works on 100% of the students.
  • Homework is good for some students, but not all.
  • The issue is not whether you complete your homework, but whether you learn the content.
  • Homework refers to daily assignments, not to long-term projects.

Next, the problems:

  • Teachers say that most homework in secondary schools
  • is copied.
  • Teachers often do not have adequate time to prepare lesson plans because they are grading homework.
  • Almost all classrooms have students who score an “A” on exams and are given a lower grade because they did not use the preferred method (homework) to learn the content.

Now the possibility:

  • Assign homework.
  • Do not collect it.
  • Give a 2–5 item homework quiz, selecting some of the problems verbatim from the homework. Roll dice to see which questions to use.
  • Grade the homework quiz.

Pressure removed. This simple possibility, which John MacDonald of Mayo High School in Rochester, Minnesota, shared with me, has greatly reduced the pressure for grading homework and the pressure for doing it in many classrooms across the United States. The homework quiz measures what is in the students’ heads and not what they copied or was completed by their parents. The quiz can be graded quickly, relieving the pressure on teachers for so much paperwork.

Almost all kindergarten students love school. After kindergarten, fewer and fewer students love school until we reach the low point of 39% in grade 9.

Our job as educators is not to motivate students; they come already motivated. Our job is to find out why two-thirds of the students don’t want to be there anymore and stop trying. Traditional homework practice is one of the major contributors of dislike or even disdain for school. How do we expect to have high standards and high success rates when two-thirds of the students have lost their kindergarten level of motivation?

Lee Jenkins, education consultant, is author of Permission to Forget: And Nine Other Root Causes of America’s Frustration with Education lee@lbellj.com www.lbellj.com

Making Meaning

Larry Sandomir

There are many reasonable arguments against homework: Students are in school long enough. They need time to explore different parts of their lives after school. They need to rest, relax, and socialize. They need time to just be ridiculous and do things kids do when they can control their own time, just for a little while. Homework is often an exercise in repetition and boredom.

All true. So why give it?

For me, the question is not whether to give homework, but rather what kind, why, and when. Homework matters if it deepens and expands a student’s understanding of and appreciation for a particular subject. It matters if it helps a student better balance his or her life in terms of time management and sense of proportion. It matters if it gives a student an understanding of how to set priorities. It matters if, despite the challenge of time, it means something to the person doing it.

In my progressive environment, homework helps give students ownership of the material and allows them to personalize it. It asks them to apply the concepts to other parts of their lives. They make the meaning rather than answer teacher-directed questions. The homework sometimes is generated spontaneously from what’s happening in a given class. The class sparks an idea that’s worth considering, and the students give it shape while the teacher provides the foundation.

If I want my students to love words and their power, what I ask them to do must engage and invest them. There must be a purpose they can see. They should want to discuss what they are doing with their parents because it makes them think, wonder, get excited, or even struggle.

There must be flexible due dates. The fastest work is not the best work and students are more motivated to do well if they believe the teacher is sensitive to their outside lives or that to do their best, they might need an extra few days. Then students don’t mind evaluation.

I try to create a learning process rather than unnecessary learning tension.

Larry Sandomir is a middle school teacher at The Calhoun School in New York City. lawrence.sandomir@calhoun.org

Originally published in AMLE Magazine, September 2013.