Not giving up on homework yet

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When I first started teaching in 1994, assigning homework was a no-brainer. It was part of the Madeline Hunter model — “independent practice” — and part of preparing high school students for independent learning in college.

It’s also how I was taught. In high school in the ’80s, I spent hours each night doing math problems, reading literature, writing up lab reports and doing whatever else my teachers had cooked up.

I always had homework, and I can’t say I liked it — but I didn’t really question it.

Fast-forward to 2018, and homework is no longer as popular or universally accepted. In fact, it’s under assault from many directions as “pointless,” “anxiety-provoking,” “inequitable” and “an infringement on family time.”

Some school districts are even banning homework (although most of the extreme efforts are focused on elementary classrooms).

Yet, the most comprehensive study (from 2006) found a positive correlation between homework and student achievement. And my anecdotal classroom observations suggest that high school students do, in fact, learn from the effort they put in at home.

How else to explain that my “Hybrid” AP Microeconomics students can succeed on the AP test (and intermediate college classes), when 80% of their learning is literally homework?

I can’t really wrap my head around the idea that homework isn’t beneficial, but I’m trying to keep an open mind.

The three major critiques I’ve heard about homework during this school year are:

1 – Homework is contributing to a growing epidemic of stress, anxiety and depression among high school students.

2 – Homework worsens the achievement gap, since disadvantaged students are more often unable to complete homework, thus falling further behind.

3 – Homework is not effective practice, because the gap between learning the material and doing homework is too long. (See last week’s post on forgetting.)

These are all potential concerns, enough to make me rethink homework. So let’s look a little more closely at each one.

#1 (stress) may be true, but I have not seen enough evidence that homework is a major factor causing higher stress levels. (See my previous post on mental health.) Brookings Institute research shows that high school students today aren’t doing any more homework than earlier generations did — and the average amount is just one hour per night. A massive survey of college freshmen found they spent more time socializing, playing sports and working during high school than doing homework. And let’s not even talk about the time they spend on phones and social media.

#2 (equity) is almost certainly true, but it’s evidence for both sides. The reason homework worsens the achievement gap is because it helps the kids who do it learn more. This is a thorny issue. We need to provide equitable opportunities to students, but if our efforts cause all students to learn less, that doesn’t seem right. It also doesn’t seem like a good idea, when we face global competition. We need a more nuanced solution than just “no homework.”

#3 (forgetting) is certainly true for some students, especially those who do not take notes. If I introduce a concept like “supply shifters” in class and assign practice problems, but some students have already forgotten the shifters eight hours later, then it’s not really effective practice. Still, research on learning shows that the more times you retrieve new information, the stronger connections your brain builds (see Make it Stick). So we really should be giving our students multiple opportunities to review and apply new material in a day.

So what should we do? What kind of guidance is there? 

I don’t think the answer is to ban homework, or even to place arbitrary time limits on it in high school. (If students procrastinate, which most do, some nights it is going to pile up.)

I think the answer is to think deeply about what we are asking students to do outside of class and be careful that we’re not piling on busy work, just to make ourselves feel “rigorous.” We need homework assignments (like lessons) that are thoughtful, engaging and manageable — and that actually help students meet our goals for them.

A few challenging (but not impossible) problems, a written reflection on the day’s learning/activities, a video introducing a new topic, a step in the process of a larger project, a review of new vocabulary words — these all seem like worthwhile uses of students’ time at home.

So I’m going to go into the new semester next week continuing to assign homework — but being more mindful of not overwhelming my students or wasting their time. I suspect the benefits will continue to outweigh the costs.

Follow me on Twitter @MarthaSRush

Beat Boredom now available for purchase on Amazon.

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