This is the second of two parts. Part one can be found here: Is Homework Helpful?: The 5 Questions Every Teacher Should Ask.
Teachers assign work each and every day, either in class or for homework. That is the easy part. Put it on the board, tell students to copy it down, and move on to the next item on the day’s agenda. But why don’t teachers help students figure out how much time to allot to assignments? How do students know if an assignment should take 10 minutes or 40?
It is a blind spot in my own teaching. I never realized until lately that I wasn’t supporting students with time management skills. I wasn’t developing their ability to assess an assignment and correctly evaluate how much time it should take.
Why is this important? With good time management, students know how much time they have, how long it will take to get assignments done, and what they can accomplish in the time they have. This gives them more breathing room, which reduces the feeling of being rushed, which in turn leads to less frustration and stress.
Here are two ways to support students in understanding time management.
Do the assignment yourself — See how long it takes you to complete the work. Then remember, you are the expert with this material. Ask yourself, how long would it take for a proficient student to complete it? What about students with disabilities, what might hinder their progress? Then provide students with a range of times. If you believe an assignment should take 15-25 minutes, let them know. The benefit of this is that it allows students to plan better. They can situate homework in the context of their entire day. A student may get home from school at 3:30 and has soccer practice at 5pm. He now knows that he can complete your homework in any 25-minute window between the end of the school day and the start of practice. The downside to this is that some students may lose confidence and doubt themselves if an assignment takes much longer than you suggested.
Rate the assignment — Classify assignments into three categories with time frames for each so that students know what type it is and how long it should take to complete. Here are three ways that I categorize assignments:
Quick checks — These assignments are measuring sticks of understanding and they are short and sweet. I expect students to spend 20-50 seconds on each question on these types of assignments. A 20-question quick check should take 6-10 minutes.
Thorough Responses — When you want answer with more substance and more development, I look for thorough responses. These types of assignments are different than quick checks because I expect students to spend 2-4 minutes per question. Thorough responses typically have fewer questions consequently.Thorough response assignments take my students 20-35 minutes.
Sustained Thought — When students must access new material, when there is challenging reading, or when they must chew on ideas before they formulate responses, students can expect to spend 30-40 minutes to complete an assignment.
The Common Core has asked teachers to increase rigor by diving deeper into the material. Consequently, everything has been ramped up, classwork and homework no exception.
My nephew, a fourth grader, has 40-50 minutes of homework a night plus independent reading and projects. When you include a snack break, the distractions from his younger sister, and his fourth-grade attention span that is bound to wander, that time often gets doubled. He is hard working and conscientious, but many nights result in distraction, frustration and anxiety.
The National PTA recommends 10-20 minutes per night in the first grade, and an additional 10 minutes per grade level thereafter (e.g., 20 minutes for second grade, 120 minutes for 12th). If you follow these guidelines, students will spend 137,160 minutes doing homework from first grade to 12th grade. That equals 2,286 hours or 95 straight days of homework.
Yet, high school students in Finland rarely get more than a half-hour of homework a night. It, as a country, allows children to engage in more creative play at home. This is significant because its students scored remarkably well on international test scores. It has many parents and education advocates in America questioning our practices.
So, are we misguided with all this work? To answer that, one must step back and question the value of assignments. How often should they be assigned? Where is the line between too much and too little? Here are five considerations to help you determine what to assign and why.
1. How long will it take to complete?
There are no surefire guidelines or golden rules that say how long students should work, especially since they progress at different speeds. Assignments need to lead to better learning outcomes. To achieve this, one must balance efficiency and effectiveness. The more efficient the assignment, the more material and learning that can be covered over the course of a year.
Yet, here’s the rub. It must not be so quick that the material is not mastered, nor so long to provoke boredom. In between there is a sweet spot that everyone should seek.
2. Have all learners been considered?
Often, teachers make assumptions about the time it takes to complete an assignment based on the middle-of-the-pack kid. Yet, struggling learners can take double or triple the time as other students to complete an assignment. Don’t just think about the average learner, consider the needs of al students.
3. Will an assignment encourage future success?
A longer assignment can be justified if it is meaningful. Work that builds confidence and opens the door to future success is certainly worth it. Worthy assignments encourage participation in upcoming activities rather than discourage it. Teachers must explain the benefit of classwork and homework so that students will be sold on its benefit. Without the sales pitch, or the awareness of its purpose, students will view assignments as busy work.
4. Will an assignment place the material in a context the classroom can not?
Homework is effective when classroom learning is transferred beyond the school walls. When teaching area, have students measure the area of a refrigerator shelf to determine what size sheet cake will fit for an upcoming party. When teaching the types of clouds, have students observe them in their own back yard. Make the learning applicable to everyday life, and it will be worth the time it takes to complete.
5. Does an assignment offer support when a teacher is not there?
Students can reduce the time it takes to complete assignments if they know where to turn for help. In the case of homework teachers are not there at all. Assignments should not only check for understanding, they should also offer support when students struggle. Teachers should provide links to online tutorials, like Khan Academy, that offer instruction when stuck.
This post is the first of two parts. The second part can be found here: Homework: Helping Students Manage their Time.