Homework: Helping Students Manage their Time

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.


Is Homework Helpful?: The 5 Questions Every Teacher Should Ask

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.


Debunking Homework Myths

«Do you have any homework tonight?» I asked my daughter Mercedes.

«No, I don’t have any homework! Yeah!» she exclaimed.

«When is your next test or quiz?» I countered.

«It’s Friday,» she quipped.

«Today is Wednesday, shouldn’t getting ready for the test be your homework?» I questioned.

«That’s not homework. That’s just study,» she responded, as if I didn’t know anything.

«Oh, I get it, homework is not study…it’s…» I conjectured while Mercedes finished my sentence.

«…it’s worksheets and problems at the end of the chapter. Just busywork,» she told me.

It’s an obvious myth that students think homework is for their benefit. I wonder how many other students also view homework as pure busywork, or as something you do just because the teacher assigned it for a grade? With that attitude, a student may think, «It doesn’t matter how I get the homework done, just as long as it is done before the teacher checks it. Right?» This is why on the day the homework is due a group of students can typically be seen frantically huddled over the «smart girl» copying her answers.

This of course applies to students that are motivated by grades. If not motivated by grades, what is the incentive to do homework, for the joy of learning? Hm, let me think — not! I know it wasn’t until I went to college that I understood that I always had homework whether it was assigned or not. I had to review my notes, read the chapters, and prepare for the exams on my own homework schedule.

As a teacher, I became a proponent of homework in my master’s degree program when I learned that by assigning homework, the teacher significantly extends the classroom learning time. I also learned that a teacher should never assign homework on a topic that has not been practiced first in the classroom. It should be focused on one concept and should be difficult enough to challenge a student, but not so difficult that the student feels overwhelmed.

Students need the habit of homework and that every day homework should be graded and feedback should be provided. Those ideas made sense to me at the time because I didn’t really understand the conceptual myths that they engendered.

Myths vs. Reality

It didn’t take too long for me to figure out that were some things about the homework strategies I had learned that were more mythical than real. For example, while daily homework was supposed to be a major part of the learning, the myth was that I typically only made it worth a quarter of the student grade. Additionally, I soon discovered the myth that in assigning homework, the students would be doing the heavy lifting. I realized that giving homework every day was exhausting not only my energy but also my time. I felt a huge burden in grading the 120 workbook papers daily. Another myth that I debunked was that homework would actually save time in the classroom.

Because I assigned homework every day, I felt compelled to take valuable classroom learning time to review the homework, that sometimes took half the class period, or more, leaving little for instruction and practice of new concepts and skills. I justified this investment of time because I wanted to make sure that the students were «getting it» before we moved on. Feeling defrauded about my fervor for homework, I began questioning my original thoughts on homework:

  • Why was I assigning homework?
  • Was I doing it to increase learning or to absolve myself of the responsibility for student learning deficits (the I-taught-them-so-they-should know-it syndrome)?
  • Was assigning all that homework helping the students learn more?
  • What about the students that struggled doing the homework, or the students that simply copied the work from another student, or what about the students that never did the homework?
  • What benefit were they getting from homework?

These were all poignant questions and I was fortunate enough to have experienced mentor teachers who were able to help me answer these questions and shared with me some of their strategies.

Homework: Facing Reality

I had to come to the determination that homework was extended learning time only if the students were inspired enough to want to practice the skills obtained in class. My worksheets were hardly inspiring, so I had to change what I assigned as homework. I heard other teachers, and I still hear teachers, recite this worn out myth, «I don’t assign homework because my students aren’t the kind of students that do homework. Now if I had Mr. Sullivan’s students, I would assign homework because they would do it.»

My answer then and now was, «Then make homework worth doing so they will want to do it.»

A New Approach

I began assigning projects that required the students to apply their learning from class. Instead of filling in the blanks on a worksheet I requested that students find a Spanish speaker and have a discussion with them using what they knew. I asked the students to teach a family member how to introduce themselves in Spanish. I asked them to fill out a family history tree by interviewing family members. I had them reporting on Spanish language movies and television shows they watched at home.

I assigned the task of finding Spanish advertisements, news articles, and personal ads. I had them creating Spanish menus, trip itineraries, and illustrated dictionaries. I assigned groups of students to create reader’s theaters, reenactments of historical events, game shows, detective who-done-it similar to CSI, Spanish class newspapers, fashion shows, sidewalk art, food bazaars, travel agencies, restaurants, and department stores.

I also had to change how I graded the homework assignments. I was savvy enough to know that if the homework was not recorded in some fashion, students would see it as optional and not do it. I also knew I could not sustain the daily grind of 120 papers to grade, dealing with late work, and keeping up with the grade calculations. One of my mentors suggested a method that simplified this for students and for me.

Homework was due at the beginning of class every day. Class started with a warm up sponge activity while I took roll. I asked the students to pull out their homework so I could see it as I walked around the class, recording one of three things on my grade book: full credit if the homework was completed, half credit for not fully completed, zero for less than half completed.

Stamp of Approval: Grading

Students needed to know that I had recorded their work so I stamped their papers with a smiley face if it was completed, a frowning face if it was not completed (I turned the stamp upside down).

Students who had done their work or even tried to do it were insistent that I stamp their completed papers. It took me five minutes to look at the homework and give feedback to every student. To check their understanding, I asked the students to teach their elbow partners what they learned in the homework.

They then traded papers and we quickly went over the correct answers to the homework on the overhead projector, again it took only five minutes. I found that the students liked this system because it was less tedious and provided immediate feedback. I liked it because I had more time to inspire learning and I got an immediate pulse of where my students were in their learning progress and what students needed my attention for that class period.

What about Blended Learning?

As a teacher I have never experienced blended learning; I have observed teachers in schools over which I was the administrator be successful in flipping the classroom and turning homework into the major learning tool. During my time as a high school principal, students all had iPads and some of the teachers set up learning management accounts (LMS) on places like Moodle. They assigned students work and research projects through the LMS and students did the work at home. When they came to class, the teacher would either review what they had done individually, or step up the learning by providing further opportunities to apply their knowledge in group projects.

So, as I understand it, in blended learning at home or wherever they are, students acquire the skills and gained content knowledge, and in class the teachers prepare scenarios, case studies and projects in which the students could apply the skills and content knowledge. This brings me back to the question of what is the purpose of homework. I would say that the purpose of homework is to not only extend classroom learning time, but to create independent and enthused learners.

Whether it is a blended learning environment or a regular classroom, we must make sure our homework is worth doing. What myths about homework have you debunked and what strategies have you discovered to be successful in engaging students in homework? Please share in the comments section below.

In Search Of The Benefit Of Homework

In Search Of The Benefit Of Homework or There Is No Homework In Finland!

by Dawn Casey-Rowe, Social Studies Teacher and Learnist Evangelist

The debate about homework is growing heated in education circles. With more and more demands being placed on teachers, students, and educational leaders, homework can provide valuable practice time for students. It can also be a time of torture where families lose their precious little time to conflict and stress, as the battle of “I don’t want to do my homework” ensues. It’s important to impress upon students the value of getting the work done, but sometimes homework demands are unrealistic, bringing up the question “Is homework productive?”

It has been argued that homework unfairly punishes students who do not have family members available to help them, giving the long-term edge to students with parents who do.  Those on the other side of the divide say that appropriate homework should be for the student alone. If homework is appropriate, family members aren’t necessary, therefore, there is no disadvantage to students–tasks are for student reinforcement alone, because “practice makes perfect.”

As a high school teacher, I must admit, I’m conflicted about this subject. At last year’s EdCampRI, homework was the focus of serious intellectual debate, during which I staunchly defended my right, no, obligation to assign homework, with conditions. My homework is purposeful and flexible; I suggest deadlines in advance, “By Friday, I’d love it if you can read through the cases on the Learnist board “Really Awful Court Cases” because I’d like to discuss the ones you thought were most horrific. Make sure you know these 20 court words, too…I’ll be using them. Put them in your notebook.”  I try to make my homework relevant or interesting enough that students realize it’s going to set them up for something fun. That usually works. But should I be assigning it at all?

That is the inner conflict: What is the benefit of homework?

As a parent dealing with Stubborn Boy, homework became a nightmare. I considered I might have stored bad homework karma in assigning it to my students, and it was now coming back to bite me. At five years old, my son Declan regularly brought home a folder full of papers he didn’t finish at the proper time because he was too busy talking. He’d say, “No, thanks, Mommy. I don’t want to do it. It’s boring,” to which I’d reply, “You’re five. You don’t get to decide what you want to do. That’s the reason I walk this earth.

The battle had begun. One day, in a moment of very bad parenting, I issued a bribe, just to diagnose the problem. “Too bad you don’t want to do your homework. We were going to have an ice cream party after you finished.” That boy ran for a pencil, whipped out the three papers, and completed the rows of problems without a pause. But he refused to draw the required circles for the word problems, calculating them directly instead.

“Remember, you have to draw the circles here.” I said.

“No, Mommy. I don’t do the circles. I don’t need to. I always know the right answer.”  That’s a can of worms I didn’t want to open. I had diagnosed the problem. The problem was the homework was too easy. Should homework differentiate? Entertain? Scaffold? Remediate? Enrich? What is the purpose of homework, anyway?

This week’s Learnist feature is about homework and it’s purpose in the classroom. Does it indeed promote academic success? After all, as Gwen Duralek notes in a learning on her board below, “There is no homework in Finland.”

5 Resources In Search Of The Benefit Of Homework

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1. No Homework!

On this board Gwen Duralek presents the case for no homework. Many people argue that homework is counterproductive and even biased. It’s something I have been considering over the past year or so. More and more demands are placed on teachers, and the temptation to assign work is there, but is it necessary or better yet, productive? This board by a veteran educator soon to be educational leader has some eye-opening learnings.

2. My Case against Homework for Kindergarteners

This is a short board discussing homework for very little students. Is homework age appropriate at the early elementary level? Does it build responsibility and habits for success if it is well-considered?

3. Should I keep Assigning Homework?

This debate is in every teacher’s mind. It is in my mind. Sometimes, I think that homework is helpful, and other times, I see kids struggling or not doing homework, and I wonder if it furthers my goals as a teacher. What, ultimately, is the benefit of homework?

Ομαδικότητα4. 5 Pieces of a Flipped Classroom

Terry Heick shows the flipped classroom. The flipped classroom, by definition, is structured around homework. Teachers assign videos for home, and students discuss, differentiate, or receive help in class with their valuable teacher time. Many people have found this very helpful, but is it another manifestation of homework? (Editor’s Note: Hey, I heard that.)

5. Real Talk about the Flipped Classroom

Some of the debate about the flipped classroom is around the homework issue. This board contains “real talk” about that issue.  Students can be grouped and given opportunities to do the work at another time if they don’t tend to do homework. Students might be invested in the assignments if they are given a task or question to answer. Students might be grouped and peer-taught in the event that some students haven’t watched the videos or completed their end of the flipped lesson.

Even for teachers not completely flipping, this provides some great thinking about the student responsibility end of encouraging them to complete assignments in a timely manner.

In Search Of The Benefit Of Homework –.