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Learning Curve

Reimagining homework assignments

New York Teacher
Reimagining homework assignments
Illustration by Olivia Singler

Homework has been a subject of debate among educators for years. How often should we assign it? How much homework should we give? How much should we weigh homework when we calculate grades? Or should we even assign homework at all?

This debate resurged after remote teaching during the pandemic created new awareness of our students’ home environments. Many students don’t have a quiet place to work uninterrupted. Tools and supplies to complete work may not be readily available. Homework help may not be possible when parents are busy, unfamiliar with the subject matter or both.

“Inherent in the old paradigm are the assumptions that all students can do the work (not all of them can), that all students have the time to do the work (not all of them do) and that students should take as much time as necessary to do the work (not all of them will),” said Cathy Vanderott, professor emeritus of education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, in her book “Rethinking Homework.”

Most of us have internalized beliefs about homework. Homework increases student achievement. Practicing skills at home leads to greater comprehension. Assigning a lot of homework is a sign of rigor. Homework teaches kids about responsibility. And of course, good students do their homework.

The problem is that most of those notions are not supported by research, according to Alfie Kohn, author of “The Homework Myth.”

The adverse effects of homework have been widely reported. Parents repeatedly cite homework as a source of family conflict. Homework can limit extracurricular activities and interfere with sleep. Penalizing students for incorrect, missing or late homework can lower their grades, affecting class placements and even college admissions.

For struggling students, homework can reinforce negative self-conceptions. “Every unpleasant adjective that could be attached to homework — time-consuming, disruptive, stressful, demoralizing — applies with greater force in the case of kids for whom academic learning doesn’t come easily,” said Kohn.

Homework can even have a detrimental effect on students’ love of learning — the very thing teachers most want to instill in the next generation. “Let’s face it: Most children dread homework, or at best see it as something to be gotten through,” said Kohn. “Even if it did improve their skills, that would have to be weighed against its likely effect on how they come to regard learning, their intrinsic motivation to read and think and explore ideas.”

So what’s a concerned educator to do?

Christine Hanley, a field liaison for the UFT Teacher Center, suggests beginning by determining the purpose of the homework you give. “As educators, we must begin with a goal in mind,” she said. “Why am I assigning homework? What information will it provide to help support students? Homework assignments should be purposeful and accessible to all students.”

Homework assignments, Hanley said, should be feasible for diverse learners. Offering homework options to students can be one solution. “Choice within a homework assignment can be manageable for educators and provide students with a meaningful learning opportunity,” she said.

Hanley also suggests assigning shorter tasks, such as a practice set of two or three math problems, alongside reflective questions or sentence stems that ignite higher-order thinking and self-reflection. “We acknowledge students’ individual needs and tell them their voice is pivotal to their learning,” she said of this approach. “We invite students to monitor their progress, identify their strengths and areas in need of support, and devise a plan for learning that promotes personal growth.”

Teachers of classes that culminate in Advanced Placement or Regents exams often assign homework to ensure students are prepared. XueQing Liang, a chemistry teacher at New Utrecht HS in Brooklyn, has created a model to maintain an ongoing in-class/at-home continuum with added flexibility. In class, her students create notes that directly align with their homework tasks. If students get behind because of absences or don’t complete homework, they can use learning materials she posts on Google Classroom and work on the assignment in class. The goal, no matter where the work occurs, is that “students are practicing their skills and learning the content to meet the Regents standards,” she explained.

Jason Petsch and his fellow math teachers at Jonas Bronck Academy in the Bronx successfully found a way to re-envision how they assign homework in their classes. “We agreed that practicing skills helped students develop fluency,” he said, “but we lobbied our administration to set aside instructional time during the day for math ‘seminar’ periods that would serve the purpose of providing students the necessary time to develop fluency through practice within the confines of the school day.”

Teachers were more able to assist students who needed help and provide immediate feedback. It averted the problem, he said, of a student at home “practicing a skill incorrectly, further reinforcing misconceptions.”

In math classes at Jonas Bronck Academy, students collaboratively work on problem sets, and at home, students answer reflection questions to reinforce their learning. “There’s a great deal of value in using homework as a time for students to reflect on their learning from that day’s class,” Petsch said.

He said the new model “has built in a culture of mutual responsibility for everyone’s learning and significantly more support structures for students with learning differences.”

In “Rethinking Homework,” Vanderott says that homework’s negative effects can be minimized by moving away from grading and toward feedback. “Grades are not necessary for learning to take place,” she wrote. In fact, they “often get in the way of learning, demotivate students and create power struggles.”

Instead, she recommends strategies like giving credit only for homework completion, limiting the percentage that homework is factored into a class grade, accepting late work with few points subtracted, extending due dates and even considering homework only as extra credit.

“Remember that the goal is learning, not control or compliance,” she noted.

The flipped classroom model can be a potential solution, too. In a classroom that has been flipped, students are introduced to new material at home, usually through short videos. Then once back in the classroom, students can be given differentiated assignments and collaborate to complete tasks while teachers can work with students one-on-one and more authentically assess their progress. It’s not surprising that there are better rates of homework completion in flipped classrooms.

Wherever we stand on homework, reflecting on the assignments we give and how they can affect our students is a bit of homework we all can complete.

Related Topics: High Schools, Pedagogy