If your students are showing a lack of interest in your homework assignments, it may not be your students -- it may be the assignments! Author Nancy Paulu has some advice for teachers who want to make the most out of schoolwork done at home! Included: Three educators share their best ideas for keeping students informed, interested, and on task! Plus links to a handful of school homework policies!
"Homework remains one of the biggest challenges and concerns facing teachers today," author Nancy Paulu told Education World. "Many teachers say they have a hard time creating meaningful and appropriate homework assignments and getting students to complete the assignments successfully."
As a researcher, writer, and editor for the U.S. Department of Education since 1986, Paulu has written many books on education reform. They include Helping Your Child With Homework and Helping Your Student With Homework: A Guide for Teachers. Paulu has a clear view of the teacher's perspective on homework. As a mother of two children, a daughter who is nine and a son who is five, Paulu has firsthand knowledge of the parent's perspective too!
"The challenges are tied partly to the world in which students live," Paulu explained. "Students have more activities and options that compete for their time, such as jobs, sports, and television. Many parents have less time and less energy to monitor assignments. Some teachers report that there's less of a stigma today for students who fail to complete assignments.
"More children today have personal difficulties that are associated with a host of problems in school, including the ability to complete homework successfully," added Paulu. "Those difficulties include troubled or unstable home lives, lack of positive adult role models, and a high rate of mobility found among families who move their children from school to school."
Fortunately, Paulu suggests, teachers can take positive steps to lessen the impact of these influences from outside the school. The first step is to create good assignments that are well matched to the students. She says that this is the best way to increase the likelihood that the assignments will be completed successfully.
Paulu shared with Education World a list of homework tips from her book Helping Your Students With Homework: A Guide for Teachers. (See Homework Tips for Teachers sidebar.) "If teachers regularly follow as many of the homework tips as possible, the assignments will seem more appealing to students," said Paulu.
"Teachers might want to remember too that no one assignment is apt to appeal to every single student in a large class of heterogeneous students," said Paulu. "However, most teachers can provide assignments that vary in style, format, and content. This assures that all students have some assignments that suit and interest them."
Paulu continued, "Teachers can also provide choices. Students may all need to master the same material, but they can do so in different ways. For example, one student might write an essay about the subject; another can create a video. Providing choices helps students feel they control parts of their learning, which enables some to enjoy an assignment more than they would otherwise."
Lyman Goding, principal of Plymouth (Massachusetts) Community Intermediate School, described a homework policy that his school has used for three years: "The Tuesday Sheet is one to two pages of information about projects, assignments, and field trips. Every student receives it once a week, on Tuesday. The parents know to expect this because the school puts out the word at every opportunity."
The school's large size -- 1,235 students in grades five through eight -- adds to the challenge of making students and parents aware of upcoming assignments. The students and teachers belong to "teams." Each team of teachers assembles on Monday to prepare the week's Tuesday Sheet. The sheet often provides tips on how parents can assist their children with schoolwork, such as things to do to help students prepare for a test or ways to start or plan for a long-term assignment. The primary goal of the Tuesday Sheet is to serve as a conversation starter among families, a means to avoid the standard "Nothing" answer to the question "What did you do today?"
According to Goding, staff members love the policy. "The original idea came from some staff members," he said. "They value the sheets highly as a communication tool with parents and families. The sheets help parents really participate in their child's education. For many [staff members], the Tuesday Sheet means not having to rewrite assignments or projects when a student is absent."
The only negative comment Goding has heard came from one student. When asked what he thought about Tuesday Sheets, he said, "I'm not so sure I like them. Now my mother knows too much!"
Rising Starr Middle School in Fayetteville, Georgia, gives its students even more advanced notice of assignments and tests to come. Instead of preparing a weekly handout, the school distributes six-week calendars.
"We send home a calendar at the beginning of the six-week grading period with all major tests and projects listed for all academic subjects," said Sharon Lynch, a seventh-grade language arts teacher at the school. "Parents love this and often express their appreciation. The calendar clearly states due dates and test dates for reference."
Because of the calendar, students know what they will be tested on and when, when projects will be due, and when the six-week grading period begins and ends. Lynch suggests that they are better able to plan extracurricular activities and can never say, "I didn't study because I didn't know we were having a test!"
With the calendar in place, Lynch has adopted a "no exceptions, no excuses" policy. Students are given a 100-point homework grade for the six-week grading period. She checks homework for completion as students are performing a warm-up for the day. If a student does not have a homework assignment, she pencils in an "H" in her grade book. At the end of the grading period, she counts the "H's," deducts five points each, and gets her students' homework grades.
"This system is easy to maintain, allows for the occasional 'busy night at home' for the student, and avoids the never ending excuses for homework not completed," Lynch stated. "Students do not need to explain to me why their homework is not done; they simply have a five-point deduction. I do not allow make-up homework, since the policy is already so lenient. Chronic offenders are easily spotted, and their grades are affected by the low score at the end of term. I have found this to be a hassle-free way to keep a check on homework and allow for extra practice, without stressing everyone out!"
Indifference to the assignment and to the possibility of receiving a failing grade, lack of help at home, apathy toward completing assignments, and laziness -- those are just some of the problems eighth-grade teacher Cindy Shields deals with at Jefferson Middle School, in Columbia, Missouri. She has a unique method of fighting the challenges of student homework.
In her classroom, when students do not have a completed assignment, they must fill out a "task analysis sheet" (TAS). Shields devised her own sheet from one given to her by Victoria Cato at a National Council of Teachers of Mathematics conference. Students must answer the following questions about the assignment:
The students must write their answers in complete sentences, and Shields reads and discusses their responses with them. She feels that this means of dealing with incomplete assignments helps the students become more responsible for their learning. As they fill out the TAS, the students analyze their work habits and consider ways to improve.
"I am able to keep better records on the students' progress," she said. "If the work is not completed due to poor time management, I usually work with the student on improving work habits. If I receive more than two sheets from a student, I contact the parents. If the student is not doing the assignment from a lack of understanding or poor skills, I can use that opportunity to help the student on an individual basis."
One surprising outcome Shields reports is that several students have improved their work habits, solely because they do not like having to complete the questions on the TAS!
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