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Three Ways to Make Homework More Effective

EducationWorld is pleased to present this article by Jamar Ramos. A writer of poetry and fiction, Ramos also produced blog posts for CBSSports.com and has contributed to a number of Web sites, including TeacherPortal.com.

Students run around the playground at recess, laughing, playing games and having fun with each other. But in the back of their minds is a haunting menace that can put a damper on even the most definitive kickball victory. What is this looming cloud?

Homework.

Homework should reinforce classroom learning, but not all assignments are effective. Expert Cathy Vatterott notes that poorly designed homework disproportionately causes students who are “academically or situationally challenged” to fail. The sad irony, then, is that homework meant to raise achievement often can end up lowering it.

Accordingly, Mind/Shift blogger Annie Murphy Paul points out that while the amount of homework assigned to students has grown over the last 30 years, our academic rankings compared to other countries are middling at best.

So how can we make homework more effective? The strategies recommended by experts may surprise you. Give repeated assignments on a topic, even after you’ve finished teaching the relevant unit of study? Make homework more like taking a traditional test, or even listening to an in-class lecture? According to research findings, the answer is "yes."

Try these three unusual-sounding but effective strategies:


Spaced repetition

Typically a teacher presents an entire lesson, students take notes and complete class work, and then they do homework to reinforce learning. Once the lesson is over, the student may not need the information again until an exam.

With spaced repetition, educators present shorter segments on multiple topics, and these topics are then repeated over time. For example, a teacher speaking about the Industrial Revolution would not move on from it permanently.

A few weeks later, she might assign homework that asks kids what they remember about the Revolution and how they can apply that knowledge to better understand trends in contemporary manufacturing. Later in the school year, the teacher might give another assignment that requires students to complete a Venn diagram comparing the Industrial Revolution to a revolution from a different period of history.


Retrieval practice

Teachers commonly use exams only in a summative fashion, as a way to assess achievement. If students don’t perform well on tests due to anxiety or other factors, it may obscure the fact that they actually understand the material.

With retrieval practice, students do not study notes or “cram” in preparation for a single high-stakes test. Instead, they do frequent self-assessment to give themselves multiple opportunities to retrieve the information from memory. Every time kids pull up a memory, that memory actually gets stronger.

Try designing homework assignments that focus less on information input and more on getting students to pull that information out of their brains. For example, ask kids to complete an online quiz, identify areas in which they scored lowest, and create a plan to give themselves more practice in those areas. Or have students write quiz questions, post them on a class social media platform, and answer them as a group.
 

Flipping the classroom

The flipped classroom redefines the very concept of homework—instead of traditional paper-and-pencil tasks, assignments involve video lectures that students view at home as many times as they choose. This can help them digest difficult concepts, since they won’t need to rely simply on lecture notes hastily taken in class.

With class time freed up, students have greater opportunity to ask the teacher questions and participate in hands-on and collaborative work that reinforces learning. Kids who are behind in a class or who need differentiated activities also will have a better chance of getting the help they need.

While it’s too soon to tell whether flipping results in measurable gains in student achievement, early anecdotal evidence is promising.


Checklist for good homework assignments

In addition to the above strategies, researchers have identified additional general best practices when it comes to making homework count.

Good assignments:

  • Are given not simply as a matter of routine, but only when there is a clear purpose for enhancing student learning.
     
  • Are engaging and not simply “busywork.”
     
  • Give students the opportunity to make choices and use creativity (for example: figure out the best ways for you to learn the multiplication tables and come back and share with the class).
     
  • Offer adequate feedback on what students have mastered, and what they still need to practice. Web-based platforms offer an easy way for kids to get instant feedback. For traditional assignments, set aside class time for students to correct, discuss and reflect upon their homework answers.
     
  • Are differentiated to meet individual students’ learning needs (for example, not every student needs to do the same number or type of math problems).
     
  • (With the exception of flipped-classroom videos) clearly relate to material already taught in class.
     
  • Are explained thoroughly (in terms of directions and expectations) before students leave class.

 

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