For many students, “homework” equals “tedious.” Some educators are stepping up to change that perception and redefine the role homework plays in the educational process.
One such educator is Dr. Cathy Vatterott, Associate Professor of Education at the University of Missouri – St. Louis and the author of Rethinking Homework: Best Practices That Support Diverse Needs. She believes that the problem with homework begins with the fact that it is almost always a singular task assigned to a group of students who all learn differently.
“Not everyone learns the same way,” Vatterott said. “The research is not that positive on the benefits of homework for that reason. That doesn't mean homework doesn't work, but it doesn't contribute to learning. There is a lot of bad homework out there. If you tell a kid to go home and read something without any structure as to what to look for, and they fail the test on that reading, it is because there was no instruction as to what the teacher wanted from that reading.”
“Kids should be told why they get the assignment, not just 'do it,'” Vatterott said. “They need that extra layer of what the teacher is looking for. You can't just tell a class to read these two chapters, or do these 15 problems without context.”
Apart from giving the students more “why” with respect to homework, Vatterott also advocates for giving them a say regarding the “what.”
“Rather than have a quiz about a reading selection to see if the kids did read it, ask them to summarize each section and react to the reading,” she said. “Give them a choice as to writing a summary, or drawing a summary. Ask them to tell me the three most important things about what they read. Figure out what are the best ways for you to learn the multiplication tables and come back and share with the class. Let the kids be active in the assignment, not dictated to.”
Caitlin Moore, a social studies teacher at Excel Academy Charter School in East Boston, offers additional tips. She described her experience teaching ninth-graders, most of whom had never left their state. Using a K-W-L activity format, she asked students to brainstorm what they knew about the continent (K) and what they wanted to know (W), ultimately planning to probe what they'd learned (L).”
Moore's KWL technique incorporates another aspect many feel is missing from homework: follow up.
“When you give kids a test, look at how they do and correlate that with how many homework assignments they had for that topic,” Vatterott said. “Do some analysis as to whether the homework is effective. If you gave 10 homework assignments and a student got a 65 on the test, perhaps the homework wasn't very effective. Also, if the homework is never gone over in class, then there is a disconnect, which makes it seem like it’s unimportant.”
Vatterott points out that teacher training often doesn’t specifically equip teachers to identify effective homework assignments. With cautious optimism, she added, “Schools are re-examining their homework, but we've really only started this process.”