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Build Flexibility Into Your Homework Policy

EducationWorld is pleased to present this professional development resource shared by Dr. Jane Bluestein, an expert in relationship-building, positive school climate and effective instruction.

Any teacher who has ever given out homework has certainly encountered a student the next day saying, “I don’t have my assignment.” Whether pitiful or indifferent, this admission often places us in the unfortunate position of asking why, which puts us in the even more unfortunate position of having to determine whether the student’s excuse is creative (or pathetic) enough to warrant an extension or excusal (or, perhaps just as often, a lecture or punishment).

It took me a woefully long time to break the habit of asking “why,” and it might not have happened unless one of my students told me that a tornado had taken his paper out of his lunchbox! Regardless of your feelings about the value of homework (or its lack thereof), should you decide to give homework, it will be worth your while to develop a policy that eliminates excuses and minimizes stress to you and your students.

A few things to keep in mind:

  • Consider the value of the homework you give and make sure that intentions go beyond simply wanting them to practice or be prepared for the next lesson. Keep in mind the importance of engaging (and maintaining) a love of learning and a curiosity about life and the world beyond the subject itself. Some of the best types of homework assignments are those that help the students apply what they are learning, or challenge them within the range of their actual abilities and resources.
  • Keep drillwork to a minimum. If doing five problems will adequately strengthen and reinforce a particular skill, why assign 20?
  • Keep tabs on how your students are doing with a particular skill. To whatever degree possible, match assignments to student needs and abilities. If I can’t do long division problems in class, how successful am I likely to be doing a page of them after school?
  • Be realistic about the amount of time your assignments will require. Many researchers recommend about 10 minutes per grade level per night—total! If you’re only one of your students’ teachers, remember that other teachers’ assignments will be competing for their time.
  • Offer students choices to engage their autonomy and individual learning preferences. Allow students to pick a certain number of problems on a particular page, for example, or to choose between the problems on two different pages. Some students will be perfectly happy writing spelling words a certain number of times each; others will learn better by using the same words in a story or puzzle.
  • Because students can indeed have a bad night, rather than relying on excuses, build some flexibility into your policy, right up front. You might want to run your idea by an administrator or department chair, and ask parents to sign off as well. You’ll get a lot farther with their support. (And parents will appreciate not having to write excuses.)

Here are some of the policies other teachers have shared with me. Try using these strategies to build flexibility into your homework policies and avoid having to ask for (or deal with) excuses:

  • Requesting that a certain percentage of assignments be turned in on time: “You are responsible for 37 out of 40 of the assignments you’ll be getting this semester.” BONUS: Giving extra credit for any of the extras that are turned in, even if late!
  • Giving some token for one free “excuse” which does not need any explanation for its use: “Here is a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card, which you can use if you forget your homework any time during the semester.” BONUS: Not requiring kids to actually SHOW the card to get off the hook.
  • Giving kids a break after a certain number of assignments are completed: “If you turn in completed homework 10 days in a row, you can have the next night off (or you can do the work for extra credit).”
  • Having a specific date for assignments to be turned in. (Similar to deadlines used in many college classes, this strategy may work best for specific assignments or projects, or with advanced-level classes and self-managing kids.) “As long as you get your homework in two weeks before the end of the grading period, you’ll get credit for it.”
  • Not counting one or more missed assignments, or the lowest score on a series of assignments or quizzes—for example: “You can drop your lowest grade each semester.”
  • Extending daily deadlines beyond the end of class, giving kids until the end of the following day to turn in work: “You have until the 3:30 bell tomorrow to turn in this assignment.”
  • Getting away from using punishments, penalties, or other negative consequences for not doing homework and offering positive outcomes instead. One school saw a change in students’ attitudes about homework—and a big shift in the amount of work being turned in—by simply shifting from giving a minus when the work wasn’t done to giving a plus when it was.
  • Not requiring homework at all but instead, giving extra credit for any that is turned in. (One teacher increased his percentage from 10% to 85% of assignments completed, simply by using this strategy.)

Discussions about homework can become pretty heated, and both pros and cons are worth considering. I do believe there is a way to find some balance and sanity, a way to accommodate kids’ needs for free time and skill practice. Let’s do our homework to find out what the research says and bring mindfulness—of the demands on kids’ lives and time, as well as their future academic needs—to the choices we make about this important issue.

Related resources

Help for Homework Hassles
Homework: A Place for Rousing Reform
Special Theme Page: Homework

Also from Dr. Bluestein:
Is Your School Emotionally Safe?
Accommodating Student Sensory Differences
Tips for Positive Teacher-Parent Interaction
The Art of Setting Boundaries
The Beauty of Losing Control
Stressful Student Experiences: What Not to Do

About Dr. Bluestein

Dr. Jane Bluestein is a speaker, trainer and specialist in programs and resources related to relationship building, effective instruction and personal development.

She is an award-winning author whose books include Creating Emotionally Safe Schools, High School’s Not Forever, 21st Century Discipline, The Win-Win Classroom and many others. In addition, she has appeared on CNN, National Public Radio and "The Oprah Winfrey Show."

Dr. Bluestein, formerly a classroom teacher, crisis-intervention counselor and teacher training program coordinator, currently heads Instructional Support Services, Inc., a consulting and resource firm in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Visit her Web site to access free resources, order books, read her blog and more.

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