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Homework Lady: Assignments Shouldn’t Waste Students' Time

To get the scoop on making homework count, EducationWorld interviewed Cathy Vatterott of the University of Missouri-St. Louis, author of Rethinking Homework: Best Practices That Support Diverse Needs. Vatterott created the Web site to provide teachers, school administrators and parents with research-based information about homework. The site encourages the user to re-examine firmly ingrained beliefs about the inherent “goodness” of homework and the idea that excessive homework is the sign of a rigorous education.


EW:  How much do students really learn/gain from “traditional” homework assignments?

Vatterott:  It really depends on the students and their learning style. If your math teacher says do every other problem on this page and the student understands the work from class, then he'll be fine. If he doesn't, he'll be more lost than before.

Not everyone learns the same way. The research is not that positive on the benefits of homework for that reason. That doesn't mean homework can’t work, but 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 she fails 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.”


EW:  What are some characteristics of homework assignments that students actually want to do?

Vatterott:  I've come up with four things that make up a quality task.

  • First, it has a clear academic purpose and is not “busy work.”
  • Second, it's customized to promote ownership; kids have some choice in what they’re going to do. 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. Give them a choice as to writing a summary or drawing a summary. Ask them to tell the three most important things about what they read. Here’s a math example: Figure out 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.
  • Third, the assignment is doable and should make kids feel smarter, not dumber. Kids won't do work that's frustrating.
  • Fourth and final, homework should be aesthetically pleasing. If it's not well organized or looks cluttered and boring, it is not good. I think it has to pass the “stranger test.” If a parent can't figure out the instructions, how can the student?


EW:  What are some things every teacher can do to make homework better?

Vatterott:  Homework is not supposed to be new learning. It's to reinforce what students learned in class. Don't ask kids to learn something new at home. Teachers are so pressured by standardized tests and may feel that if they can’t cover everything in class, they need to send it home. The quality of that learning at home, however, is greatly inferior to that which is learned with a teacher.     


EW:  It seems every year there are new statistics about how many hours of homework a student should have. Shouldn't it be more about the type or quality of homework rather than the amount?

Vatterott:  I think it’s more about the type. You can spend a lot of time that doesn't help the learning and it won't make a difference. Teachers may need help in that area if they don't know what quality homework looks like. Schools are reexamining their homework, but we've only really started this process. Teacher training programs also need to address this issue.


Related resources

Lesson Plan Booster: How Can We Improve Homework?
Re-Thinking Homework
Put an End to Homework Horror
Students Rule With 'Design Your Own Homework'
Got Questions? Ask the Homework Lady


Article by Jason Tomaszewski, EducationWorld Associate Editor
Education World
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