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Getting the Most Out of Homework


When teachers know how homework fits in with their lessons and students understand the purpose of assignments, homework is more productive and helpful for everyone. A consultant talks about how to make homework more meaningful. Included: Tips for assigning, evaluating homework.

When students -- and teachers -- clearly understand homework's role in learning, everyone benefits, according to Salle Quackenboss, a principal consultant at McREL (Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning), a private, nonprofit organization "dedicated to improving education for all through applied research, product development, and service." Quackenboss talked with Education World about strategies for presenting, assigning, and evaluating homework.

"When homework is used as an extended learning opportunity, it helps students become more successful in school," says Salle Quackenboss, a principal consultant at McREL.

Education World: What are the three most important things teachers should keep in mind when assigning homework?

Salle Quackenboss: First, homework helps students deepen their understanding of the content they are studying. Second, it can effectively extend student learning beyond the confines of the classroom and the parameters of the school day. Third, the purpose of homework is to review, practice, and prepare for new learning.

EW:Why do you think students need to understand the reasons for the homework?

Quackenboss: Students should understand that homework is not just "busy work" -- rather, they should see that homework helps them become better learners by giving them opportunities to practice, review, and prepare for new learning. When homework is used as an extended learning opportunity, it helps students become more successful in school.

EW: What is your view of homework assigned over the summer?

Quackenboss: Homework assignments should be aligned with best practices -- they should have a clear purpose, intended outcomes, and be responded to in a timely manner. If teachers can assign summer homework that follows these best practices, then doing so can provide effective extended learning opportunities for students.

EW: What are some ways teachers can give students feedback about homework when they don't have time to write detailed notes on each paper?

Quackenboss: Teachers can provide effective feedback on homework in a variety of ways.

  • At the beginning of a class period, teachers can spend a few minutes telling students the answers to homework assignments.
  • Teachers can discuss and explain the answers.
  • They can assign "learning buddies" to provide peer feedback on homework.
  • Teachers can spot check homework assignments and provide verbal feedback to the whole class on some of the patterns of errors they are seeing.

EW: What are some strategies teachers can use to help students learn to adapt or shape skills in the areas of math and reading?

Quackenboss: First, teachers need to clearly explain the new skill they want to students to acquire (i.e., walking them through each step in the skill) and then model how to use this skill. Second, teachers should provide timely and explicit feedback based on clearly defined criteria as they move students toward perfect practice. Third, teachers should assign mass and distributed practice to help students internalize the strategies and skills.

EW: So when you say that the most significant gains are made in the first initial practices and then smaller gains in the following ones, how does that impact how teachers assign homework?

Quackenboss: Homework provides students with the frequent practice and timely feedback they need to learn a new strategy or skill. When they are in the early stages of learning a new skill, such as long division, they need mass practice (e.g., daily homework assignments) to shape and internalize this skill. Once they have mastered it, teachers should assign some follow-up homework over time to help them maintain this skill, but no longer need to assign as much or as frequent homework around this skill.

This e-interview with Salle Quackenboss is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.