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Teaching Strategies: Alternatives to Traditional Homework

Jordan Catapano

A math instructor was using teachings strategies to introduce her class to the joy of statistical analysis. But instead of teaching strategies like presenting a dry formula and then giving dozens of sample problems for students to apply the formula on, she gave a little twist: She shared three carnival games and asked students to figure out which game gave them the best odds of winning. She asked, “If you had to choose one game to play, which one would you choose based on your application of this math?”

The students were all in, figuring out where they would get the most bang for their buck and using math to support decision-making. Through their excited collaboration and calculation, they were all able to agree on which of the three presented games gave them the best odds of winning … and then they actually played that game in class and calculated the results to see if they matched their statistical predictions.

For homework, instead of solving a set of problems on another worksheet, the teacher asked students to design their own carnival game and bring their description to class the next day. Before students even left the classroom, many of them had enthusiastic ideas for what sort of game they’d describe to their classmates the next day.

Teaching Strategies: What Sort of Homework Matters?

Different degrees of homework have different impacts on student learning, depending on students’ age. Homework can provide academic benefits, but two overwhelming components must be considered by teachers:

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  • How old are my students?
  • What quality of homework am I assigning?

Duke University social psychologist Harris Cooper, PhD, one of the nation's leading homework researchers, says in his “2006 Review of Educational Research” that homework was linked to better test scores in high school and, to a lesser degree, in middle school. But there is only faint evidence that homework provided academic benefit in elementary school.

The quantity of homework matters, as younger students will find limited benefit from working on structured assignments after school hours. But we don’t want our older students to become overwhelmed from too much homework: the National Education Association and National Parent Teacher Association support a limit of two hours for high schoolers.

But there is a qualitative component as well. We need to ask not just “How much homework is appropriate?” but also “What kind of homework is appropriate?” The American Psychological Association, in an overview of recent research, points out, “Researchers agree that for all students, homework quality matters. But too many kids are feeling a lack of engagement with their take-home assignments, many experts say.” They cite Denise Pope from Stanford University and Mollie Galloway from Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Ore., that only only 20 to 30 percent of students said they felt their homework was useful or meaningful.

Homework should not be busywork. If teachers are going to ask students to spend their time outside of school working on a particular skill or task, they need to do so in a way that requires a meaningful engagement. What are the traditional approaches to homework in your classroom and school? What areas of quality and quantity do you need to reconsider to make the most of this important component of learning?

Instead of That Homework, Try This!

Here is a short series of ideas you might consider as deviations from the traditional types of homework you might assign.

Instead of … assigning students a set of questions to see if they understood the day’s lesson,

Try … asking students to design their own homework task (possibly being their own set of questions),

Because … this will allow students the chance to creatively process the material they learned and generate something new (i.e. their own homework task) based on their understanding of what they learned.

Instead of … asking students to answer questions related to an article they read for class,

Try … having students write down their own questions they want to ask classmates related to the article content,

Because … students need to demonstrate an understanding of material to ask their own original questions, and those questions they bring in will lead to more vibrant discussion since they will be more inclined to share their original questions and genuinely learn from classmates’ responses.

Instead of … assigning students a worksheet full of math problems,

Try … having students create a real-world scenario in which they generate a word problem to which their recent math learning applies,

Because … students can show they comprehend a mathematical concept not just by repeating series of problems but by legitimately demonstrating that they see how the math has valuable application to the world around them.

Instead of … memorizing vocabulary words, facts, and dates with flash cards and worksheets,

Try … having students design games and memorization devices that help to reinforce what needs to be retained,

Because … the act of making a creative technique such as a game, pneumonic device, or poster requires more input by the student, which will ultimately reinforce the knowledge that needs to be retained.

Instead of … assigning a review sheet to be completed at the end of a unit and/or semester,

Try … building one unit’s concept off of the previous unit’s on and on,

Because … this will naturally reinforce the learning throughout the year, showing students how the simple components they have obtained build into the cumulative end-of-year elements you’re looking for. You can continually point out how prior learning informs current learning, and even include cumulative components on assessments as you proceed through the year.

Instead of … assigning a reading and giving a quiz on it the next day,

Try … giving students the quiz questions/expectations prior to the reading,

Because … this will help make the reading that the students end up doing more targeted and meaningful.

Instead of … announcing the homework assignment right at the end of class,

Try … consistently allowing time for students to begin their homework right there in class,

Because … this will give students momentum into after-school helping them feel like the work has already been started, and it gives students the opportunity to clarify their understanding prior to leaving the classroom.

You Get the Idea

There are traditional homework assignments, such as worksheets, question sets, and readings that are almost a given in many classrooms. These types of assignments can absolutely be beneficial to students when done in appropriate quantities and ways.  However, teachers must also be conscientious to make the most of the tasks they require of students, ensuring that it is engaging students at an appropriate level and asking them to do more than a show-me-you-can-do-the-very-basics busywork.

Consider what alternatives to your traditional, predicatable assignments you’ll introduce to your students over the next month. To get your creative juices flowing, here are three examples I’ve recently witnessed:

1. “Yo Teacher” – Instead of assigning his class to make flashcards and memorize vocabulary words, a teacher had students play a game he called “Yo Teacher,” a twist on the classic insult game “Yo Mama.” Students would write humorous insults about their teacher using the vocabulary words. Statements such as “Yo Teacher is so esoteric that he’s the only one who understands himself!” The insults obviously aren’t too heavy and the jokes admittedly aren’t the funniest, but this fun version of vocabulary review reinforced their retention in a memorable way.

2. Make a Game – Like the carnival game example at the top of this article, students can be encouraged to develop their own game based on a popular game they’ve played before. I recently saw students develop their own “Catch Phrase” game they made themselves featuring terms from their science classroom. Previously I’ve seen students make a simple board game that asked questions based on classroom content.

3. Students Reflect and Assign – What if students assigned themselves homework? One creative task I witnessed asked students to complete an exit slip during the last 10 minutes of the lesson. On the exit slip, students were asked to reflect on their own extent of understanding of the day’s material. Then it asked students what they thought was appropriate to complete on their own to reinforce the learning. The teacher provided material for students to use themselves and gave recommendations, but the students ended up assigning themselves the type and quantity of homework they each thought was appropriate.

There are innumerable ways for teachers to consider alternatives to traditional assignments and boost the qualitative impact of homework. Consider how you can make homework more meaningful for your students!

What alternative teaching strategies to traditional homework assignments have you tried? Share your favorites with us in the comments below!


Jordan Catapano taught English for 12 years in a Chicago suburban high school, where he is now an Assistant Principal. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website www.jordancatapano.us.