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Teaching Strategies: What to Ask Before Assigning Homework

Jordan Catapano

Homework seems like a foundational component of school. It’s a pillar of education, a rite of passage for school-aged children everywhere. It is so fundamental to how we approach education that it feels like a given, and only on the rare occasion do we question or re-evaluate how we use it as part of our assemblage of teaching strategies.

Homework involves a teacher requiring that students make time outside of class to focus on their subject. No matter when students make the time to do that work, we as teachers have an obligation to ensure that what we assign is a valuable use of their time. As many have said before, “Teachers should not abandon homework. Instead, they should improve its instructional quality.” And research from Cooper, Robinson, and Patall notes that, “With only rare exceptions, the relationship between the amount of homework students do and their achievement outcomes was found to be positive and statistically significant. Therefore, we think it would not be imprudent, based on the evidence in hand, to conclude that doing homework causes improved academic achievement.”

So before you assign that next piece of homework, think through the following questions to assess what and when that next assignment as part of your teaching strategies could look like to benefit your students the most.

1. Is this something that could be done in class? What is this assignment doing that cannot be replicated in the classroom? If your classroom has both the time and the ability to facilitate student work during normal class time, then it may not be worth it to require the work be done out of class. Homework teaching strategies may best serve students when it accomplishes something very specific that cannot be as beneficially reproduced during class, especially if it requires use of something not accessible in your classroom, like a kitchen, television, or family discussion. There are, however, many advantages to working in class that should not be overlooked, including teacher access, peer access, accountability, technology, and time that might not be available elsewhere.

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2. What is the specific objective? How does this build off of classwork? Some have argued that homework is busywork; homework for the sake of homework. Homework without a clear objective is a waste of everyone’s time. But if you have specific objectives – concrete skills you’re reinforcing or assessing – then doing homework can prove a valuable use of time to build off of the foundation laid in class. Careful consideration of each assignment is required to determine exactly to what extent the homework is a quality use of time.

3. What is the intended outcome? What is the form of feedback and assessment? After students do the homework, then what? Teachers should consider how quickly they can provide feedback, what feedback methods will be used, and how students will have an opportunity to view and respond to that feedback. Also, teachers must consider how the homework will correlate to the students’ overall grades – if at all. Homework could be considered practice, assessed for points, revised, or submitted into a growing portfolio. But to ensure maximum effectiveness, the plan needs to be laid out in advance.

4. Do students understand what they’re supposed to do? Homework is meant to be done without the teacher there, so it is essential that students understand exactly what is expected of them. Nothing is more frustrating than working down a pathway they were never meant to go down simply because of a misunderstanding. As you create your assignments, consider how it will be communicated in class and how students can reexamine the required details on their own.

5. Can they do this effectively on their own? What resources might they need to successfully complete this? As you send students off on their own to complete their work, make sure they have the right tools to get the job done. Whether it’s notes, Internet resources, videos, books, peers, or other tools, be sure that your students are aware of what they could use to help them complete the task successfully.

6. How much time should this take, and have I allotted them an opportunity to find the time they need? Although the assignment itself may be valuable, that value may be lost if students are not allotted a reasonable portion of time to complete it. Give students a reasonable amount of time to think through the assignment, access resources, ask questions, and perfect their work. Try to account for other homework or activities that students may have, and focus on the quality of their work production rather than merely the quantity. The right amount of time will encourage thoughtful diligence rather than a rushed mentality that focuses solely on completion.

7. How can student choice be incorporated? Students are prone to show more interest, diligence, and quality when they have some control over their work. Consider how you might offer a variety of comparable assignments that allow for different learners’ preferences. Also, consider how problem-solving and creativity can play a role in your assignments beyond the mere rote application of material. This will help students take more ownership over the content and encode information for the long run.

Instead of merely assuming that any homework is a given in your classroom, consider that only high-quality valuable homework is the given. Make every moment of your students’ day outside of school hours you ask them to work worth their time. After all, our true objective is to ensure that our students are smarter and more capable – not just busier. Take a fresh look at the homework you’re assigning and consider what modifications you may like to make to maximize how you’re using it with your students.

What do you think of these questions? What else do you think we should ask ourselves?

Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated, 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.