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Homework as Practice

Jordan Catapano


When I played soccer as a kid, we had practices three times a week and games on Sunday afternoon. At practices we would warm up, focus on fundamentals, and work on new skills. At games we would apply what we learned to try and crush the competition in front of our parents. We had a blast.

The formula works at the professional athlete level too: Multiple practices throughout the week, then game day. At practice the team focuses on the basics. They make mistakes and fix them. There’s nothing to lose, and everything to gain. There’s a goal and reason for their efforts.

But could you imagine if every day were game day? Could you imagine if there were no practices, no room for error, and everything to lose? Unfortunately, we can create this exact situation for our own students with the work we assign. Every assignment, every question, every test puts pressure on students to get it all correct every time, with the threat of “bad grades” or “lost points” if they can’t perform up to our expectations. On the one hand we like the idea of students feeling like they need to do their best every time; but on the other hand, we don’t necessarily want to penalize students for not having mastered a particular skill or set of knowledge right away.

When it comes to homework, educators have shifted their understanding of the role it plays within student learning. They consider it as practice, much like an athlete will practice before a game. What counts in the record books is the score of the game, but it’s the practice – the learning, the experimenting, the repetition, the mistakes – that get the athlete ready for their performance. When teachers begin to view students’ homework as a chance to practice rather than as a strictly graded duty, something strange happens: Students realize that homework is truly a chance to learn without the fear of being penalized with a low grade.

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So when homework becomes recognized as practice, students can embrace the learning process rather than dread a poor outcome on the mistakes they make. Here are some of the changes a “homework as practice” mindset helps to induce:

  • The purpose of the homework is clear. Each assignment is designed to work on particular skills or information students, just like an athletic practice.
  • Students feel free to make mistakes. While students should pursue perfection, they should not fear failure. Rather, this gives them the opportunity to learn from their mistakes in preparation for the “game day” tests they have coming up.
  • The need to improve is more obvious. Homework that’s considered practice makes it more apparent where more practice may be needed for some students. Also, students can witness their own improvement as they repeat similar tasks with better and better results.
  • Assessments count for more. Just like a big game, an assessment will illuminate to what extent particular skills or knowledge has been mastered. It also reveals areas that are still weak and can be enhanced before the next “big game.”

Teachers wonder, though: “If homework as practice is homework without grades, what in the world will motivate students to do it at all?” Grades certainly play a big role toward incentivizing students to perform well. However, students won’t always be graded. And if a grade is a student’s only motivation to achieve, what does that say about their value of learning? We do fear that students won’t do work without a grade incentive. But what teachers have been realizing is that grades, in fact, are not the only thing that motivates students. The number one motivator, actually, is learning itself.

So if students are motivated by learning, and if homework as practice emphasizes the learning process, then it stands to reason that with the right approach, turning graded homework assignments into feedback and reflection driven learning opportunities can radically improve student growth. 

There is much that could be said regarding how to effectively incorporate homework as practice in your classroom. Here are a few final tips to help at least get you started:

  • Get students on board by showing them the advantages of learning in a less pressurized, graded system.
  • Get parents on board, too, by showing them how practice leads to growth.
  • Require that all students do all homework, and require that they give their best effort on each assignment.
  • Give thorough feedback on all assignments, designed to show them how to improve on their next task.
  • Have students reflect on their performance, your feedback, and any other performance indicators (i.e. rubrics) that can help them improve before the big test.
  • Test exactly what they’ve been practicing.
  • Set a high, clear standard that all students can understand and work toward.

This may be a brand new way of viewing homework. It may seem ludicrous and pedantically progressive. But when you talk to the teachers who have implemented it successfully, they claim that it has made all the difference in how their students perceive the role of homework in their learning process.

Have you tried implementing homework as practice? If you have, share how you made it work! If not, what do you think about installing this perspective in your classroom?