The Most Common Question …. How Much Homework?
I teach multiple levels of World History to freshmen and AP World History to juniors and seniors. Every year, the most common question I am asked on the first day of school is “How Much Homework Will We Have?” and then “How Will You Grade Us?”
These are obvious questions for students to ask. My students have learned that teachers who give a lot of homework are often hard and many teachers who give homework do not grade that homework fairly. Personally, I am of the mindset that homework is necessary for a history class. However, I have changed my mind over the years about how much homework I assign, what type of homework I assign and how much that homework is worth.
The Research Says…
Many schools across America have toyed with the idea, or adopted the policy, of abolishing homework altogether. In my school, homework is discouraged but not outlawed. According to the National Education Association, in a 2014 article, homework should be curbed and possibly eliminated unless it is deemed worthwhile and absolutely necessary. A study done by Edutopia shows that homework is beneficial BUT can be potentially hazardous to high school students: leading to undue stress, physical ailments, and sleep deprivation. Clearly, there needs to be limits on homework.
Still, one of the most common concepts that studies about the homework debate agree on is the 10-minute rule. Students should have approximately 10 minutes of homework per grade level; at least until students hit about 90 minutes in middle school. After 90 minutes, most students burnout and become less productive. A study done at Duke in 2006 concluded that:
“Beyond achievement, proponents of homework argue that it can have many other beneficial effects. They claim it can help students develop good study habits so they are ready to grow as their cognitive capacities mature. It can help students recognize that learning can occur at home as well as at school. Homework can foster independent learning and responsible character traits. And it can give parents an opportunity to see what’s going on at school and let them express positive attitudes toward achievement.”
I give homework because it helps students to build the content knowledge and skills I need them to have in World History. But, what the research does not tell us is what is “good” homework versus what is just busywork.
When is homework just busywork?
It is ungraded AND does not review material or introduce material that WILL be graded.
It does not relate to the lessons of the course.
I get it, you want your kids to exercise their minds! But don’t forget that students, especially kids taking multiple, rigorous courses, have other work too! I teach World History but I do not need students to read the chapters if I’m not testing them on those chapters.
What makes homework effective?
It is meaningful and that meaning is CLEAR to the students!
You are allowed to tell your students why you are assigning homework, trust me, it helps.
For example: “Ok class, tonight you are going to read a few excerpts by Erasmus and tomorrow we are going to have small group discussions about these two questions: what is Erasmus upset about and who do you think Erasmus is writing “Praise of Folly” to? I also want you to come up with one or two of your own questions that could help your classmates to engage with the text.
That took all of 2 minutes to explain to the class. Now, instead of them reading this difficult text and saying, “Yup, that made no sense,” and then giving up, they are going to grapple with this text and prepare their answers for tomorrow. Boom! Meaningful homework that led to more effective classroom instruction.
Reviews previously learned topics
Just make sure this is EFFECTIVE review! Answering a few questions for a test is fine, but make sure you go over it with them. Also, think outside the box: have students watch a Crash Course video and create questions they think might show up on the test or teach their parent what they learned and have their parent write a 3-sentence summary.
It’s worth something!
Homework shouldn’t be 50% of a students’ grade but it should be worth enough that THEY FEEL it has worth. My school suggests homework should be 10-15% of a student’s overall average and I think this is reasonable.
Prepares students for the independent studies required in college.
I teach high school students, usually very motivated, who are going to go on to college. Obviously, this is not every student. If teachers prepare students from a young, impressionable age (like second grade) that homework is meaningful and useful, they will be less resistant to it in high school!
If you are asking your students to read a 40-page chapter (I do it every week in AP World History), then students should have ample time to do the task WELL. Try giving students a monthly reading schedule (check out this article on How to Create a Syllabus that is quite useful for AP-level courses). That way they can work around their other courses, sports, clubs, etc.
Not All Students Are the Same
One of the most important points to remember is that not all classes and not all students are the same! One of the most important things I’ve learned in 13 years of teaching is to recognize the difference between a College Prep World History class, an Advanced World History class, an Honors World History class and an AP World History class. Those CP students are not the most motivated, some of them have reading skills well below grade level and some of them are real troublemakers. However, I am not giving up on them! They still have homework but it is less frequent and more structured.
For example, they may have to read a smaller amount in a night or a less complex version of a text (I really like Newsela for articles since it allows me to change Lexile categories). Also, I would be more inclined to write the questions directly alongside the text for ease of finding and answering questions. From there, I add complexity and depth to the higher-level classes. My Honors students have a textbook with a higher reading level than my Advanced students. While one class may have 2 pages to read in a night, the other may have 4. I am not avoiding complexity with my CP or Advanced kids, but I want to do those difficult assignments with them, in class, so they don’t struggle then give up.
It took me quite a few years of frustration to come up with this seemingly simple understanding. Interestingly, I am not the only teacher to have limited my homework assignments after over a decade of teaching. If you can’t, in your head, decide WHY that homework you are assigning is important and HOW it is going to help your students, it is not worth assigning.
Homework is not a bad thing as long as it is used effectively and is meaningful. Know what you want your kids to get out of the homework. TALK to your students: learn what they can feasibly do and not do (technology, amount of AP courses, commitments). Make sure your students know what you are expecting.
Not all of your students have access to technology, help at home or a safe space to do their homework. Learn as much about what kids CAN do and plan accordingly. Think about giving kids some of YOUR time after school to work in a safe, quiet space. Try planning multiple-day assignments so that students can work it into their schedules.
Homework should push kids to learn, not push them over the edge into anxiety.