I always tell my students not to wait until the last day of vacation to start their work. And I always promise myself that this year I will not wait until the last day of vacation to start my own work.
It’s the last day of Spring Break, and I haven’t started my work.
Why do I do this to myself? What is it about vacation brain that convinces otherwise reasonable people that the work will somehow disappear if we ignore it?
I know some of it is a desire to have a real break during vacation. That’s the point of a break, right? To not work? But I also know that is silly. School work has never stayed neatly within the bounds of the school day, and one of the reasons breaks like this are so important to me as a teacher is the opportunity to get caught up.
But if “getting caught up” requires an eight-hour grading binge on the last day before that pre-dawn alarm clock, I am definitely doing something wrong.
I haven’t been a total slacker. I am in the midst of an online graduate program in pursuit of a second Master’s degree, so I did a lot of work for that class. I visited family in Tucson, began a massive closet purge, continued to train for my next half marathon, and participated in that perennial teacher tradition: going to all of the daytime appointments I can’t usually do during a normal school week. ALL the doctors’ appointments and hair cuts!
Still. It’s 3 p.m. on Sunday, and my grading bag is giving me the stinkeye. I should probably get on that.
At least I know my students are in the same boat.
Homework. The most venerable educational tradition. The test of a rigorous classroom and curriculum. An important part of students’ education.
Or is it?
Homework proponents claim homework reinforces academic concepts, teaches students time management and leads to higher grades and test scores.
One study conducted by Duke professor Harris Cooper suggests homework can lead to positive outcomes in high school, but — and here’s the catch — those benefits fade after two hours of work. A more recent study by Stanford researcher Denise Pope, co-founder of Challenge Success, agrees.
The problem with homework today isn’t that it exists — it’s that there is just too much of it. If teachers are going to continue to assign homework, we need to carefully consider its form, purpose and assessment.
Offering opportunities to practice is important, but it’s equally important to allow students to decide if that review has value. Forcing students to practice skills they have already mastered teaches only that education is tedious. If students’ assessments demonstrate mastery of the skills and content even when they never turn an assignment in, how necessary was that homework to their learning?
Cathy Vatterott, an associate professor of education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and author of three books about homework, wonders how many low grades each semester stem from incomplete homework rather than imperfect mastery. In her article “What Is Effective Homework?” Vatterott writes, “Do those D’s and F’s represent a lack of learning or a lack of compliance?”
Even for students who complete their work, grading homework undermines its purpose — to practice — and encourages cheating. If students know that their practice will be graded, will they take the risk of getting it wrong? How many will copy answers from a friend or have a parent give them the right answers?
Homework without a clear purpose decreases students’ enjoyment of learning. If we want to create “lifelong learners,” we must make learning a pleasurable experience. This doesn’t mean learning should be easy, but rather it should be a challenge worth pursuing.
Without outside reading time, for example, humanities curricula would be extremely limited. Students deserve the challenge of a great novel or play, and they deserve time in class to puzzle through these longer works as a group. Students need time outside of class to rise to the challenge of longer texts, but this time is well spent — they learn that choosing to read means choosing a more enjoyable classroom experience.
Higher-level classes may require a more substantial homework commitment in order to expose students to more material and give them time in class to process and discuss. Clearly a senior taking five honors or AP courses is going to have more homework than a ninth grader.
But even in these advanced classes, we must consider the value of depth over breadth. Students in my AP Literature might be capable of reading two more books in the semester, but if I can accomplish the same goals exploring fewer texts, why rush them? I’d rather spend that extra time reading historical context and literary criticism and assessing them through more than just the single lens of an in-class essay.
Even when we assign purposeful homework, we must be flexible. This can be accomplished as easily as giving students a schedule ahead of time so they can plan around other commitments.
If we want students to be well rounded and less stressed, we must empower them to manage their time wisely. The solution is not to abolish homework, but rather to take a critical look at what we are assigning.
As we think about whether to assign homework each night, we must ask ourselves four questions:
If we say no to any of these questions, we should also say no to homework.
“And though she be but little, she is fierce!” -A Midsummer Night’s Dream