Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Question of Homework: To Assign or Not to Assign

Everything seems to be coming up snake eyes for the veterans of education these days. Inexperienced and emotional parents seem to believe that they have the answers to quality school reform, the Obama administration continues to push Race to the Top and its test-based evaluation system which do not appear to be the answer1 and new attacks continue against the assignment and/or grading of homework. This post will briefly address the third issue by addressing the nature of homework.

Note that for this blog post the term ‘homework’ will reference well designed material which when genuinely attempted by students increases the probability that those students better understand the overall lesson associated with the homework. The reason for this characterization is that clearly no rational person would argue that poorly designed homework is useful in the education process. Also some would argue that homework is only relevant to college-bound students. Such a contention is erroneous as the chief role of schools is to produce individuals that have the ability to solve new and original problems, effectively communicate their opinions and make positive contributions to a society. Therefore, developing tools and strategies to understand new information, which well designed homework can help accomplish, is important to all individuals not just those bound for higher levels of academia.

Differentiation between quality homework vs. non-quality homework largely involves how much additional thought is required to solve the problem/question and how realistic is the problem structure. Rarely will reality simply give a person a single equation or thought process that will solve the problem. A basic example of quality homework vs. non-quality homework is shown below:

Non-Quality Homework Question

21 / 4 = ???

Quality Homework Question

John and Suzie want to bake some apple pies for their school’s bake sale. John has collected 10 apples from the trees around his house and Suzie has collected 11 apples from the trees around her house. If it takes 4 apples to bake 1 pie how many pies can John and Suzie bake and how many apples will they have left over after all the baking is done?

Those who are generally opposed to homework can be divided into two camps: those who believe homework is not a useful means to increase academic achievement and/or raw knowledge and those who believe that homework can be useful, but schools assign too much of it especially when students have to deal with 5-7 different subjects. Those in the first camp like to cite various studies which attempt to demonstrate that homework does not have any meaningful or significant academic benefit2-4. In some context these individuals view homework as pointless busy work that does little to prepare students for what they need to know. However, these individuals and the authors of these studies at times dismiss the very structural design nature of homework.

The nature of homework is to act as a mechanism to practice different problem solving techniques as well as the ability to clearly explain or disseminate acquired knowledge to another party. A near-ubiquitous amount of testing with lab animals has demonstrated enhanced cognition through simple rote repetition and at times advancing to pattern recognition in addition to enhanced creativity. Basic biochemistry and psychology also dictates that the brain, like any muscle, will strengthen over time when utilized properly and repeatedly (reinforcing neuronal connections). Therefore, any studies that claim homework does not provide a meaningful academic benefit are in contradiction to these basic long-established and logical tenets.

Three explanations jump to mind to address this contradiction. First, the studies that provide these contradictory results do not differentiate between information difficulties. For example if a student can clearly understand a given topic from a simple lecture then doing homework which is designed to reinforce the topic concepts will have little benefit. In such a scenario the black mark should not be made against homework, but instead against the core subject matter and its perceived lack of depth.

Over the time frame of multiple varying topics over numerous years (emulating a student moving from lower grades to higher grades) if homework were proven unnecessary because of ‘lecture only’ achieved understanding then it would be wise to question the difficulty of these lessons… unless of course the students in these studies were all a bunch of geniuses. Of course with the general poor average performance of American middle and high school students on international standardized tests, using a bunch of geniuses as the sample size for the purpose of creating accurate studies on the usefulness of homework in an academic environment is not appropriate to developing accurate conclusions.

Second, the design of the homework used in these studies was sub-optimal. The assigned homework did not effectively address the important material which was required to understand the given topic. Attempting and completing the homework did not provide a meaningful base of understanding. As discussed above clearly homework as well as almost anything in existence is not useful if it is poorly designed.

Third, the students did not apply an honest effort to doing the homework. If the purpose of homework is to act as a method of practice, any benefit from that practice requires the participant to focus on the practice and proper execution of what is being practiced. There is a common saying that ‘Practice makes perfect’, but that saying is not accurate because perfection is an impossible achievement and any level of practice, regardless of quality, is not guaranteed to produce any beneficial improvement. The saying should be ‘Quality practice makes better’. Therefore, if students were simply ‘going through the motions’ and not genuinely testing their knowledge and the ability to communicate that knowledge (television and computer off, quiet room, focus on the homework, etc.) then to deem the homework ineffective is inappropriate.

Overall based on these elements and how they may explain the contradictions between these ‘homework is not an effective academic enhancement tool’ studies and the inherent practice identity of homework, it does not appear to be rational to come to the unequivocal conclusion that homework is an ineffective means to increase academic or overall cognitive ability. Therefore, the first camp of individuals who oppose homework do not appear to have a strong arguing position.

The conflict between pro-homework and anti-homework individuals from the second camp seems to boil down to the principle issue of time management. In the mind of those anti-homework individuals homework could be important on an absolute level, but on a relative level its importance is marginalized by other responsibilities and/or activities. For example a popular refrain from teachers and those that oppose using standardized testing as a means of evaluation (both for teachers and schools) is that students are unique individuals who run the gamut in both personal and psychological characteristics as well as living/working environment. These differences make it difficult to judge teacher performance based on a ‘one-size fits all’ standardized test with only a short fixed period of time available to instruct on both what is on the test and what is not.

Anti-homework individuals can use this argument against homework. While the end result of learning is what is important and at times may not be properly represented through grades, the current structure of academia uses grades to determine how well an individual acquires and communicates knowledge. Anti-homework individuals question how is it fair that homework be a significant portion of the grading criteria when certain students may be in a situation where their time is focused elsewhere. For example some students may not have a sufficient amount of time to do homework because of an imperfect family life where brothers/sisters have to take care of younger siblings or go to night work to earn extra money to help support the family vs. other students that have wealthy parents who could even have the intellect and the time to assist with the homework.

Also it has been argued that too much homework robs children of their childhood by forcing them to reject various opportunities to engage in extracurricular activities from organized sports or hobby activities to simple outside play with friends. Instead of expanding their minds through a vast array of experiences, these students are trapped doing monotonous homework assignments. Finally when homework accounts for a large percentage of the grade some argue that such an elevated evaluation metric provides an unnecessary level of stress in the student’s life which is further compounded by the lack of extracurricular activities, which could be used as a means to reduce stress.

Homework proponents argue back that even if the total amount of homework for a given course is worth a high percentage of the final grade, there is typically enough homework spread out over the entire course that the value of a single assignment is mitigated to the point where there should be little stress associated with each assignment. In fact one characteristic of homework is that it is an important element to learning because it creates a lower pressure lower consequence environment where students can enhance their understanding a particular topic through repetition and where mistakes are more manageable.

An advantageous attribute to a high evaluation metric for homework is that it provides another avenue for students who struggle with communicating acquired knowledge in a testing environment. It cannot be argued that a test in a classroom environment inherently provides more pressure than homework assignments in an environment of the student’s choosing. Some students do not have the ability to effectively manage this increased pressure, thus their ability to demonstrate their knowledge suffers accordingly. The principle characteristic of the grade for a course is to conveniently measure how well a student acquired knowledge in a course, not how well a student can manage a high-pressure situation. Therefore, a high evaluation metric allows the grades for a student that ‘does not test well’ to more accurately reflect the knowledge acquired within the course.

Some opponents argue that while addressing students that ‘do not test well’ is a positive element for a high evaluation metric, it is more probable that highly evaluated homework conceals poor performance. Students can use homework to bolster overall grades that are detrimentally marred by poor examination results, poor results not due to mishandling stress, but simply due to lack of knowledge. Thus, this evaluation structure misrepresents a student’s knowledge in a particular topic portraying that student as more competent than they otherwise are, a disservice to colleges, future employers and the students themselves. However, this analysis only seems valid if the assigned homework is of substandard quality and/or design. If the homework does force the students to work hard at earning high homework grades then using homework grades as a counter measure to examination grades is reasonable.

It must be remembered that the bounds of time do not only impact students. Teachers, especially those with more dynamic topics like history, find themselves having to impart more and more information over the same fixed time period. Unfortunately the total amount of information that needs to be discussed limits the available amount of instruction time for each specific topic. Therefore, without the ability to rigorously cover a particular topic to the point where students have been exposed enough to reasonably understand the topic the probability that the students understand the topic decreases. Homework substitutes for this lack of class time to increase learning and retention probabilities.

Due to time conflicts with other activities and with homework typically characterized, similar to school, in the ‘not fun’ zone teachers believe that there needs to be sufficient motivation to encourage students to do it. Homework is supposed to be viewed as having long-term benefit both in the form of general knowledge for life as well as knowledge for other evaluation methods (quizzes and tests). Unfortunately to anticipate most children and adolescents foregoing short-term small benefits (doing something else instead of homework) for the potential of long-term benefits is improbable. However, providing some additional benefit to doing the homework (extra credit, etc.) is also inappropriate because the homework is for practice and the ‘reward’ for practicing is getting better at what is being practiced, not getting better and receiving a cookie (i.e. a monetary award).

With students more than likely not appreciating the inherent benefit and teachers unable to justify expanded benefits, the only remaining strategy teachers have available to promote motivation for most students to do homework is to tie it to grade evaluation with immediate and explicit detriment possibilities. So for teachers to maximize the probability that students learn the required material for a given topic and fulfill the goal of those students becoming good citizens, homework must be done and must have sufficient motivational potential to guarantee that it is done with meaningful effort, thus the necessity of a high evaluation metric.

The biggest problem faced by those that want a high evaluation metric for homework is that such a metric for more intelligent students challenges the ‘practice’ characteristic of homework. What happens when a student understands the necessary material simply from the lesson itself? This student should not have to spend time, no matter how little, undertaking an assignment that will not increase his/her level of understanding. However, a high evaluation metric for homework forces this student to do just that.

Now it can be argued there is a typical element of perceived knowledge vs. actual knowledge gap for most students. There are a number of instances in school and life in general where an individual may think he/she has sufficient knowledge in a given subject, but when actually tested on that topic this individual quickly realizes that he/she does not have as much knowledge as previously thought. Homework provides a means to address this perception/reality gap before it becomes exposed on a test to the academic detriment of the student. However, the above example does not always fall into this scenario. Therefore, is there a strategy that can provide a motivational aspect to do homework while not burdening those who do not need to take advantage of the practice characteristics of homework? The strategy below seems to be one way to address this issue.

• Homework is given out on a weekly basis; Every Monday an assignment is given out which will cover all of the scheduled material that will be covered in class over that same week; the assignment will be expected to be turned in at the beginning of class on the next Monday (for example homework assigned on Oct. 13 would be turned in on Oct. 20 at the beginning of class); answers for the homework would then be posted or handed-out for the last week’s homework at the end of class on Monday.
• Homework will count for 0% of the grade. The reason is that homework, as previously discussed, is designed to give the student multiple opportunities to practice learning the given material. Taking a grade from material that is supposed to be practice is not very fair. Therefore, because homework does not count for any percentage of the grade the students do not have to do it or turn it in if they do not want to.
• Grades will be determined by 4 tests; 3 section tests worth 25% of the grade and 1 cumulative final worth 25% of the grade. As a partial motivator to do homework students may retake one of the section tests if they turned in at least 75% of the assigned homework within the corresponding section and demonstrated a legitimate effort to learn from the homework.

Overall while the above suggestion is merely that, a suggestion, it appears that the above discussion has focused on two important principle issues in the ‘homework’ discussion. First, is the issue between homework motivation vs. maintaining the practice characteristic of homework designed to enhance learning. Clearly the students that come from a more stable home environment and/or have college as a longer-term goal are better able to provide their own motivation for doing homework whether or not a higher evaluation metric is applied.

Unfortunately in a number of situations these very students that have a greater ability to produce their own motivations are less likely to actually need to do homework to understand the material. Students that do not have these advantages will more than likely need to do homework to help understanding, but may not have the ability to see the self-beneficial elements to homework as a motivational tool. One solution for this issue may be for the teacher to offer options to his/her students. At the beginning of the semester (by the end of the first/second week) the students may select between 1 of 3 grading criteria where homework could count for 0% 15% or 30% of the grade and the remainder would be determined by other graded elements. One immediate concern with this method is encouraging students that need a higher evaluation metric for motivational purposes to take it. For this strategy teachers could assign two or three quizzes over the few two weeks to see where each student stands and then suggest an appropriate metric.

Some observers may argue that the above suggestion creates a mismatched evaluation environment which is inherently unfair and could cause future problems. While such an observation is understandable, the selection of the homework grade percentage criteria by the student ensures fairness. Students should not be competing against each other when earning grades because grades are about what the student knows on an absolute level not on a relative level with his/her peers (this the chief reason curve-based evaluation systems are foolish); therefore, as long as the student is fully aware of the selection and the overall evaluated material is the same for all students fairness is not a problem even if two different students have their respective grades comprised from a different percentage evaluation metric.

Second, is the issue of opportunity cost in doing homework vs. undertaking other activities. The chief element of this issue which causes problems boils down to immediacy of the opportunity cost. The time crunch created by homework, which is frequently associated with increased stress, is typically developed through two methods. First, most students, especially as they advance in grade, have to deal with multiple subjects demanding multiple solution methodologies. Second, homework frequently functions through daily turnover. While the individual assignments may not account for much having to sacrifice enough of them due to more important tasks (like the job to help feed your family) can add up quickly damaging the overall grade when using a high evaluation metric (commonly suggested for motivational purposes).

Unfortunately there does not appear to be a single magic bullet to deal with both issues, but expanding the homework turnover scope could certainly help. As suggested above assigning homework at one particular time to account for the entire week gives the students more flexibility to address the homework. If their time is demanded by a particular activity on a given night, time can be budgeted later in the week to complete homework that would have been missed due to that activity. Another potential advantage to assigning homework in a greater than day-by-day quantity is that it may be easier for students to make connections between building block concepts when doing ‘three days work’ of homework in one sitting instead of doing the work over a three day period with multiple interruptions. Such a system could also encourage more ambitious students to ‘read ahead’ in an attempt to do the homework before the class lesson address the material.

One question that comes to mind for such a system is how does it change the grading burden on teachers? Under a more expanded turnover system with a firm homework hand-in date teachers now have 7-times as much homework to grade on a short-term time frame. Grading homework is one of the most daunting and potentially frustrating tasks for a teacher, one that is commonly overlooked by most education reformers when considering teacher workload, so increasing workload in the short-term by 7-times is a significant issue.

One way for a teacher to address this change is to produce a universal answer sheet for the students posted in the class so the students have answers immediately available to them. Then the teacher can proceed to grade the assignments over the course of the week. Hopefully once such a system was established, each individual teacher would get experience with the operation of such an assignment methodology and develop his/her own personal rhythm. Unfortunately there appears to be no definitive universal method that can be applied to this situation, it would be up to the teacher do develop his/her own personal way to address any potential stress augmentation issue relative to grading higher turnover homework.

Overall the question of homework is more complicated than most individuals acknowledge. This blog post has tried to address these complexities in a logical and transparent manner. The biggest problem facing resolution of the homework question seems to be the desire for a universally applied solution. Such a solution treats students as interchangeable commodities which is extremely unrealistic. Therefore, the first major positive step would be to abandon the universal mindset. Future steps should work to address the elements discussed in this blog post to find a quality solution for specific subject matter under the purview of a particular teacher.

1. Bloomfield, David. “Research Calls Data-Driven Education Reforms Into Question.”

2. Harris Cooper, The Battle Over Homework. 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, 2001, p. 16.

3. Bennett, Sara, and Kalish, Nancy. The Case Against Homework: How Homework Is Hurting Our Children and What We Can Do About It (New York: Crown, 2006).

4. Vatterott, Cathy. “There’s Something Wrong With Homework.” Principal, January-February 2003: 64.

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