Homework is evil. All homework. It’s a pile of worksheets; pointless, drill-and-kill busywork that overloads students brains, frustrates (or bores) them to tears, reinforces the practice of incorrect algorithms, destroys every creative cell in students’ bodies, and takes away from valuable playtime or family time. And it should never, ever be graded.
That’s the message sent by many who are trying to fix whatever’s wrong with education. I don’t buy it.
Our school is on an AB block schedule. I see students at most 3 days a week (when we have a full week of school), so more often twice a week; sometimes 4 times in 2 weeks, and sometimes 6-7 days pass without meeting as a class when we have long weekends. (Yes, I use electronic communication as much as possible, considering 20-25% or my students have neither an Internet connection in their homes nor a a smartphone). To that end, my teacher-gut tells me that students who have deeper conceptual understandings and own their skills are the students who have stayed connected to their learning. I’ve become a fan of a few types of assignments to help students stay connected. Some are most specifically, homework. Other assignments are directly connected to an upcoming inquiry or project lab. Other work is investigative, calculation practice, synthesis, or preparation for discussion. Outlined below are some general types of “homework” students may expect to best support them as they learn science.
Preparation homework usually consists of one or more of the following, depending on the time interval between classes and how much a student or group can accomplish during class:
- 15-20 minutes between class times looking over the upcoming learning – an outline, skimming a section of text with a set of direct instructions and specific learning targets.
- considering where new learning will fit with what they already know and can do
- jotting down questions they have, unfamiliar terms, or confusing concepts to ask about,
Just doing this much provides a huge advantage when class reconvenes. A student who enters class and asks “What are we going to do today?” is at a clear disadvantage, and within a few class meetings, he knows it. When students are already familiar with our work, even minimally, they jump into discussion with meaningful comments, share with their peers, and ask thoughtful questions. They’re ready for a bit of direct instruction, and a bit of group discussion, generally POGIL-style. It is at this time that students are presented with explanations of concepts and calculations in a question-and-answer class discussion, are guided through sample calculations, and try a few tasks on their own in class. They are introduced briefly to the inquiry or project lab they will construct. They receive their next assignment, and reflect on what they learned, what they still need to learn, and devise a specific plan for attacking the assignment. They know they are not expected to complete it for a grade, but that it will form the basis of their work next class.
As students delve more deeply into the content needed for inquiry or project-based lab work, they need to to start to think. The first step is command of some practice skills, usually calculations or one-step written tasks leading to multistep problem-solving. In chemistry, commonly this first assignment takes the form of a calculation practice continuum:
- calculation practice continuum – tasks are labeled basic skill, mastery, challenge, or exceeding.
- basic skill tasks are foundational to the content involved in the lab or project.
- mastery tasks demonstrate the minimum skill or understanding a student needs to complete a minimally proficient project or inquiry.
- challenge tasks
- The redundancy rule is invoked when the practice is distributed. It might look like a directive to start where you feel comfortable, and when you think you’re ready, skip to the next section.
- Students should usually not expect to do every task, nor should they spend more than 20-30 minutes at a time with the tasks. This is tough for the overachievers, until they realize that selecting a challenge or exceeding task demonstrates they have mastered the mastery and basic skills tasks.
- All problems are either worked in class, checked by a student in a peer group with a key, or explained individually by me when the student is ready. This provides students with meaningful feedback about their understandings.
- An answer key is always available in class.
Such work helps students figure out what they know and can do,on their own, by themselves, without their group members, and what still needs their effort. In class, they can work with group members for further support, look at sample problems, and complete what wasn’t clear. They know that I am there for clarification, and as I talk with students, I gain valuable information on what I should re-teach and to whom, or who needs more practice time on which learning target. Yes, there are sometimes mistakes and misunderstandings and misconceptions. This day’s reflection includes the written identification of errors and misconceptions, and the corrected conceptions, explained. More information on the upcoming application of this learning (usually an inquiry or project lab) is revealed, as some groups will be ready to begin.
Preparation, planning, analysis, revision, analysis, presentation, and reflection on work may be completed in class by some groups and individual group members, or may be done outside of class. Factors influencing this decision may be students’ choices of experimental design, time needed in lab to carry out their physical work, or the amount of preliminary research and trials needed, number of revisions needed, technology available, or simply student choice of work location.
Finally, each student demonstrates his own level of understanding and learning in a common assessment proficiency.
To state that “homework” is never appropriate is as dangerous as worksheet-driven assumption that learning must look the same looks the same for every student. And I don’t think I’m alone in my view – thanks, Marsha Ratzel.