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Friday, August 17, 2012

Homework Stinks #2 - Student and Home Perspective

In part one of Homework Stinks I wanted to provide some background and ask some questions to get readers thinking about homework in their classrooms. This post will look at homework from the student and home partner's perspective and discuss how the homework practice  impacts them. I have tried to keep the focus on homework for elementary students, but I have found that many of the issues surrounding elementary homework also apply to 7-12 year students as well.

I think it would be useful to look at some research and see how the various studies addressed homework and its various components and their impact on students. Research on homework has increased dramatically since 2000 and with this increased study; we are beginning to understand how complex the issue is. Multiple disciplines have looked at homework, including Psychology, Sociology, Economics, and of course Education.

The research has addressed all of the major elements of homework, such as student motivation, parental involvement, impact on achievement, self regulation, self-efficacy, and effects on different student populations and levels. [A complete works cited section is included in the 'Homework Reference" page on this blog's sidebar. I'll be suggesting additional reading as well]

Student and Home Impact- How does homework impact student learning, motivation, relationships, and attitudes?

Assignments & Grading
Assignments - If students find that homework is too easy or over taxing (lengthy or difficult), there is a positive correlation to decreased effort and emotion towards homework. (Dettmers et al., 2010) Students who perceived their homework too difficult and too frequent, lead to negative thoughts about themselves. (Hong,2011) However, if students believed that homework was both beneficial and challenging, they performed better on standardized tests. Students need to feel that the work is meaningful and that its completion is valued by their teacher. (Bempchat, 2011) The difficulty lies in assigning homework that hits a 'sweet-spot', where the work is not too difficult to be perceived as challenging, but not too difficult that it discourages student effort.

Grading - If I can paraphrase Forrest Gump, grading is like whole 'nuther country and I'm trying to stay on homework with these posts, but grading homework is part of the picture.

The Dettmers study also concluded that grading of homework is an unwise practice and does not benefit student emotion or outcomes. Grading homework is more about grading an effort than assessing progress towards obtaining a skill. Grading an assignment is like getting a 'tick' mark on an auditor's worksheet, compliance not learning.

With most skills in the 'real world', practice is not a primary concern. Whether a high jumper practicing for a competition or a manager practicing for an important presentation, it is the mastery or final attempt that is important. We can assume that the high jumper practiced to obtain the skill, but we celebrate the achievement, not what he undertook to reach such heights.

Motivation, Relationships, & Learning
Motivation - Several studies have identified that "discrepancies exist between students' and teachers' perception of student behaviors and that these discrepancies are problematic in efforts to improve performance" (Hong,2011). The Hong study called for grading and feedback on student homework to improve student awareness of their behaviors. They felt that if the work was not graded, students would not take assigned work seriously. (many others as backed grading as well, Trautwein; Xu)

Student motivation towards homework is affected by the type of assignment. For instance, a teacher who puts a high value on drill and practice will discover that "student effort and achievement tended to suffer." (Dettmers, 2010) If homework is given, teachers should consider the interactive nature of assignment; ensure that the task focuses in on the lesson objective, and that the types of assignments should be varied.

One study highlighted the differences in student motivation towards completing academic activities at school and at home. "Homework involves different motivational processes than do school bound academic activities" adding that homework contains "fewer environmental cues and supports for focusing on task." (Katz,2010) Homework, the researchers said, "competes with activities that students engage in during their leisure time." Students and parents can minimize distractors that interfere with homework effort, but the learning environment is still very different from their classroom where they can readily receive teacher guidance/assistance or collaboration and cooperation with their peers.

In 'Motivations for Doing Homework', the authors found that homework has an especially negative impact on at risk students. Katz (2010) found that students completed homework not out of a sense of intrinsic motivation to learn and achieve, but from a "desire to please" or "avoidance punishment" (extrinsic motivators), and that this type of motivation is "undesired".

Intrinsic motivation towards school declines as a student gets older and starts to run up against their desire to do things on their own (aligning with self-determination theory), making homework more of a chore than a pursuit, especially in high school students.

In the column of I don't want to be in this researcher's class, this researcher concluded that "Pragmatically...homework is bound  to be boring at times" and that it parallels with the working world where you sometimes have to "endure boredom." Adding, that "lack of interest is a natural part of learning that must nonetheless be overcome through persistence." Cautioning that "Homework is largely a solitary activity associated with negative effects." The study did point out that "collaborative (homework) assignments seemed rare." (Bempechat,2011)

The findings of these studies and others, is that the influence a teacher has on student motivation is extremely high.

Learning -Despite Marzano (2003) stating that "homework is one important factor that increases achievement" and that Bembenutty (2011) concluded that "homework is an academic endeavor of paramount importance for students, parents, and teachers", there is no statistical significant achievement gains at the elementary level (K-6, Cooper,1989; Cooper et al.,1998). Despite these findings and in spite of low effect sizes (.15) that support benefits of homework for elementary students, Cooper (1989) still recommended  homework for elementary students.

Let's say for instance that during the school day a child is introduced to a new concept in a content area such as Language Arts or Mathematics. In a class where the teacher regularly assigns homework, the routine goes something like this, a new concept taught, in-class practice or work time is used to practice the new skill, and then additional practice is assigned to be completed for tomorrow's class. The child takes the task home and because it is a new skill, cannot complete the work, fostering frustration. Worse still would be a child, with limited understanding, attempts the practice and completes it totally wrong. The work is returned, maybe with feedback, possibly graded, and handed back. In this scenario, the student is either demoralized because of the grade/feedback or their lack of learning, re-taught the skill, or untaught the incorrect skill.

Skills practiced poorly in isolation, just build bad skills. I would rather a child have the insight and input that as a classroom teacher, I can provide them. While they are in my care and in my classroom, I can ensure that they are on the right track towards mastery and learning.

Relationships at Home - When parents are 'highly engaged' in student homework, students achieve at a higher level. (Voorhis, 2009) There is a price however, as 29% of parents report that their child's homework "is a major source of stress." (Markow,2007) Anecdotally and personally a child's homework has a major impact on evening  home activities. Parent's have their own homework, their job's work that comes home with them  demanding their attention. When kids bring their homework it increases everyone's time on stuff other than time together or time relaxing or pursuing personal interests.

The support of the student's home partner is a major factor in a students' success in completing homework. (Voorhis,2011; Trautwein,2009) It stands to reason that a child with a strong support system and solid routines at home will be better able to successfully complete a required assignment. Is it fair to, in essence punishing a student who does not have those critical supports in place? A child may have the will and the discipline to complete nightly homework, but if a child's home life is chaotic with sporadic mealtimes and interruptions that come with a low time sensitive households, not only is a child's grade sunk, but maybe  their motivation as well.

Class instructional time is owned by the teacher, but time outside of the class is not my domain. I create and control the atmosphere and culture of our classroom. It is a safe, nurturing environment. I simply cannot control the environment the child encounters once they leave the four walls of our classroom. I have no assurance that they will have a safe, productive, and distracted place to learn when they return home. Not to mention the support they might have. Sometimes, many of my students don't even know where they will be in the evening, due to split homes, parent work schedules, and different caregiver placements. I don't want  my students trying to learn in what may already be an overly stressful environment. How much, really, can I expect a child to learn and retain in chaos?

What right do teachers have to claim time away from their student's classroom? Is it okay to supplant the potential for family time or exploring a student's own interests? Does everyone get the same assignment? Those questions might get educators closer to the reasons why they assign homework.

Coming up next in this "Homework Stinks" series:
 Post #3 The Teacher's Role (week of August 19)
Post #4 My Verdict - What I will try and do in my class and what I have learned. (Week of August 25th)

Thanks for reading. Please tell me what you think.

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  1. I appreciate your willingness to confront the issue of homework, especially at the elementary level. Depending on the school and community, homework is something that is expected. Educating the community of the research you indicated above may help inform parents of why homework is given and what role it plays in learning. I will be sharing some the research in your post with staff this school year.

  2. Thanks so much. It really is a very complex issue and has a lot of elements. My goal was to understand how homework impacts my students and what role it should have to help them learn. I may have bitten off a little more than I can handle, but if for no other reason, the process is helping me learn.

    Interestingly, most of the research supports homework, but some with very specific parameters and goals. I'll be adding resources as I go. Thanks for sharing.

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