Homework and practice have a sister

In our work with districts across the county, we often find that homework and practice is a bone of contention in many schools. Many issues arise if the strategy of homework and practice (H&P) is misapplied. Sometimes H&P is too large a part of the students’ total grade. This enables some students to pass a class without really showing that they know the subject. Other times H&P is not differentiated enough resulting in some students finding the work too frustrating and others seeing it as a total waste of their time. Furthermore, the purpose of an H&P activity might not be communicated well to the students or the activity really has little or no purposeful connection to the learning objectives at all. For instance, we have all seen busy work such as word searches assigned as homework for homework’s sake. If the teacher, and more importantly the students, cannot readily tell you why an H&P activity is important, than it probably does not have a good purpose and should not have been assigned in the first place.

But the problem I find most egregious is when there is no opportunity for feedback on H&P activities. When you practice something you are trying to see what you are doing well and what you need to change about what you do not do well. This requires feedback, usually from someone as skilled as or more so than you in the subject. This is why master teachers pair homework and practice with its sister strategy, providing feedback.

Providing feedback can be tiered to give every opportunity to the students to receive the guidance they need to learn. For instance, teachers could lead students through checking the work and accuracy of their math homework (whole group feedback). Then the students could pair up and discuss how to solve the three practice problems that were most challenging to them (peer feedback). Then the teacher could encourage students to revise their work based on the feedback (mastery teaching). Finally, the teacher could collect a random assignment at the end of the week for in-depth feedback by the teacher (expert feedback).

In any case, students should have the opportunity for meaningful practice that includes criteria-based corrective feedback. These feedback should be both positive and negative in that is lets the students know what they are doing well and not well and how to improve it. Then the students should have the opportunity to act on this feedback to make the corrections. Sports coaches and master teachers know this practice and feedback loop very well. Do you have an example of a practice/feedback loop that you use with your students?

By Matt Kuhn – Curriculum & Instruction Consultant – STEM

21 Comments

  • kellywarnock says:

    I have found the whole group and peer feedback most effective. Also, I think parental feedback is an important factor in improving homework practices. One article I found gives some helpful tips for parents and teachers: http://www.hfrp.org/publications-resources/browse-our-publications/parental-involvement-in-homework-a-review-of-current-research-and-its-implications-for-teachers-after-school-program-staff-and-parent-leaders

  • Matt Kuhn says:

    Thanks for the great resource Kelly!

  • Mary Schuck says:

    While I am in agreement that homework and practice are extremely valuable, I am frustrated by the fact that the majority of my students won’t complete it. What is the best way to handle this? Does anyone have a solution for this, or at least an effective way to handle it?

  • Peggy says:

    I understand your frustruation and have had similar experiences in the past. I found I had to examine the amount and kind of homework I was assigning and adapt it to reflect the “big ideas” I really wanted them to learn. They loved to do out of the box assignments, such as sketching diagrams or cartoons of processes (science) or writing their personal opinions to challenge questions. It’s OK to try a variety of assignments to find what will work for you.

  • Kate Musso says:

    In teaching chemistry, I have found that new topics and concepts take a very large amount of practice to master. In asking the students what would make them more comfortable with the subject, they always say “more practice,” but they find it more beneficial to practice in class since I can walk around and help them as they work. I find that if they don’t completely understand the concept, they won’t even attempt their homework because they “don’t get it.” I find it difficult to decide how much class time should be alloted to guided practice and at what point homework should account for the majority of their practice.

  • Janice Richard says:

    After teaching a new concept, students are given a worksheet for practice. This worksheet is not graded for correction, instead it is graded for attempt made. Feedback is then given to the students the next day. Students who are struggling will work with students who understand how to do the work. Before the review day students are given a worksheet that is graded for correctness. This feedback helps me to plan the review day.

  • Matt says:

    Hi Kate, check out http://delicious.com/mattscottkuhn/Chemistry+Podcasts for ideas about how to make more time in the classroom for teacher-guided practice and feedback.

  • Pam says:

    Homework was the topic of discussion in a collaborative meeting at my school two weeks ago. The professional learning community was made up of teachers from a variety of disciplines. A teacher from the math department stated that he regularly assigns homework and then takes grades on the assigned homework by having what he calls “homework quizzes”. Basically, he asks students to copy their answers for specific homwork questions onto a worksheet that is then graded by him. He stated that he does this because most of his students will not complete the homework on a regular basis if it is not going to be collected and counted for a grade and that grading entire assignments becomes to cumbersome.

  • Matt Kuhn says:

    Pam, thanks for the good time saving technique.

  • Teresa says:

    I teach math to middle school students with cognitive delays, learning disabilities, health impairments, and behavior disorders. I assign homework twice a week, Mondays and Wednesdays. I grade for effort. Points are taken off for each day late. I do give corrective feedback on every paper. When students ask about an assignment, I do go over it with them. After reading the comments on this blog and discussions I have had with my colleagues, I am feeling more and more compelled to go over each assignment. The only reason I have not done this, yet, is that homework is usually fairly aligned with what we are doing in class.

  • Cindy F. says:

    I agree that homework and practice are critical elements for instruction. However, I also have struggled getting children to turn in or complete the homework. I teach in a low socio-economic school with 83% of the students receiving free or reduced lunch. Many of these students only receive help with their school work at school. Often, the parents never graduated high school and can’t help with the homework. It is with this in mind that I use the effort approach to homework. My students know that I do not “grade” the homework. But, I use a checklist of who has completed the assignment and then we discuss the questions. Believe me, the power is in the discussion. It does take 15 minutes or so of the instruction time, but it is well worth it. During the discussion, I make sure I give a minute for the students to “check” their work before we discuss it. During that time, those who did not complete the assignment have time to look at it and start the process. All of the students have time to change or complete the answer based on the discussion. At the end of the discussion, all students must turn in completed papers. Those that did not do it at home, have now had their practice. Those that really didn’t understand it, now have had remediation. Those that completed the assignment before the discussion will have the opportunity for free choice/reward time at the end of the week. They must complete 85% of the homework to receive the reward time. This also lets me simply use the checklist for a grading system (a weekly percentage grade) versus having to grade each assignment. That can become overwhelming! By doing this, I only have 2 or 3 that do not complete the homework to the best of their ability before the discussion.
    I also agree with Peggy who stated that she only gives homework on the big ideas the students really need to understand. There must be a purpose to the assignments.

  • Matt Kuhn says:

    Hello Cindy, it sounds like you have multiple layers of feedback in your homework activities. Bravo!

  • Djohdjoh says:

    I teach 11th grade Spanish level II, and have a huge challenge because we meet every other day, and sometimes, it’s only on a Monday and Wednesday and we have a whole 4 days before having another class. As such, homework is extremely important to practice the content learned in class, however, my students will NOT do the work. They often have jobs at night, are stuck caring for their young siblings as parent(s) are working 2nd jobs, or they are simply not motivated and play videogames all night and their parents could care less.
    I have tried everything by making homework worth more than participation or tests/quizzes, and I have tried to make it worth less and weighted class participation heaviest to accomodate for my students that have evening commitments to supporting their families. I don’t have the answer. This past year, I took to making H&P worth equal % as all participation and tests and gave up my lunch every day to help them complete it in school ~ this helped some but not all.
    I think the bottom line is we have to look at the complex human beings our students are and their lives in the “big picture”. Homework is important for sustained learning, particularly in my class that meets at best, every other day, but maybe the answer is stepping up my game in class so that the homework is not so critical… any suggestions out there? THANKS!

  • Jennifer says:

    As I math teacher, I know the importance of homework and practice. H&P is extremely important, especially as a new concept is presented. I try to make sure the work I assign is meaningful and more than just complete #1-30 even.
    One school I worked at would not allow grading of homework or even grading for completion. I struggled with how to get the students to do their homework. So I started a system much like Cindy F. described. I used a class roster to “check” that my students did their homework. They did not know it was not for a grade, and this also allowed me to take attendance at the same time. In addition, this allowed me to see if they missed numerous assignments in a row. I would talk to them about their missing work and I would share with parents if they missed more than three assignments. On the positive side, I would also share with parents when a student was completing all their homework. Student accountability grew through this process.
    We always go over homework when it is assigned and I take the first part of class to do this. The discussion is usually in the form of whole group feedback. Students correct their work or complete the problem if they did not do the homework the night before. Then I give homework quizzes about once every three weeks to make sure students are correcting their assignments.
    I love the idea of providing feedback in other ways, especially the peer feedback. After reading this blog I can see I need to implement different types of feedback. I wonder though, how do you complete all this feedback in a time efficient manner?

  • Matt Kuhn says:

    This has been a popular topic on McREL’s Blog lately. It all comes down to feedback and engagement. Check out my collection of Homework and Practice resources at http://delicious.com/mattscottkuhn/Homework%26Practice.

  • Esther Smith says:

    If we want homework as teachers, we have to honor that work with feedback. This doesn’t make a magic wand which will make all students complete their homework, yet it does send a powerful and needed message that homework is crucial to learning….
    Thanks for the article.

  • kyja17@aol.com says:

    I hand out homework Mon-Thurs. In addition students are required to read every night.I believe students need time to practice the skills and concepts taught in class.I also think it is crucial to provide students with constructive feedback.They need to know their strengths and the areas that need improvement.Responsibility is also taught. I do not usually incorporate peer feedback with homework but I am going to try it after reading these posts! Thanks!

  • Karen Pankratz says:

    Homework seems to be a challenge no matter what grade you teach. I teach fifth grade and I have my share of struggles as well. My district requires 10 minutes of homework per grade so I give 50 minutes a night. I typically give 20-30 minutes of reading homework because I believe time in text is important. I also give math practice so students can review old skills and practice new skills. I keep a check-off chart so I know who has turned in homework and who has not. I do not usually penalize my students for not doing homework but they know that I’m disappointed in their effort if they choose not to do it.
    One motivational tool I have used for math is to give a minimum amount that students must complete. We talk about how some students need more practice than others and how it’s important to identify those times for yourself. Initially I have students that take advantage of not having to do all the homework but they soon realize that they have to work harder later if they don’t practice the skill when they should have. It’s not perfect but it works most of the time and it gives the students choice, which is important.
    I love the idea of peer feedback and I look forward to trying this idea. We always correct homework together as a group and I enjoy allowing students to show off how they solved different problems. I believe students learn a lot from each other and peer feedback would lend to this!

  • Matt Kuhn says:

    Keep up the good work Karen. It sounds like you are on the right track. This article give info on math homework feedback. It is one of my favorites. http://www.nctm.org/news/content.aspx?id=13812

  • Mary Jacobson says:

    The research still seems to be in somewhat disagreement on the benefits of homework; many of those dilemmas pointed out in the comments here. Purpose, connection to the goal, feedback etc. I’m often reminded of the “gradual release model” (Gallagher / Pearson)where “guided practice” is the precursor to success for independent practice. So much homework, it seems, is sent “home” without guided practice and thus, frustration sets in for students AND families alike. So perhaps one of the keys is how teachers set students up for success within that “practice” setting.

  • Matt Kuhn says:

    Mary, I agree with your comments about making sure that homework is planned, set up, and guided by the teacher properly to be effective. I think technology like the Khan Academy can do a lot to make sure students have some guidance. I wish I had such a think when I was sweating it out in my bedroom back in the day. My high school homework would have gone much more smoothly.

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