October 31, 2000 Categories: Engaging Academics / Homework

Ask any teacher, parent, student, or administrator about homework and you’re likely to get a different opinion about the quality and quantity at their school: there should be more, there should be less, it’s too easy, it’s too hard, it should start when children are very young, it should start when children are older.

While many schools have policies that clearly spell out homework expectations and sound simple enough—all students will have one hour of homework every night—every teacher knows that the reality of assigning and monitoring homework every day for a group of 20–30 students is anything but simple.

When the subject of homework arose in a recent workshop for K–8 teachers, the questions and concerns flooded out:

  • “What about the children who never do their homework? I’ve tried just about everything and nothing helps.”
  • “What about the students who only do part of the assignment?”
  • “What about the kids who don’t do it because there’s no one around at home to help them?”

If you’re like most teachers, you’ve probably experienced all of these problems and more. Is it possible to make them all disappear? Unlikely. But it is possible to greatly reduce the number of problems and to increase the chances that all students will experience success. In this article I offer a few key strategies which have proven successful.

Take the time to teach homework

The typical approach to introducing homework is to talk with students about homework expectations. We tell them how they are to do their homework; we may even talk about good homework habits. We then send them off to do it alone, and more often than not, we’re disappointed with the results.

The critical step that’s missing here is practice. If we really want students to understand our expectations for homework and successfully meet these expectations, then we must be willing to “teach” homework. This means introducing homework slowly and incrementally and providing plenty of time for students to practice the routine under our guidance before expecting them to do it at home independently.

At the K.T. Murphy School in Stamford, Connecticut, for example, during the first six weeks of school, primary grade students complete all written homework in class. Older students do the same for the first two to four weeks. During this practice period, teachers and students work to define expectations for high-quality homework and students bring home their completed “homework” to share with parents. In this way, parents gain a better understanding of homework expectations and are better able to hold their children to these expectations.

It’s never too late to begin

A proactive approach to homework early in the school year has helped many teachers keep students on track academically and away from the negative lessons of detention or missed recess. But no matter what time of the year it is, if your students are struggling with homework, you might want to spend a week or two re-introducing it to your class.

As nearly every page of The First Six Weeks of School reminds us, taking the time to slowly introduce classroom procedures, curriculum, and materials is vital to students’ success. The same holds true for homework, and the strategies used during the first six weeks of school can be applied to any time of the school year.

Be flexible and individualize as needed

It’s often the case that all students are given identical homework assignments. This practice guarantees failure for some students. Discouraged by their inability to meet expectations, many students invent ingenious excuses each morning for their failure. Their willingness to invest energy creating excuses, however, is a sign of their continued eagerness to do what is expected of them. Other students, more defeated, simply respond to the question of “Where’s your homework?” with “I don’t know.”

If we are to increase students’ success with homework, we must be willing to be flexible and to individualize assignments. As Melvin Konner, author of Childhood: A Multicultural View, states, “In order to be treated fairly and equally, children have to be treated differently.” Yes, differentiated homework, like differentiated instruction, will be more work for the teacher in the short run, but the long-term payoff of student success and investment will be worth it.

I suggest that teachers apply the same “3 R’s” they use for choosing logical consequences—consequences should be respectful, related, and reasonable—to choosing homework. That is, homework should be:

  • respectful of the child’s ability and development level,
  • related to the work of the classroom and, where possible, to the interest of the individual student, and
  • reasonable in amount and degree of difficulty.

This does not mean that teachers need to create different homework assignments for every student every day, of course. There are obviously some assignments that everyone has to do and can easily accomplish, like writing in a journal or practicing spelling words. This work, like project homework in which students have had some choice in the assignment, is differentiated by default because students will choose how much they do in these situations.

Specific differentiation is needed, however, for those students whose ability or work ethic is in need of support. There may be a student, for example, who struggles with math. For this child, completing the standard homework assignment of 20 math problems could mean two hours of grueling work as opposed to the 20 minutes it takes for most. Anticipating this, the teacher might adjust the length of the assignment accordingly.

Other modifications might include arranging for a child to get help with a homework assignment from a parent or sibling or modifying the way in which an assignment is done (for example, dictating rather than writing, or having a parent read a chapter from a textbook to a child rather than the child reading it him/herself).

The important question to ask is, “How might I modify this assignment to fit this child’s learning style and needs?” By having students complete homework assignments in school during the early weeks of school, teachers can learn a lot about students’ varying abilities to work independently, information that can be used to adjust expectations accordingly.

Involve parents

The most important strategy for involving parents is to inform them of your homework practices. Clearly, the more informed parents are about homework expectations, the better able they’ll be to help their children meet these expectations. Many teachers and schools send a letter to parents at the beginning of the school year explaining the homework policy and expectations and enlisting parent support. At K.T. Murphy School, this letter arrives with a packet of information, in several languages, offering guidelines for setting up a space and time for homework and a checklist for homework expectations.

A great early-in-the-year class project could be to write your own “Homework Manual” as a class, perhaps with a “homework hint” from each student, and send the manual home to parents. As mentioned earlier, having students complete their first homework assignments at school and bringing them home to share with their family will also help parents gain a clear understanding of homework expectations.

. . . and if students still forget or don’t finish their homework?

And, of course, this will happen. One approach is to use logical consequences. A student who has been given reasonable, respectful, and related homework and who still has occasional creative excuses needs to experience equally creative consequences that send the message that completing homework is a requirement of being a member of the class.

Perhaps homework is the students’ ticket into homeroom. No hanging out with friends or participating in Morning Meeting until homework is completed. If a child does not have his/her homework, s/he goes directly to a buddy teacher’s classroom to complete it. Or, perhaps a child has a choice of where to complete the homework, in the classroom within earshot of the activities of the class, or in the library or guidance counselor’s office.

These consequences are liable to work for the usually conscientious student. For the more frequent offender, a more careful proactive approach is warranted. I call this approach “incremental success” and favor it over daily failure. Here’s how it works:

Marie has not successfully completed a homework assignment for several weeks. I have a conference with her to ascertain what the problem is and to let her know I’m willing to work jointly on this. Then I ask her what a reasonable number of, say, math problems is for tonight’s assignment. If she says “none,” I say, “That’s not an option.” If she says “three,” I say, “Great! Bring in three beautifully done problems tomorrow.”

When Marie brings in the completed homework, I present her with a “learning log” or record sheet which I have prepared for her to keep track of her own progress. In it she records her successes and failures, her ups and downs, as we proceed through math homework for a month or two. I check in frequently with her during this time, and periodically we review her progress and adjust assignments accordingly.

At the end of a two-month period, with more success than failure now a daily occurrence, we decide together when to eliminate the log. I have used this approach successfully with first graders and sixth graders and am always delighted in the increased responsibility and sense of pride shown by the students. Of course, there are ups and downs to this process for the teacher, too, but in the end, this proactive effort often yields dramatic results.

We ask a lot from children when we ask them to do homework—we ask them to follow directions, to organize their materials, to manage their time, and to work independently. It’s a tall order and its value lies in students experiencing success. Only then will homework be effective in improving students’ sense of responsibility and accomplishment, their academic skills, and their independent study habits.


Tags: Child Development, Homework, Working with Families


For nearly 20 years, high school chemistry teacher Jonathan Bergmann would teach a lesson in class, help students after school and give them standard homework assignments. He was good enough to win a teacher award. But seven years ago, he and Aaron Sams, another teacher at Woodland Park High School in Colorado, decided to do something different.

The initial impetus was reducing the time kids spend with teachers after school. The result has been a total rethinking of how classrooms operate, all based on a question every teacher should be asking: “What is the best use of our face-to-face class time?” The answer for Bergmann: turning his class upside down.

Today, the 48-year-old helps teachers around the world “flip” their classrooms. Last week, he was at Harvard Law School talking about the virtues of flipping. A book he and Sams wrote, “Flip Your Classroom: Reach Every Student in Every Class Every Day,” is coming out in June, and Bergmann is planning the fifth annual conference on Flipped Learning this summer. He and Sams also are launching a nonprofit organization to train teachers in the concept. He is now the lead technology facilitator for the Joseph Sears School in Kenilworth, Ill.

Here are excerpts of conversations I had with Bergmann on the phone and by e-mail:

Q. What exactly is a flipped classroom?

In the simplest form, basically, it’s this: What’s normally done in class, the direct instruction piece, the lecture, is done now at home with videos. And in class, you, the teacher, help students as they do what they would normally do at home.

So it’s homework in school and lesson at home?

When you are stuck in the old model, kids would go home and do one of three things. If they didn’t understand what they were supposed to have learned in school, they gave up, called a friend or cheated. In the flipped classroom, the teacher is there to help with the instruction piece, the learning, while the lecture is done at home.

Tell me about the videos.

Aaron Sams and I decided to start making videos that we could give kids to take home so they wouldn’t have to spend so much time after school getting help. Our assistant superintendent knew we were doing this with the videos — we called them vodcasts — and he told us, “My daughter is at college and loves podcasts. She said, ‘I don’t have to go to class anymore.’ ” So we had an aha moment. What is the value of class time?

The access issue is big. How did you do it?

We had about 160 kids taking chemistry class, and 30 had no [computer] access. We burned DVDs, handed them out and said, “Push play.” We also burned them onto flash drives. A lot of kids had computers but no Internet access.

So what was the next iteration?

The second iteration was the “flipped mastery” model. We realized that the kids had improved on the tests we gave them. The kids were better by one standard deviation, which is a lot. We were like, “Wow.” Then we realized we were still unsatisfied with our interactions with kids. We wanted to make it better.

In the first iteration, every kid watches Video 5 on Tuesday night, and on Wednesday you do the same activities. We kept the kids on the same page. But one thing that is particularly true in chemistry is that if a kid doesn’t know how to do A, then B is hard and C is difficult and E is impossible. Math is very similar that way. Foreign language, too. What we want kids to do is to master the content. So now, at the end of a unit, a student has to score a minimum on a test. At the end of one unit, not all kids are on the same page. They are in different places. This was wildly successful.

What if the kid doesn’t pass the test? Do they retake the same test?

I had to diagnose what the student didn’t understand, and they had to go learn it and take the test again. No, it was a different test.

Then what happened?

We kept asking about the best use of class time. We realized we were giving the same assignments and experiments and homework. And then we asked ourselves, “Are there better ways for kids to learn these things?” We went back and examined everything we did. Two years ago, we began to say the videos shouldn’t be the focus. The video is just a way for them to learn. Is there another way for kids to do that? Yes, there is. Online simulations, for example. In the science world, there is an open source deal called PHET with free online simulations in different subjects. So now the kids can go to learn the content there. They don’t need to watch my video. You just need to learn the material. Students need multiple ways to access content. A kid would say, “Hello, Mr. Bergmann, do I have to watch the video? Can I read the textbook instead?” We said, “You can learn it any way you like.”

How are kids supposed to know where to go to learn the material?

We give them choices. And then we gave them alternative assessments. Kids can make videos, games, projects to show that they have learned the material.

How has this affected standardized test scores?

Students have done better. I don’t know the numbers, but they learn the material. This really works. In my first 19 years as a teacher, I was a good stand-and-deliver lecture guy. I won a presidential award. I had all these credentials. I was good that way. You get to the end of the unit and a kid gets a 62. We move on. All you can do is say, “Wish you had done better, Joey,” but by that time he’s lost and we are in Unit 2. Joey never really learned it. This forces Joey to learn it.

Are there subjects that are good to have a flipped class and subjects that aren’t?

We started it with the hard sciences, physics and math. It works for foreign language. But we’ve got some amazing teachers speaking at our conference who are English teachers. I always thought that would be harder, but they love it. I haven’t seen a whole lot of social studies and history, but there is a movement amongst them. There’s a guy in Dallas who is an economics teacher who flipped his class. One video the kids watched at home was about supply and demand. The next day in class he asked the students what topic they wanted to discuss. Someone said the Dallas Mavericks. The Mavericks had just won the NBA championship. He said, “Fine,” and started asking if there is supply and demand in the NBA.

Isn’t this a blended model of education? Part online, part face-to-face?

Yes, but it’s more than that. The benefits are huge. Kids learn to become independent learners. They figure out how to learn for themselves. In the old model, who would get the teacher’s attention? The kid who raised his hand, the kid who would do well anyway. In this model, everybody gets the teacher’s attention. It humanizes the classroom.

This makes the role of the teacher at least as important as ever. Right?

The flip makes the teacher more important. The teacher is not the disseminator of knowledge but the chief facilitator and the chief learner.

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