Rigor without homework? Five good reasons

I’ve been experimenting with a monumental shift in my homework policy. My original policy had been in place since I started teaching in 1993: students typically had homework Monday – Thursday nights with occasional long-term projects. When choosing and deisgining homework activities, I did almost everything right, according to the research that does exist about best practices in homework: it was not busy work; it was clearly related to both the content of the lesson in class and the objectives on which students would be assessed later; it was not excessively long; and students had access to a variety of resources to help them complete it. Everything was right…except that there is mounting research that homework has no effect on student achievement.

In mid-fall, I made a paradigm shift and did away with virtually all of my homework assignments (see earlier post). Now that I have been working without regular homework for several months, it is time to analyze, reflect and decide if this approach is proving valuable for teaching and learning. And the answer is a resounding yes–yes it is valuable.

That is not to say that there haven’t been some difficulties along the way. The biggest issue is that it now takes me longer to complete the teaching, practice, reflection cycle with my students because almost all of the practice now has to fit into classtime (and because I’m still not ready to completely “flip” my instruction and have my students try to teach themselves at home….more on that in a separate post). So it appears we are going much slower than in the past.

But that is it. The only negative. The only “con” to this approach. Are there benefits?¬†Absolutely.

  1. Students are completing almost 100% of the practice activities now. Before, some students (the “best” students) did all of the practice. Now ALL students are doing ¬†ALL of the practice. Research shows that the majority of students don’t choose to “neglect” homework, but rather that they don’t complete it because they don’t think they understand the material well enough to bother trying. By doing the work in class students can get immediate assistance from their peers or from me. This minimizes their mistakes in general, it almost eliminates fossilization of errors, and it maximizes quality practice that reinforces correct usage/application of the content in their brains.
  2. Assessment scores have increased across the board. My current students are scoring higher than ever on their various assessments (and I’ve been teaching for 23 years). Although this is not a scientific study, I do have some basis for comparison since I actually teach the same students year after year. This is one of the joys and benefits of teaching French: I love how well I know my students and the community that develops within our room as relationships are given the opportunity to grow over several years.
  3. Students are asking for help more often and students are also serving as in-class resources, helping each other. I’ve always had my students sit in groups. This is a language class after all, and I would like their speaking environment to be as natural as possible. I always thought the students would help each other and that would be a side benefit of seating them in groups, but this is the first year that such peer-to-peer assistance has been commonplace. Better still, the students are learning about each others’ strengths, and I’ve heard all of my students contribute positively to the success of at least one other student by helping–no matter how “low” the student may appear to be.
  4. When students complete independent practice, they are ready to do it at home, without their peers or teacher nearby–and they are still getting it right! I don’t assign as much of this as perhaps I should, and this will be an area of growth for me as I continue to work with this new approach.
  5. Students are generally more confident in class. In fact, French 3 is handling authentic literature with a degree of comfort and enthusiasm I have never seen before!

Too often, the homework assigned is busy work or it is students being expected to teach themselves. And even when the homework is relevant, it is often assigned too early in the learning process, which leads to many students feeling like it is pointless to even try the activity. Students need “guided practice”, which means that they need opportunities to practice (and play) with new material with the support of teachers, aides and peers before they can progress to “independent practice.” Guided pracitce is typically what is assigned for homework, often in a worksheet format. Most guided practice activities have only one right answer. We know that we need to move students away from this and towards open-ended, independent practice. But that doesn’t mean we skip guided practice: it is an essential part of the learning process. The students’ success with guided practice activities are the barometer by which we (and the students themselves) judge whether or not they are ready to work more actively and deeply with the material outside of the confines of our rooms and the support structures of our presence.