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How to Create Effective Homework

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Based on a recent spate of articles on homework, it’s clear that the homework wars -- how much? how often? -- are still topic of big interest to both parents and teachers. Some teachers hate to give homework; others see it as a vital necessity. But according to some research presented by Annie Murphy Paul, the question isn’t how much, but whether the homework teachers do give actually advances learning.

“A recent study, published in the Economics of Education Review,” Paul wrote in “How Can We Make Homework Worthwhile?”, “reports that homework in science, English and history has ‘little to no impact’ on student test scores. (The authors did note a positive effect for math homework.) Enriching children’s classroom learning requires making homework not shorter or longer, but smarter.” Paul goes on to describe specific practices, like spaced repetition (in which information is presented and repeated spaced out over time), retrieval practice (testing or quizzing not for assessment, but to reinforce material learned), and cognitive disfluency (“desirable difficulties” used to make learning stick) -- all memory/retrieval techniques that may help homework move beyond busy work and advance real learning.

But to get those elements to work, said Fires in the Mind author and speaker Kathleen Cushman, students must be motivated to do their homework in the first place. One example Cushman gave was creating a project so interesting and involved, students naturally wanted to keep working on it after the bell rang. She pointed to a chapter in the book where she describes a particular motivation for some high school students she interviewed, under the heading “Homework We Actually Want to Do”:

“Christina and Nicholas both remembered a global studies unit on the French Revolution in which students acted out a courtroom trial of the king and queen. The project brought even routine homework assignments to life, they said.

“I was the queen. So of course I wanted to do my homework all the time, so I could know the facts of what happened and what didn’t happen, know what I wanted to say when someone tried to say I did this or that thing. I could say, ‘Oh no, I didn’t!’ - because I’d read my homework,” said Christina.


Christina was using a form of retrieval practice -- but because it was so much fun to be the queen, she only knew she wanted to stay in character. The queen had to study the information to get it right.

Another way teachers can take a good, hard look at homework practices, said Cushman, is to ask themselves a few vital questions: “Does this homework ask each student to practice something that the student hasn’t yet mastered? Does the student clearly see its purpose? When students are asked to repeat or rehearse something, does it require them to focus? Or can they do it without really paying attention?” If the homework meets these criteria, she said, then it falls into the desirable realm of “deliberate practice.”

Dan Bisaccio, former high school science teacher and now Director of Science Education at Brown University, said that after years of experience giving homework to high school students, he now “preaches” to his future teachers: “Homework should be practice and extensions of what happens in class and should not be ‘new learning,’” he said. “That is, students [shouldn’t be] having to teach themselves new content or skills.”

He said he agreed with Cushman that motivation is key, and tried to design homework that kept students interested. “Teachers need to clue into what motivates their students, giving them something that they really want to complete, and complete well.” One assignment Bisaccio used, called an “Experience Map,” asked students to create a map of their experiences after a field study or other important project - a technique employing both retrieval practice and the somewhat trickier interleaving, a “desirable difficulty” in which problems of different types are presented in one assignment, making students think harder to come up with solutions and answers.

“We ‘map’ mentally and physically each day. It helps to keep us orientated through our frenzied sun-up to sun-down daily experiences,” reads the assignment. Directions are to draw a field experience map, including -- with regard to the class -- where students have been, what they have done, new challenges, and insights. Special suggestions for drawing include “a place of danger, a favorite place, a place of power, a place with a secret.” Students are also called upon to map the places where they learned the most, where they were challenged the most, and where the funniest experience happened.

In addition, Bisaccio asked students to write what had challenged them most as a learner, what had stretched their limits most -- meant to be reflections just for students themselves, and asked to be kept on the back of the map. “What they wrote on the back was not shared with others,” he said. Once the assignment was completed, maps were posted to form a class atlas of what they had learned.

All the examples included here, however, are examples of homework in a traditional classroom. What about homework in a flipped classroom, where the lectures, usually videos, are the homework? A recent New York Times article on flipped classrooms may provide insight into flipping homework on its head, too: it quoted high school senior Luwayne Harris, saying, “Whenever I had a problem on the homework, I couldn’t do anything about it at home. Now if I have a problem with a video, I can just rewind and watch it over and over again.”

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