10 Ways for Teachers to Hack Homework Assignments

A recent #Edchat was focused on the topic of homework. Should we use it? What is good homework? What are the benefits and drawbacks? What does the research say about it? Some even wondered what a teacher can do when the school requires that they give a certain amount of homework. My response to that last question was simple. If you are required to give homework, then hack it. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I believe that hacking homework is a good standard practice.

Homework is simply defined as work that a student is supposed to do at home (or beyond the class session). With that broad of a definition, it is hard to make too many definitive statements about it. For me, that is an invitation to play and experiment with the term. So what does it mean to hack homework? Hacking is about experimentation, exploration, using things in unexpected or even unintended ways. So, if we add hacking to homework, we get the idea of playful, experimental, experiential, exploratory learning. In other words, we get an idea of homework that sets aside the worksheets, drill and practice exercises, and similar activities. We let go of the idea of that performance on homework assignments adds up to be part of a letter grade. Instead, what if we made homework exploratory, playful, and formative. With that in mind, here are ten ways to get you started on your homework hacking journey.

1. Life Experiments

This is can be done prior to or after a lesson. It is where you invite learners to conduct simple experiments related to what they are exploring in class, and then to report their findings back to the class.

2. Find It in the Real World

These are assignments that challenge students to try or test something from class beyond the walls of the school. If it is a math class, have students find examples of where the math is being used, or how it can be used to explain something.

3. Interviews and Observations

This may not work as well for every content area, but having students observe or talk to people can be a rich and powerful learning experience. It doesn’t need to be complex. Even simple conversations with parents or guardians can be enlightening.

4. Don’t Grade It

Think about it. Homework is typically about helping students practice. Practice is not the game. It helps get ready for the game. So, why would we make the practice part of what goes into the final grade for the class? That is confusing formative and summative assessment, and it simply rewards those who need the least amount of practice or help. If grades about what students have or have not learned by the end of the class, why grade homework, which is just progress toward that final goal?

5. Make their Non-Homework Homework

Tell them not to do any homework, but then to make connections between what they learned in class and what happening in the rest of their lives.

6. Mini Service Learning

How about the “Pay it Forward” approach to homework. Give them the challenge of using something they learned in the class to help someone. Then have them report back. This is a great way to help students make the connection between the life of learning and service.

7. Artistic Expressions

Most students have cell phones, iPods or something they can use to snap pictures. Have students take one or more pictures that helps teach or illustrate a concept that was studied or will be studied in class. Once they take the picture, you can have it send to you, ready for a fun and interesting slide show the next day in class. In essence, your students are creating part of the hook for the lesson.

8. Self-Directed and Self-Generated Homework

Your assignment is to give yourself an assignment that will help you learn, reinforce, or refine your understanding of ___________ (a topic learned about in class). You will be amazed at some of the interesting and creative ideas that students develop. This will also help you learn about them as learners, an it helps them learn about themselves. People say that homework teaches responsibility, but this really helps students move toward self-directed learning and the nurturing of human agency, which is hopefully what we want to see in graduates.

9. Homework Games

Your task is to create a game that could be used to help people learn about ________. Then, when you get to class, play some of the games.

10. Lesson Planning

Yes, why not invite students into the lesson planning process. Share all your lessons with students in advance using a Google Doc. Let them use the comment feature to review, revise, suggest alternatives, etc. In other words, invite them into the process of planning their own learning activities.

This is just the beginning. By simply giving ourselves permission to define homework more broadly and combining with the spirit of the hacker, we can come up with some wonderfully rich, engaging, and beneficial “homework” for learners. What are your ideas? Feel free to suggest other ways to hack homework in the comment area.

Posted in blog, design thinking, education, homework | Tagged ,

About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is an author, host of the MoonshotEdu Show, professor of education, AVP of Academics, and Chief Innovation officer. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, The Pedagogy of Faith (editor), and Adventures in Self-Directed Learning. He is passionate about futures in education, educational innovation, alternative education, and nurturing agency and curiosity.

3 thoughts on “10 Ways for Teachers to Hack Homework Assignments

  1. Paul Schwan

    I just finished a lengthy conversation with a parent of one of my 5th grade students on this very topic. I plan to share your article with her and get her “take” on it. Thanks for the timely topic!

  2. DrEvel1

    Great stuff! There’s no question that the current mania for homework, fueled largely by helicopter parents, is fundamentally damaging to real education.

    Re: your suggestion #9 regarding creating learning games – Some years back, I gave a PhD-level class in organizational communications an assignment to try to create an experiential exercise to teach some aspect of the subject. I got back a number of good versions, but one was so outstanding a short exercise to teach the complexity of social networks and how indirect ties can change information distribution that I am still using it almost 20 years later – and it’s even more useful now than then. I only regret that I have forgotten the name of the student who submitted it – I would love to make formal acknowledgement of her contribution! Actually, I plan to be using a version of it in the near future, once again.

    I’m planning to write a post about this precise issue shortly. Thanks for the reminder!

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