If You Want to Prepare Students for College Then Maybe We Should Stop With the Homework

If you want to prepare students for college, stop with the homework. This might seem like a provocative opening sentence to some, but please read to the end to see what I mean. With growing interest around “no homework” policies in schools, there is a persistent debate about the subject. Some point to early studies showing a correlation between homework and performance in school. Notice that these are correlation studies, but they don’t necessarily indicate causation. In other words, there is not certainly that doing homework is actually what resulted in the increased academic performance. Others argue that homework is an important part of preparing students for the next level, especially college. Opponents often contend that there is more to life than school, and homework unnecessarily extends school well into the evening hours, leaving less and less room for family, other hobbies, down time, free play, self-directed learning, and much more.

It Depends

This entire subject is an interesting conversation to me because it really does depend upon what happens during the school day. People are assuming that the standard day of 40-60 minute classes (or maybe block periods) is the only option, but that is far from the truth. There are an endless number of ways to structure learning during a school day. It is just that we often seem to lack the creativity to explore other options. Yet, how we organize the school day is incredibly relevant to debates about homework.

Homework to Fill the Gap for a Lack of Creativity in School?

In some cases, homework is necessary because the school day is so absent of actual, student-centered times of inquiry, work, study, reading, research, and creation. Students sit in desks while teachers directed and dictate. Then they assign homework where students practice what they did not get a chance to practice during the day. Or, they work on projects that they couldn’t work on during the day. Teachers still sometimes think that they earn their keep by carefully directing each moment of the day and maybe even lecturing, leading demos and samples, and the like. Yet, most of us know that there are far more options available.

Different School Day Structures

I’ve been to schools where students are researching, designing, creating, experimenting, studying, practicing, and more during the entire school day. In such instances, homework as we often think of it, is often unnecessary because students are working all day long.

A Different Perspective on College Preparation

People sometimes say that homework is necessary to prepare students for college, but a typical undergraduate student taking 15 credits a semester for two semesters will spend about 450-500 hours in class each year (with additional “homework” beyond that) compared to high school students who spend about 1200 hours at school during the year (900-1000 of which is instructional time). So if high school was really about preparing for college, why not back off on homework and instead have students in classes half of the school day, with more rich, student-centered times of personal study, reading, study groups, research, creation and the like the other half of the day? It is fewer total hours of work compared to college (1200 hours in high school annually compared to about 1350 for in class and out of class work for two semesters of 15 credits each in college), but it probably mimics the college experience more accurately.

Or Maybe…

Or, maybe the the preparation for the next level perspective is altogether unhelpful. Maybe school should be more about equipping for the full spectrum of life and learning.

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.