Does Homework Always=Learning?

This post is in response to this week’s question from the 2014 Teacher Leadership Challenge

hwThis summer, I experienced first hand a small taste of what some of my students experience on a nightly basis from their classes. I took a graduate class from 8am-4pm for six days. Each night, after returning from the eight hour class, I had on average three hours of homework. The first night I returned home, I was exhausted. My brain was spent, but I had to push through the task…and it was one of my least favorite memories of the summer. Luckily for me, I only endured this for six nights. High school students experience this often and for their entire high school career.

The idea of homework is definitely controversial. Some teachers feel they must give it in order to have something to grade or feel that students need the practice outside of school. Some teachers only grade for completion, but don’ t even check the homework. Parents become angry when their students are not bringing homework home, as they feel their student needs the homework.  So where do we draw the line?

In my opinion, the amount and type of homework many students receive on a nightly basis is outrageous. We expect students to be in school for seven hours a day, and then head home to work on an additional two to three hours of homework a night. And for the struggling learner, that number can increase two fold.  My biggest complain with homework comes from the excessive amount of “practice” of a particular skill and the type of material covered. When a student takes home homework, the material should be something they know how to do. Students should not be teaching themselves the material. At that point, the “practice” is simply “self-teaching” or lack thereof of the material.

For the student that struggles with the homework or is more advanced in the skill, homework many times=failure. For the struggling student, when they don’t complete the homework, they earn a 0 for the assignment. And the determinant of zeros on a student’s grade is so great. For the student who is more advanced, and does need this “practice, ” they too are impacted grade wise like the struggling learner. Only they often have the stronger test taking ability, and can do well enough on tests to where they can still pass.

Homework does not always=learning. And in fact, the time during which students are in the classroom working with and learning from their teacher and class mates is much more a time of learning then doing homework to get the grade. When homework goes home, how are we sure the student is actually doing their own work? What if no one is home to assist with the homework or doesn’t have the skill themselves to help the student?  What if the student doesn’t get the homework? How are we setting students up for success when they experience one or more of these situations?

As Allen Iverson said repeatedly at a press conference, “We are talking about practice?….we aren’t talking about the game?” We need to be more focused on how students learn the material and can apply what they learn, and not be so hung up on the need for repetitive “practice” (homework.) Let’s focus on the game for students, recognizing what they know and have learned and how they can apply this information.

Students Need Strategies, Not Just Graduation

try1When I first tell people that I am a resource teacher and teach a class called learning strategies, I sometimes get the famous comment, “Oh, is your class really a homework hour?” “Is your main focus to help the kids graduate? ” My responses are no to the first and partially to the second.

Our program does support students in their academic classes, but our first and foremost goal is to teach the strategies for success, not just support them to get a diploma.

We are doing a disservice to students, especially struggling learners, if our focus in high school is just to help them graduate. Sure, the content is very important, but if students don’t have strategies to implement to tackle new content, they will struggle immensely as the content requires higher orders of thinking beyond basic understanding.

I have had the privilege of working with many amazing students as a teacher. One particular student comes to mind as I think about what a huge impact strategies have on student success. Student A, was diagnosed with dyslexia as well as a learning disability in the areas of reading comprehension and math problem solving. But through the use of exposure to varying strategies, and finding which ones worked best for her, she moved out of resource English and Math classes as she progressed through high school.  She found she learned best through color coding, reviewing material over and over and staying extremely organized in order to be successful as well as integrating technology supports. This August, she began her second year of college and has made the dean’s list during her freshman year. Through hard work and determination, she has taken what she learned in high school and has applied it to her entire life. Had we only helped her muddle through strictly the content of high school material, she would have been at a huge disadvantage once she left our doors.

Life is about learning different strategies, finding which one(s) work best for you, and implementing them. Let’s make this year about preparing our students for the challenges they face beyond strictly content.

Filling Your Strategy Toolbox

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Editors Note: This post is written by guest author Aubrey Trimble. The views expressed are her own. 

I have been very fortunate in my role as a Learning Consultant to see some awesome teaching and great classroom strategies that help reach our at-risk and special education students. I would like to share a few that I have found to be very successful in the general education classroom.

Summarizing Technique

In high school, we assume our students understand how to summarize a text, whether a fictional or non-fictional text. When I was teaching in the classroom I found a lot of the students understood what summarizing was, but not exactly how to do it; inevitably, the student would end up re-telling the story.

  • Have students read a text. Before the students read the text, ask the students to write down five to ten (depending on how long the text may be) words that are important to understanding the text.
  • Once all the students have finished, ask the student to write a summary that cannot be any longer than 4-5 sentences and must include all of the words they had previously identified as important.

This strategy allows the student to identify what is important while reading the text and stops the student from re-telling the story because they have to prioritize what are the most important ideas to include.

Teacher/Student Made Book Marks
This is a great strategy for teachers who perhaps are reading a novel that may have a lot of characters, changes in setting, etc. or for a science text that may have vocabulary that will be new to the students. The book mark allows for a “hint sheet” to the important pieces of the text so that the student has access to this information, readily and easily.

  • For a chapter book, create a book mark that outlines the important literary pieces of the text the students must understand in order to understand the book. The book mark can be filled previously before reading or the student can fill it in as they read.
  • For vocabulary purposes, create a book mark with the new vocabulary words on it where, again, they can be filled in previously or the student can fill it out as they go along.
  • For due dates in a chapter book, you can create a book mark with due dates for when chapters need to be read by.

This strategy is helpful because it is a tool all students can use and will have the important pieces of information the students may need to understand the concepts of the text or the text itself in a fun, easy to use book mark.

Test Corrections: What Does the Student Really Know?

This strategy is great because it addresses the information the student does not know so the student can address these issues before  moving forward without gaps in the understanding and potentially getting further behind.

Once the test has been corrected by the teacher, hand the test back out to the student. Have the students identify what questions they did wrong. You can:

  1. Create a t-chart and have the student look for patterns to the questions done incorrectly. For example, in math, are they missing a key step in each problem or on an English test, is the student only struggling with the vocabulary section of the assessment. The t-chart labels would be question type-mistake made.
  2. Have students write a reflection on what type of answers they did wrong and why. The student can also reflect on what steps did they take to prepare for the test and are they happy with the results.
  3. Have students make corrections and then write out why the correct answer is correct and why the answer they chose was incorrect.

This strategy allows you as the teacher to see the patterns of strengths and weaknesses within your students’ abilities and knowledge, as well as allow for the students to identify this. In this, students can begin addressing the areas they may need to strengthen when it comes to test taking, whether that is strengthen their content knowledge, slowing down when testing or using a better study method.

Students Create Test Questions

This is a great strategy because it will allow you to see if you and your students are on the same page when it comes to content coming up on a test. Even our brightest students can perform poorly on a test if they do not study the right material. Students who typically struggle in school, I feel, really struggle with test because they feel like every test has been created to “trick them” and they typically do not prepare for the test by studying sufficiently the days before.

  • Before a test, instead of giving the students a study guide, have the students create a test of their own. Challenge the students to think about what were the important concepts that were the focus throughout the unit and let that information fuel the questions they create.
  • Students have to create the same types of questions that will be found on the test. For example, if you are going to have some multiple choice questions with an essay question at the end, then the students must create the same.

This would be a great opportunity to discuss with students the different types of questions stems teachers use and how the student will see the same stem over and over again. After the students have created the questions, have the students share with the class and discuss what questions “sound” like questions that “may” be on the test and what questions they would not find.

This strategy allows students to put on their teacher “hats” and focus in on the important material that needs to be studied for a test. It also allows the students to see the process the teacher goes through to create a test, which takes some of the mystery out of the question, “What is going to be on the test tomorrow?”

Consider trying out a new strategy this coming year that you haven’t in the past.Have a great start to the school year!