Why homework doesn’t work…

Homework doesn’t work because…

1.  Unlike what most of us were told as kids, practice DOES NOT make perfect.  Perfect practice makes perfect.  Practice makes permanent.

How unbelievably frustrating is it to you and a student when they go home and diligently complete their assignment of practice problems for math or science and come back to realize they’ve had a systematic error and practiced that error 15-30 times?  It can be almost impossible to get that error out of them after all that reinforcement with the error.

2.  Timely, specific and tailored feedback is one of the most crucial aspects of efficient and effective learning and the traditional system of homework doesn’t provide that.

Let’s say you assign work on a Monday and the kid does it, and turns it in on Wednesday (because you’re on a block schedule and only see students every-other-day) and you look at it and return it to them on Friday.  That’s now 5 days later.  Chances are the student will look at the grade and toss it or file it in their binder.  They’ve forgotten what was in their mind when they were working on the problems and therefore the feedback is not timely.

And chances are, with the grading you have to do you don’t have time for detailed, step-by-step feedback.  Your response might be a simple point deduction, a word or two, etc., but you’re not likely to go through every missed problem on every student’s paper and write feedback that the student would then be able to correct their misunderstandings with (especially in light of #1 above!)  Therefore the feedback isn’t specific or tailored.

3.  Students get stuck and can’t move on and therefore often don’t do the homework.

With math and math-based sciences, an assignment typically starts out with simpler or single-step practice and works its way up to the more complex and multi-step tasks.  If a student can’t do the first one, they look at the next one and probably can’t do it either, look at the one after and they really can’t do that one.  So they put it away and are stuck.

4.  If they do have a question, by the time they see you next they don’t remember what it was.

So let’s say the student gets stuck, puts it in his backpack with the intention of going in to get help the next day.  But by then they probably have forgotten what their original question was – again, not timely feedback!

So, what can you do instead?

Although I’m by no means a proponent of drill-and-kill, there are skills that students need to practice in math and many science courses.  But there are much better ways of doing it…

One method is backwards-faded worksheets for students that cannot solve the traditional problems on their own.  Read a blog I wrote describing them as a form of scaffolding.

A second method is to simply build in class time for work sessions.  During those work sessions, make sure that students have access to peers, you,  and the answer key.

Give them the answer key?  What????
I keep mine on the front table in my classroom so that they always know where it is and can access it but I can keep track of who and how long they’re spending looking at it.  I encourage students to look at it if they’re unsure of how they did on a problem, after the first few whether they think they did it right or not (just to make sure they’re not practicing, and therefore making permanent, wrong methods).

If they look at the answer key, got it wrong and can’t figure out why then they ask me or a peer and get that immediate, tailored feedback…bingo!

Another method is using a flipped-classroom where students use technology to access lectures outside of class and then use class time to work on problems together – this is an extreme version of the “build in class time for work sessions” suggested above…it’s a good one! 🙂

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