Before Assigning Homework, Ask Yourself These Questions

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio: https://www.pexels.com/photo/diligent-small-girl-drawing-on-paper-in-light-living-room-at-home-3755511/

Whether or not to assign homework — and if so, what kind and how much to assign — is an issue which is often hotly debated among educators. Some argue that homework is a necessary part of independent learning, while others say that the learning that takes place in the classroom should be more than sufficient for students to understand the material.

There are many other reasons why teachers may or may not want to assign homework. But not all homework assignments are created equal — and the same can be said for our students.

For example, let’s say that in one math class, a teacher assigns a page of exercises from the textbook as homework for the skill they learned in class that day. As students complete the exercises on their own, some of them gain valuable practice from the assignment after a successful day in class and are able to use that particular skill more efficiently.

Others, however, become frustrated when they can’t understand the process, and the teacher is not around to help. Or worse, they complete every exercise the wrong way, essentially practicing and learning the wrong set of skills — which, of course, will only be that much more difficult to correct.

Whether or not the assignment has value to students depends not just on the assignment itself, but also on individual students’ stages in the learning process.

So in order to understand whether assigning homework is the right choice for your students, you should first ask yourself where they are in the context of their learning, and what the purpose of a certain homework assignment would be.

To do this, we can look more closely at the active learning cycle that we explored in our latest article — and in particular, at the two middle stages: practice and output.

Studycat Active Learning Cycle

Practice and output: What’s the difference?

When we assign homework to our students, it usually isn’t during the initial stage of active learning (input), or at the very end (consolidation). Instead, we typically assign homework during the middle stages of learning (practice and output). Understanding the nature and purpose of these two stages can help us better determine what kind of homework, if any, would be most valuable to our students.

In many ways, the stages of practice and output can seem to overlap with one another. But in examining them more closely, we can see that they are two distinct and separate phases of learning, each with their own purpose and with different roles of both student and teacher.

In order to figure out whether an assignment is the right choice for our students, let’s look at the differences between practice and output — and begin to ask ourselves some questions about what kinds of homework would be most beneficial for learners.

Purpose

The purpose of the practice stage is for learners to become familiar with using new knowledge and skills. After the initial input stage, students need time and space to put that new knowledge to the test. Often, this stage is experimental and exploratory in nature; students should have the freedom to make mistakes and try solving problems in different ways.

The purpose of output, on the other hand, is to use practiced skills in context in order to demonstrate learning. At this point, students have already explored the topic. They have already made mistakes and experimented with different ways to use their newfound knowledge. Now, it is time to show all that they’ve learned, in the right context for their skills.

Before assigning homework, ask yourself…

  • What is the purpose of this assignment?
  • Is this the first time I am asking students to use these skills?
  • Am I asking students to navigate their learning through this assignment, or to demonstrate it?

If students have only recently been introduced to the topic, they should be assigned homework that allows them to practice their new skills (and doesn’t yet ask them to demonstrate them).

If the practice stage has already been completed within the classroom, homework might then be assigned as an opportunity for them to show their learning in context.

Students’ Roles

In the practice stage, the role of the student is to use a new skill repeatedly in a low-stakes setting. Their job is to experiment with what they’ve just learned, to make mistakes under the guidance of a teacher, and to respond accordingly to the feedback that they get. Students at this stage should be primarily concerned with familiarizing themselves with those new skills, and figuring out how best to use them.

Once they have become familiar through practice, it’s time for students to demonstrate their learning through output. Often this takes the form of an assessment, such as a quiz or project. But it can also be as simple as summarizing their knowledge in a discussion, completing a quick “exit ticket” assignment, or showing their work to their teacher at the end of class.

Before assigning homework, ask yourself…

  • Will students be more concerned with understanding the material, or with getting the correct answer on this assignment?
  • Are students experimenting with new skills or demonstrating their learning by completing this assignment?
  • At this point, should students be able to complete this assignment on their own without any assistance?

If students are still in the practice stage of active learning, any homework assignments should be relatively low-stakes in that there is room for them to experiment and make mistakes.

If the assignment is designed to show how well they’ve mastered the skill and can use it in context, then it would best fit students who have moved on to the output stage of learning.

Teachers’ Roles

When students are in the practice stage of the active learning cycle, teachers should be readily available to help guide and facilitate their learning, as well as to offer timely feedback in order to keep them on the right track. As students explore and experiment, our job is to be attentive and available for them at all times. Here is where we answer questions, provide supporting resources, give feedback, and steer them in the right direction if and when they get lost.

Once students have shifted into the output stage, however, our job changes significantly. Here, we give students the context to show us what they’ve learned — and then we take a step back and let them demonstrate. We can (and should) still offer feedback here where it’s needed, but our primary goal in this stage is to assess how much they’ve learned based on what they can show us.

Before assigning homework, ask yourself…

  • Is there a way to keep students on track or to have their questions answered during the process of completing this assignment?
  • Will I be grading this assignment based on whether students completed the task, or on how well they understood the material?
  • What kind of feedback will I offer students on this assignment, and when?

When assigning students homework for practice purposes, it’s important to be sure that you are “there” for support and guidance — perhaps by offering supplemental resources for them to reference when they get stuck, or by providing an answer key that they can use to give themselves instant feedback on their work.

Homework for students at the output stage, however, should be designed in a way that challenges them to demonstrate their work in context so that you can assess how much they’ve learned (and how well they can show it).

When it comes to homework, there’s no black-and-white answer as to whether it’s “good” or “bad” for all students — because all students, and all assignments, are completely different.

As we do with every aspect of teaching, educators should evaluate the value of potential homework assignments based on their educational merit and their ability to help our students succeed. To do that, we need to understand the stages at which our students are learning in any given moment — and to meet them where they are.

By Rosie Byrnes

Want to learn more about each stage in the active learning cycle? Check out our previous article here.

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