Tuesday, December 4, 2007


In our high school, as in many, perhaps most, other schools, students are expected to walk along the thin line between being challenged, productively engaged, and more or less happy and being stressed, sleep-deprived, and more or less miserable. Students get the message that if they are going to be taken seriously by colleges they are expected to get all their schoolwork done, keep up with their homework, do well on tests in as many as seven different subjects, take part in school activities, do extensive community service, have an area of specialty (violin, perhaps, or robotics), maintain a wholesome social life, and be able to hold forth with poise and self-assurance on topics ranging from presidential politics to palindromic prosody. In the context of the students over-busy lives, homework becomes, for many of them, a problem. Students often comment ruefully that the problem is that every teacher seems to feel that his/her own subject is the most important one, and to think that his/her assignments are the ones that should get priority. A number of commentators, among them Alfie Cohn, have recently begun to argue that our assumptions about benefits of homework are false, and that as matter of sound social, psychological, and pedogical policy homework should be either drastically curtailed or entirely eliminated.

The administrators at our school, to their credit, from time to time, ask the department heads to encourage discussion amongst the teachers about homework: why we give it, how much we give, what we hope the students will get out of it. About a week and a half ago I polled my department to get a sense of the condition of our condition with regard to homework. The questionnaire was informal and the questions were not scientifically framed, and not everyone in the department was at the meeting. But the results do paint a picture that more or less confirmed my sense of where we are as a department:

Homework is an essential component of my course.
95% (17 of 18) agree

I give some sort of homework pretty much every night.
89% (16 of 18) agree

Time I expect my students to spend, on average on homework:
Less than 15 minutes 6% (1)
15 minutes to half an hour 24% (4)
Half an hour to an hour 70% (12)
More than an hour (0)

I could teach my course just as effectively if I gave less homework.
20% (3 of 15) agree; 80% (12 of 15) disagree

I grade my students on their homework.
88% (15 of 17) agree.

I quiz students on the readings they do.
69% (11 of 16) agree.

I quiz students on the vocabulary from the readings they do.
42% (5 of 12) agree.

It takes me, on average, how long to return written homework to students:
One day 19% (3)
Several days 44% (7)
A week or so 31% (5)
Several weeks 6% (1)

I allow students to revise and resubmit written homework assignments.
61% (11 of 18) agree

I allow students to do extra credit work to make up missing assignments.
38% (6 of 16)

I allow students to do open-ended free choice writing for homework.
75% (12 of 15) agree

Based partially on what I see here, partially on my sense of what's behind these figures, and partially on my own thoughts, since I am with the majority in most of these categories, here's a preliminary attempt to frame a statement of policy about homework. This essentially a zero draft of a document that I hope to work through with the department over time, with the goal of coming up with a statement that is clear, accurate, and acceptable to everyone in the department. If any of you readers out there have been through such a process and have documents of a similar nature to share perhaps you could email them to me. Anyway, here goes:

We value homework. Given that we have limited class time (most of our courses meet either four days out of six for an hour (56 hours per semester) or three days out of six for an hour and a half (63 hps)) we seek to use class time primarily for the kinds of activities that require face to face interaction, activities like direct instruction, large-group discussion, small-group interaction, oral reading, and presentations. We generally ask students to do the bulk of their reading and writing—which are of their very nature most often solitary activities anyway—as "homework," which might literally be done at home, or might be done during free time (which many students actually do have) at school.

We recognize that there is a limit to what students can reasonably be expected to do. We expect that students will spend, on average, half an hour a night on homework, and certainly not more than an hour. We value the work done for homework enough to include it as a factor in the grade for the course.

Since one of the purposes of homework is to allow students to try out modes of thinking and writing with the goal of continuous improvement, we do make an effort to get the assignments back, with appropriate feedback, to the students in a timely manner, usually (except in the case of major projects) within a few days of when they are handed in. Once the students have been given back their work, there is often the possibility that the work can be revised and resubmitted. The goal of this particular option is not to encourage students to hand in substandard work the first time, but to allow them to be able to experience what it feels like to have handed in work which ultimately does meet the standard set by the teacher.

Finally, while we do see the need for and often give teacher-designed assignments targeting specific reading, writing, or thinking skills, we also value the individual student voice and try to provide students with the opportunity to write on topics and in forms of their own choosing. Our role as teachers in reading and responding to these pieces of writing is to provide useful and constructive feedback about what is successful in the writing, what is unclear or inaccurate, and how the piece might be improved.

Okay. That's it for now. I have a meeting with some of my teachers tomorrow morning and I'll put this very preliminary draft in front of them and ask for feedback. Any of you want to jump in, feel free.


Dave Stacey said...

Interesting reading, and food for thought. I often worry about what I'm setting for homework (more than how much if I'm honest), and this sets out some excellent pointers. I particularly like the section about returning work for redrafting, could you include something in there about the importance of self-evaluation and improvement?
I'll be interested to read how this develops.


ps - Typo in line four - kids rather than kinds :0)

Bruce Schauble said...

Thanks for picking up the typo, I fixed it.

The question of self-evaluation and improvement is a good one. On the one hand, there are things that need to be fixed that kids just won't see unless the teacher points the problems out to them. On the other hand, if the teacher does that all the time, it basically lets the kids off the hook and turns the teacher into a copy editor, and the students are all too happy to hand in really rough drafts, let the teacher clean them up, and then re-submit them. Ideally, after a certain number of feedback, students should be learning how to do the revision and editing for themselves.