Results Count: Homework That Really Works

This morning, I read that French President Francois Hollande has proposed that his country eliminate homework in elementary and junior high school. From the article on NPR’s website, it appears that members of the French government believe homework places too great a burden on children, especially children with difficult home lives. And because of the centralized nature of the French school system, there is little room for teachers to innovate and try new strategies.

I wouldn’t presume to offer an opinion on the French approach to education. However, here in the United States, we have the same debate: what is the real value of homework for young children? Is is possible to design homework that increases student learning and motivates kids after a long school day?

My answer is yes, and I have results to back it up.

The purpose of my homework system (described in detail here) is for every student to achieve a single learning goal over a period of 2-4 weeks. These are SMART goals: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. Once we have established our routine, students work in different subject areas, depending on their needs. Some study math facts, others learn spelling words, still others practice reading fluency. And kids who have mastered all of our basic skills work on research projects and advanced math.

Since we’re still at the start of second grade, I’ve simplified our homework routine so the entire class is working on a single subject area. In October, all students worked on spelling, and in November, they all worked on math fact fluency. I expect we’ll be ready for fully differentiated homework in January.

October: High Frequency Words

Goal page from students' HFW homework notebooks

Goal page from students’ HFW homework notebooks

In October, everyone’s goal was to improve their spelling of our High Frequency Words, the words all second graders need to learn to read and spell. In their homework notebooks, students filled in the blanks to write their goals:

I am working on my ___________ [1st, 2nd, 3rd, or 4th] grade High Frequency Words.

Right now, I can spell _______ out of _______ HFWs.

In two weeks, I want to be able to spell _______ out of _______ HFWs.

I will know I achieved my goal when Mrs. Fox tests me on all my words.

One-on-one, I met with students, and together, we filled in the blanks to set their goals. Students who hadn’t yet learned all their first grade words started with those. Other kids were ready to practice second, third, or even fourth grade spelling words.

No matter what words they needed to practice or what their initial score was, every student’s goal was to improve their score by six words. I figured that learning three words per week (without forgetting previously learned words) would be an achievable goal for all spellers.

Over the next two weeks, students worked on different spelling activities each day. I’d teach an activity during the school day, then students would practice it at home. At the end of two weeks, I tested them again.

Result: 90% of my students met their homework goal, with an average improvement of 11.75 words. One student’s score improved by an impressive 28 words.

Following our motto, “effective effort plus time equals success,” the students who did not meet their goal on the first try continued to practice. When I re-tested those students the following week, 100%  succeeded.

November: Math Facts

Goal page from students' math homework notebooks

Goal page from students’ math homework notebooks

For three weeks in November (really two and a half, because of Thanksgiving), my students practiced math facts. Their goals were differentiated just like their study of High Frequency Words: some students practiced addition, some subtraction, some multiplication. In their homework notebooks, all students, in conferences with me, completed this goal statement:

I am working on (circle one) addition / subtraction / multiplication facts.

Right now, I can solve _______ out of 36 facts in 4 minutes.

By November 30th, I want to be able to solve _______ out of 36 facts.

I will know I achieved my goal when Mrs. Fox tests me.

Every student’s goal was to improve their score by six facts.

Result: 100% of my students succeeded on the first try, with an average improvement of 11.3 facts. One student solved 20 more problems correctly in 4 minutes than she had on her pre-assessment.

Homework That’s Not a Burden

It’s true. Kids are exhausted at the end of the day (so am I!). And I won’t claim that 100% of my students are excited to do their homework. But with this homework system, over time, students become more motivated. Like adults, kids are more invested in their work when it has a clear purpose and when they see results. And it doesn’t hurt that most of the homework activities I assign are engaging, multi-sensory, and/or social (like partner math games).

Not every student has a partner to play games with at home, or internet access for online activities. For those students, I provide alternative assignments. This system is not about returning an assignment to be graded in class the next day, so it’s easy for me to be flexible and adapt to students’ needs.

Year after year, I see it in my students and I hear it from their parents: over time, kids do their homework with more excitement and less resistance. Often, they spend much more than the required 15-20 minutes on their work. Rather than being busywork, homework is filled with meaning and purpose. It’s often fun, and if it’s not fun, at least you know that it will help you succeed.

The homework that I did as a kid — undifferentiated, pointless busywork — should be banned. In it’s place, we should implement systems that teach kids nothing less than how to succeed in life.

The idea that effort brings about success is not an intuitive one. It’s easy to think that people succeed because of luck or innate skill. As teachers, we must take on the audacious task of empowering students to achieve anything. And, as it turns out, assigning effective homework is not a bad place to start.

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5 thoughts on “Results Count: Homework That Really Works

  1. I really enjoyed this post on homework. I currently work as an academic math tutor in a high school and it such a CHALLENGE to get students to even attempt the assigned material. My school has currently gone completely standards based and eliminated the traditional percentage and homework grades. I see some definite positive aspects, but I do feel that students (and teachers) have trouble measuring success. I’d love to try adopting this approach into a high school setting. Any thoughts or ideas about how to make it effective would be greatly appreciated.

    • What do you think of the flipped classroom approach in high school? I’ve never taught older kids, but the idea of having them watch lectures at home and do the harder, creative, thinking work — what used to be homework — in school makes a lot of sense to me. Perhaps students would be more willing to take on challenges when they have the support of teachers and classmates at school? What do you think?

  2. Thank you for this post. Your homework assignments are very similar to my first grade daughter’s assignments (except she has easier spelling words and math facts). She loves doing her homework because she likes accomplishing goals. By the way, a great reason for all school kids to have homework is that it gives the parents a chance to participate in their child’s education. If my daughter never brought home any homework I wouldn’t know what she was learning in school and I couldn’t help her as much. I think homework could be a way to help some children have better home lives.

    • My students’ parents tell me the same thing. Although I do give them lots of information about what happens at school, homework is the only tangible part of their child’s school day that they get to see and participate in at home.

      I agree with you about how homework can help some children have better home lives. Many families have clear ideas about how to extend their child’s education at home. But some families don’t and really appreciate having some guidance. That’s one of the reasons I like it when kids can do partner games with their families for homework. It gets everyone involved in the learning.

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