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Homework: Time, not assignments?

Homeworkfavicon The homework question — how much to assign? how to encourage students to do homework? —  continues to intrigue me.

A recent blog post in The Washington Post, “The Homework Trap and What to Do About It,” by Kenneth Goldberg, offers a modest proposal to solve the homework problem.

Among the ideas: (1) Assign time-bound homework, (2) Reduce penalties for missing homework.

I agree to #1 in theory. It’s true that students work at different paces. If the goal of homework is to extend learning past class, then it makes sense to ask students to make a commitment of time rather than to demand a complete product the next day.

On the other hand, assigning time-bound homework does not sound as urgent to students. If my teacher tells me to go home and read for 30 minutes — which I did last year — will I actually do it? In other words, would more or less homework get done? I’m going to ask my students, as a hypothetical, about time-bound homework and what effect it would have on their habits.

As for #2, I also agree in theory. It makes sense that homework factors in as a modest part of a student’s grade. But I also know that if my students weren’t doing significant homework, they’d be writing their eighth essay next week, not their 16th. We’d be on our fifth novel of the year, not our 10th. Sure, a class is rigorous and memorable not because of the number of assignments that students complete. But the fact remains that, in any college-prep class, homework is a big part.

The other problem with reducing penalties for missing homework is that even more students would miss homework. There is no flow to a class when 25 individuals arrive to class in 25 different places. The secret to a successful class is to build a unified story, a sense of a common experience.

The answer to the homework problem, then, is not whether to assign more or less — or whether to assign time vs. completed products. I think the most important thing is to make sure that homework is a meaningful, critical piece of my curriculum — that it’s valued by students. It’s also crucial to monitor homework completion so that it never falls below 70 percent. If it goes lower, then it’s time to rethink and regroup.

What do you think about Goldberg’s ideas for homework? favicon


  1. paintingwithbrains

    I’ve always had an issue with students and homework. I teach Fine Arts classes (yes, we’re required to assign homework, too!) and have found that 60-70% of my students won’t do homework that’s due the next day or over a weekend. “Art doesn’t count”- I hear that a lot. I changed a few things and now I assign longer homework (due two weeks after it’s assigned) in which they react to artist’s websites or videos on youtube. I figure- if they’re online already, chances are they’ll be more likely to do the homework if it’s on the computer, too. It’s helped quite a bit!

  2. Mark Isero

    John, it’s true that homework has historically been one-size-fits-all. It might make sense to differentiate more with homework, but I’m not a fan of homogeneous grouping. Painting With Brains, your approach — involving more substantive homework, and done with technology — sounds excellent.

  3. Kenneth Goldberg, Ph.D.

    Thank you for commenting on my Washington Post article and keeping the discussion going. I have a couple of comments to add. First, I’m not sure what grade you are teaching, but my ideas are most relevant for elementary and middle school students. By high school, students usually have some options to pick advanced, honors, or AP classes, and that makes these differences in pace less important. Second, although I offer my recommendations as a possible model for all, I am most concerned with what I call the “homework-trapped” students. These are the ones who are obviously bright enough for regular classes and should not be in special education, yet are at risk year after year of deteriorating because they don’t get their homework done. Their families are in upheaval and teachers are burdened by meetings leading to unproductive plans to get them on track. For these young people, time bound assignments with reduced penalties is essential. Third, I’m a psychologist not an educator and understand that educators need to weigh in on my recommendations, and they may or may not agree. The most important part of my book, The Homework Trap, from my perspective, is not my recommendations but my analysis of what is happening to the homework-trapped child. If we look at the dynamics of the standard practice of parents and teachers coming together to work as a team to get the student on track, it becomes very clear that those efforts are actually reinforcing defiance, not compliance. Fourth, I actually make three recommendations, the two you mention in your post, and a third that vests parents with final authority in the home. This may feel like an assault on the authority of teachers, but from an organizational psychology perspective, it is clear that it undermines authority for decision making to reside outside the space where the behavior occurs. It is crucial for the child’s development that teachers have the final say in the class, but that parents have the final say in the home. Homework traverses those boundaries. Kenneth Goldberg, Ph.D. http://www.thehomeworktrap.com.

    • Mark Isero

      Dr. Goldberg, thank you for your comments. Your third point — that the dynamic around homework right now reinforces (years of) defiance — is a particularly astute one. We need to change that script.

      Your last point — that parents need final say in the home — is also an interesting one. From my vantage point, that is already the case. My students do great work at school and then very little work at home. Parents say they believe in homework but then often make different choices with their children in the evenings and on weekends.

      One idea is to extend the school day or to enroll more students in after-school programs. After all, once many of my students arrive home, they’ve entered a different space — where homework doesn’t fit.

      Thank you again for your comments.

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