Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Learning from Homework

Today was a round of focus groups with middle school students in South Carolina. Among the questions were: What is the purpose of homework? When do you make an effort to do your homework? Why do some students not do homework?

It all came down to one thing: grades. Whether 6th or 7th or 8th, whether boy or girl, whether an "A" student or struggling student, in the students' minds there seemed to be only one reason for homework, one reason to do homework, and one reason not to do homework: whether or not it counted for a grade.  Even the value of the grade was a consideration for how much effort and attention a student put into the homework. Not a singe student articulated a learning value for homework. And nearly every student said that if there was no grade for homework, they rarely did it.

I have no doubt that some of the homework assignments were engaging and had a learning value. In fact, none of the student we interviewed complained about "busy work" as students often do when the topic of homework comes up. They were not complaining that there was too much homework or that it was too hard. What stood out was the exclusive relationship between homework and grades.

Are you surprised by this? I guess I shouldn't be. After all, we did this. We have reduced a set of learning exercises (homework can and should have a learning value) to their contribution in points to some score. We have convinced the students that homework only counts if it counts, literally. The lesson of the day is: If you want your students to do their homework, make sure you tell them it will be graded.  If you want your students to learn from the homework, you are going to need another strategy.

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