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A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Homework: High-Quality Learning, or Act of Compliance?

By Kris Fox — December 13, 2015 6 min read
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Today’s guest post is written by Kris Fox, senior field specialist for the Quaglia Institute for Student Aspirations (QISA).

Challenge yourself to rethink the purpose of homework. Although the general usefulness of homework is debatable, let’s assume all homework assignments have a learning goal. One frequently espoused goal of homework is to teach students responsibility by making them independently responsible for completing and turning in homework on time. This “lesson” is often reinforced with zero-tolerance policies for late assignments.

I can’t grasp the thinking behind a blanket policy of no late homework assignments. Sure, repeat offenders require some type of intervention: But not as a punishment, rather as a support to help them succeed in learning. Right?

A common argument for zero-tolerance late policies is: “In the real world, if a student is late for work, or misses a deadline, he or she will be fired.” Personally, I have never known an adult who was fired if she showed up once or twice late or missed one deadline. No doubt someone who is habitually late for a job will find her employment in jeopardy.

However, even if a 15 year old has a job, it is uncertain whether receiving a zero on a late assignment has any correlation to that job or any future employment in a teen’s brain. Presumably, the teenager would learn the consequence of being late to work at work. In the absence of that correlation at school, we have to question whether anything meaningful is being taught about responsibility when a student receives a non-negotiable zero for a late assignment.

So, let’s not deceive our students by saying no tolerance policies help them learn responsibility and teach them about “the real world.” Students live in the real world everyday. They work, volunteer, take care of siblings, cook meals, study for exams, and, all too often, take on many adult responsibilities. Many teenagers are just trying to survive. A policy based on the thinking that by accepting no late assignments students learn to be responsible simply ignores who each individual student is.

Some questions:
Do all students need homework to teach them about responsibility?
If student responsibility is a goal, then why not involve students in developing meaningful homework assignments?
In determining due dates and grace periods?
In assessing their own and peers’ homework?
In thinking about learning and what they do and don’t understand and why?

Pedagogy that includes students as decision-makers teaches responsibility far more than a hard and fast deadline. Strict homework deadlines also thwart the real purpose of homework, which is to extend learning, rehearse developing skills, deepen understanding, and broaden concepts. If a student fails to meet a deadline and receives an automatic zero, then typically the assignment is never completed. As a result, the student misses a genuine learning opportunity. One must wonder whether the goal in such a case was authentic learning or mere obedience.

This does not mean I am not advocating a flood of procrastinated or ignored assignments streaming in the day before the end of the semester. What I am advocating is a common sense approach to late assignments - one based on learning, not behavioral compliance, as the goal of homework. One that considers individual students and their realities. An approach that realizes a day or even two late on the occasional meaningful assignment might earn partial credit, but certainly not a zero. Grace-periods, second-chances, and flex time are, after all, parts of the real world, too.

In the real world of school, the fact is that grades count (for far too much I might add, as grades do not always reflect actual learning). Both struggling and high achieving students are penalized by no late assignment policies. A missed homework assignment that garners zero points can drop a struggling learner from passing a course to failing. Such a student, inclined to hang on as long as they are passing, might give up on all work if they find they are failing.

Likewise, a missing assignment in a competitive A.P. class may mean a difference of a half-letter grade even though the student has mastered the content. On a GPA in front of a college admissions officer, up against students of exactly the same caliber but in a school without a zero tolerance policy, a tenth of a point may matter. In a system driven by grades, every grading policy should be carefully weighed for all its consequences.

Before requiring students to sign a beginning of the year agreement to a policy of no late homework (a policy that students have no choice, but to sign), consider trying the following practices.

Focus on Relationships
Get to know your students and have them get to know you. You may discover that some students learn best with a week’s notice in order to balance their lives with lengthy projects. Or, you may learn that homework assignments need to be differentiated depending on the needs of your students. Once students discover you care about them and know them as individuals, they will do their best to complete assignments in a timely manner.

Develop Assignments with Students
Take the time to design homework with your students - not for them. Students know what will help them learn, what they don’t understand, and ultimately, what assignments they are willing to put forth their best effort to complete.

Create Engaging and Meaningful Assignments
When homework is merely about compliance and deadlines, many students simply share and copy answers. However, when exciting, interesting and meaningful assignments are co-developed, student interest in completing assignments increases. Consider homework assignments as a precious opportunity to hook a student who appears bored in class or uninspired by the content matter. Realize that students who are engaged at school are 16x more likely to be academically motivated (QISA, 2014).

Establish Networks
To help and to support students as learners, introduce them to a network of support outside school. This includes guiding students towards free supplemental, online material and encouraging students to attend after school tutoring sessions as well as connecting students to peers. Students who are new, shy, or simply afraid to ask for help may not have peers readily accessible to support their learning outside of class.

Consider Alternatives
Encourage students to submit alternative assignments that demonstrate the equivalent learning goals. One student may learn best through a Khan Academy video while another may demonstrate the necessary understanding by building a 3D model with a peer.

If you still hold onto the idea that a no late policy works in your class, then at minimum be fair. Be transparent that the purpose of homework is first and foremost to teach responsibility and not to reinforce or extend content knowledge. Let your students know that the former lesson will always trump the latter. Provide students one-week notice on all assignments so they can accommodate homework to their other responsibilities. Respond in a timely manner to inquiries about homework. In addition, make a specific time commitment to when assignments will be graded and posted - no exceptions. Like your students, sign your name to that agreement. If nothing else, then at least you and your students will be operating in the same “real world.”

Creative Commons photo courtesy of Woerterhexe.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.