Help with Homework

29 Mar

“Teacher No!”  “Teacher, I have three tests this week!” Chances are, you’ve probably experienced the chorus of protest and dismay as you blithely announce the homework task of the day.  Or alternatively as you ask your learners to present the task you set last lesson, you find that half the class hand it in while quarter of the class hand in something approximating what you asked for and the remainder present a litany of excuses:  “I’ve done it, but I didn’t bring it.”  “I didn’t understand what to do.”  “I had no time.” Or possibly even, “I did my homework but I was kidnapped by aliens who took my homework to help with their intergalactic language comprehension project.”

Homework is a tricky area and I think if we’re all honest and think back to the days when we were in the learners’ shoes, we can perhaps identify with the way our learners feel when they get given yet something else that takes them away from their busy lives.

As a language teacher, I’m acutely aware that the homework I set is in fierce competition with a whole range of demands of my learners’ time.  There are of course the non-educational demands:  learners’ interests, from basketball to surfing, music to art, chilling out, socialising, facebooking, texting and gossiping all play vital roles in their lives, as indeed they do in ours.  Equally, learners who work have to find the time in the schedule when they aren’t juggling sales orders or invoices or preparing for the meeting on Thursday.  And those poor souls still in school have it even worse:  a vast range of subject teachers who all set their charges weekly homework tasks that must be completed sometimes on pain of failing the grade.

There are any number of reasons why learners might not do their homework – Alex Case lists 14 reasons in an article for UsingEnglish.com.  The trick of course is in finding ways to try and make sure they do it.

Purpose

The biggest question is why bother setting homework in the first place?  Generally, I would expect most homework tasks to fall into three categories:  Consolidation  /  Development  /  Assessment.

  • Consolidation – you set the task because it helps learners get a better idea of something you did in class (or helps you figure out which learners don’t have a better idea).
  • Development – the task helps the learners to improve their knowledge or skills in some way.
  • Assessment – particularly used with writing tasks (I suspect), you set tasks that will in some way contribute to learner grades or reports.

The question then becomes – do the learners know why they’re doing the task?  Just as you might choose to communicate your lesson aims to the class via a lesson menu, why not do the same with homework tasks?  Generally, if learners understand why they’re doing something they are more motivated to do it.  Or if they choose not to do it, at least they will have made a more informed decision!  Either way, informing learners that the task they’re doing will help them understand better something they did in class, or that what they’re doing will be used in the next class, might help underline the need for them to do it.  Of course, it might also underline to them the pointlessness of any task that hasn’t been thought through!

Involvement

Get learner input on the homework process.  Learners are often very aware of their strengths and weaknesses and talking to them or doing needs analysis with them might help you to tailor the homework tasks to them.  You could also get a better idea of what external time commitments they have and find out how much homework they can realistically cope with in any given week.  Working with learners schedules and negotiating homework quantities with them can help them realise that you are taking their needs into account and thereby make them more willing to take yours into account.  Learners are often informed when their tests are scheduled, in some cases their homework tasks too, and by giving you this information, you can help avoid overload during particularly busy periods, thus increasing the likelihood that your tasks will get done.

Integration – Routines & Consequences:

Integrate the homework process into your classes more effectively.  If learners know that you are always going to check the homework, they are more likely to do it.  If they see that your commitment to homework checking and marking wavers, theirs will too.  A routine check at the beginning of lessons, where whether the homework has been done is seen by the learners to be noted down may help here.

This leads onto the consequences of doing it and of not doing it.  Many teachers employ a carrot and stick approach where learners who do the homework consistently are rewarded and those who do not are punished in some way.  There are any number of ways in which you might implement such a system and in many respects these are probably best left to individual teachers in their different contexts to decide.  Your school might well have views on this, or already have such systems in place.  Reward systems I’ve seen used have ranged from star charts, computer room tokens, stamps and stickers, or the ever popular “homework pass”.  I’ve even heard of one teacher who took the best homework contributors out for pizza!  Punishments vary equally, though in schools I’ve worked in, homework is either treated as one aspect of misbehaviour in a wider discipline system, or is basically ignored until report card time when the student gets a “0” and the parent then comes storming in to find out what’s going on…  but more on this last aspect in a moment.

Activities, warmers or lead in tasks that borrow from homework tasks (but do not duplicate them) when used at the start of lessons can reinforce to learners the benefits of doing the homework as those who’ve completed the homework will perform better than those who did not.  For example the target items from a vocabulary homework exercise can be used as part of a revision game.

Organisation

It might be worth finding out from your learners what approach they take to doing their homework.  What, for example, are their study habits?  Do they do it on the bus on the way to school?  Do they just copy from the one student who actually did it, just before the class starts?  Do they have an organised rota system in place with answers being emailed or texted to everyone else?  Or do they have a quiet place at home where they can sit and focus on the task in hand?

Getting this kind of information from your learners and having a discussion about what constitutes good study practice and how they can help themselves might be useful.  Suggesting, however abhorrent the idea may be, that they turn off their mobile phones while they study so as to avoid distraction could be useful.  Allocating a specific study time to their days for however long they need and organising a study area for them to work at might also help.  Many learners might already have something like this in place, others might not.  Opening up a discussion in the class would allow for the sharing of experiences and the working towards some form of “best practice”.

Parents

From a teacher’s perspective, getting the parents involved can be a tricky proposition.  Some parents are heavily involved in their child’s education and others feel that this is the teacher’s responsibility alone.  The general view amongst teachers, from what I’ve read, seems to be that parental involvement is a welcome thing – in moderation.  As far as homework is concerned at least, it should be possible to set up a framework for the parents to best support the way their children do their homework.  If you and your class have a working system in place, it can be worthwhile communicating that system to the parents so that they can contribute meaningfully to the process.  For example, giving learners a “homework planner” which they can stick into their folders or into the front page of their coursebook, gives them a place to write down the tasks (which you can then check for accuracy) and which the parents can then check for completion.

Bringing parents into the dialogue that you’ve opened up with the learners about quantity, quality and organisation of homework can help them understand what and why you use homework for and how they can best help – even if that help only extends to leaving their kids alone for an hour or so a week!  And it might help prevent the irate father showing up in the school reception to demand an explanation for the “zero” on that report card.

I hope this helps!

There is quite a lot to take on board here and quite a wide range of different things to try, some of which will work while others will not and some might not even be necessary.  The key, though is the dialogue between you and your learners as to what you all think will work best for your situation.  Try having that conversation, because if you do, the worst thing that will happen is that you’ll all understand each other a little better, even if you still don’t get much more homework handed in.  Best case scenario?  You’ll have a lot more marking to do!

Addendum:

Since writing this post, Rob Haines has written a guest post on Scott Thornbury’s A-Z of ELT blog – you can read the full post here: “H is for Homework“.  Rob talks about moving homework away from the default option and engaging learners in both the design and execution of homework tasks – and provides a list of handy tips for you to do this!  Rob also cites a post by Steve Darn on the BC Teaching English website looking at the whys, wherefores and hows of homework, with some nice suggestions for task ideas.

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5 Responses to “Help with Homework”

  1. kylieliz Tuesday 19 April 2011 at 17:42 #

    Wow! Thanks for writing this . . . I still am not totally sure how to solve all of my homework problems – but it sure is encouraging to realize I am not the only one whose students just copy before class, or refuse to do homework altogether!! (I was directed here from Rob Haines A-Z site . . . so I commented there also.) But, thanks for sharing your insights. I definitely don’t want to assign homework needlessly, or that won’t actually help the students, but I often want to hold them accountable for studying outside of class – and it feels impossible sometimes!
    Thanks for sharing . . . I’ll work on implementing some of your ideas.

    • David Petrie Wednesday 20 April 2011 at 10:35 #

      Hi Kylieliz,
      well, the good news is that you’re definitely not alone – just about you and every teacher out there I would guess! I think the thing to remember is that it’s a process, and engaging learners in the process can help them to see the value of what you’re asking them to do! But at the same time, don’t expect an overnight miracle – these things take time!
      Thanks for your kind words and also thanks for taking the time to comment! Good luck with it!
      David

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