Monday, June 24, 2013

Optional & Relevant Homework: A Path to Improved Culture & Performance

Switching to optional homework in year five of my teaching career was the absolute best thing that I ever did in the classroom.  That one, successful risk, gave me the confidence to think outside of the box and to experiment in order to meet the needs of students.  It also pushed me to focus on relationships with students and to choose relevant assignments based on performance.  

Why I did it:  A workshop about effective teaching strategies made me rethink the basic principles of my teaching.  I realized that assigning, monitoring, and assessing homework was taking up too much time, and instead of improving student performance, it was hindering motivation and was ineffective in its most basic aims.  In one sentence:  Homework was a major downer for my students and for me.  I tackled the problem in two ways:

1.  Most homework assignments became optional. Thanks to the school’s online grading system and my use of “total points,” it was simple to make optional assignments “invisible” in the gradebook.  I explained to students the “bank” of homework.  Completing homework would lead to a better mastery of skills, higher grades on assessments, and an increased overall average.  These points also provided a cushion for lower grades on various assignments.  Completing fewer homework assignments meant fewer points in the bank, and thus other activities would have more weight.  

2.  Homework became more relevant.  Instead of the typical workbook pages or worksheets, I worked to make homework more accessible and individualized, based on choice and skills.   This process continued to evolve based on learner feedback and skills.  

How did it go?

The initial response was puzzlement.  Overachievers were angry (and relieved) and underachievers were convinced I was an idiot.  Parents thought that I was lazy and crazy.

Immediately, class culture became more positive and my relationships with all students got better.  I could not believe it.  Those students who had felt unprepared or ready for the zero from the initial homework check now walked into the room happy and excited for the day.   All students realized that their achievement and growth were my priorities, and that if they worked hard in class, they would do well.  It was like we all took a collective sigh of relief and then  were able to focus on learning.  

And, I know it’s hard to believe - but - all grades GOT BETTER,  including overall grades.  I realized then that all homework I had given in the past had been ineffective.  

My evolution
The next few years (and even now), I have continued to work on motivation, and creating assignments based on student performance.  Last year, I experimented with goal-setting and students designing their own homework assignments and personal penalties for lack of completion.  

I am still trying to find the magic formula.  How can I get students to learn on their own without penalties from the teacher? How can we work together to make the most relevant homework assignments that will improve student performance?  I am excited to continue to figure out how to best meet the needs of all students.  


  1. Amanda,
    This workshop sounds very thought provoking! Who lead it? I saw Rick Wormeli last year, and he got me all fired up about assessment. I made changes to my policies and it was amazing how well received it was.
    Do you think the "no homework" would work in a middle school setting? I teach 6th, 7th and 8th and wonder how well it would go over with 6th graders. I don't "count" my homework as a grade right now and am looking at ways to improve what I do.

    1. Kristina,
      I will have to look back at my files; I will get back to you. I am also curious to research Rick Wormeli. There is nothing better than an interesting and positive presenter to improve teacher.

      Do I think homework should be optional in a middle school setting? I don't know. I can tell you that when I switched to optional homework, my test scores and student averages improved. There was also no more cheating and copying of homework. I learned that the homework I had given was ineffective; I am still working on giving homework that WORKS. What do you think? What do you think would happen if you made some assignments optional or even gave choices with assignments?

  2. I remember having the same results when I moved to the "homework optional" philosophy. It was amazing that students who routinely failed to complete any assignments suddenly felt motivated to do some work at home, simply because they viewed it as extra credit. Taking the punitive aspect out of the equation made everyone happier and certainly made me more effective.
    I think it works very well with middle school students as well, except that part of the MS philosophy often entails "training" students to do more homework and to develop better study skills. But by taking the negative out of the assignments, the students are more willing to do the work and more responsive to the assignments.

    1. I am glad to read that another teacher out there also had positive results with this change in practice! Thank you for sharing your results with MS students as well. I like what you said about "taking the negative out of the assignments." That's exactly it - homework goes from something punitive to something that students choose to do because they like to learn. How to get all learners to learn, on their own, at home?