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.
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.