Yet More on Homework

 This is part of a multifaceted strategy to teach heterogeneous classes. 
Read about it in this article: Reaching the Full Range.

A correspondent writes, presumably in response to my lagging homework concept:

I love your approach and a lot of the details. I guess my only immediate reservation would be the necessity for homework. A lot of U.S. kids simply can not do homework.  They are homeless; have full-time jobs; are tending ailing grandparents or little brothers, etc. 

That is an important point, so I should clarify my views. Homework is not a matter of principle for me. It is a component in a comprehensive approach, and the same goals can be accomplished in other ways. In my teaching, it played a key role, because most work in class was collaborative, but almost all assessments were individual. As one of my colleagues put it: “We work in groups today in order to learn how to work alone tomorrow.” The process was (more or less):

  • Week 1: You learn a new concept in class, where you can get help from your peers and the teacher.
  • Week 2: You apply the concept in short homework assignments. Those help you sort out what you understand from what you are still working on, which will make it easier for you to get exactly the help you need when going over the homework with your group.

The message is: you need to know how to do this on your own, but you can get as much help as you need. You are not being rushed or pressured. My goal as the teacher is not to separate those who can from those who can’t: it is to get to where everyone can. (To make this message even clearer, the quiz on this material is not happening until Week 3, and you’ll have a week to turn in quiz corrections in Week 4.)

If a student cannot do homework because of their home situation, the school should offer study hall time so that “homework” can be done at school. If the school cannot or will not do that, and many students are unable to do homework, then some class time can be allotted for that: time where you work on your own, after plenty of time working with peers, and prior to being quizzed. Of course, giving up class time for this will reduce coverage, but it may be a price worth paying.

However, I should say that I have heard from more than one teacher that homework completion increased dramatically once homework was lagged. It turned out that the reason many students weren’t doing the homework was because they didn’t know how to do it. Lagging gave them time to learn the concepts, and made homework possible. So before abolishing homework, I would try both lagging it, and offering in-school time for it. More students will learn more math than with no homework at all.

See below my signature for an excerpt from what I wrote in 2013 in response to someone who asked for my views on abolishing homework. Today’s post is intended to complement what I wrote then — I still agree with it.

— Henri


Most learning happens in class, and one should not overdo homework. Too much homework only antagonizes kids and in most cases, it does not help their learning.

On the other hand, a small amount of homework is a good thing:

  • It is a form of differentiation, as it allows kids to take different amounts of time to do the same assignment. (The nature of what happens in class in a cooperative learning culture is that racing is discouraged, and kids work more or less at the same pace, with the faster students slowing down to help others.)
  • It gets the message across that it takes work to learn anything substantial, and that while in class we work in groups, the ultimate goal is to understand the material well enough to deal with it on your own.
  • It’s a place to do the often necessary but often boring work of basic drill and review, thereby saving class time for more interesting and substantial engagement.

In my class, a powerful argument in favor of homework came from the students themselves. In course evaluations, it was common for students to tell me that what helped them learn the most was going over the homework with their classmates. I usually allowed about 15 minutes for that at the beginning of class. During that time, I walked around and recorded a 0 (did not do it), 2 (great job), or 1 (somewhere in between). Students helping each other is far more efficient than me explaining things to the class, because it allows different tables to focus on the parts of the assignment they each need to focus on. True, there’s a risk that all the students at a given table are doing something incorrectly, but that doesn’t happen very often. Besides, after a quick homework check, I’m walking around, ready to intervene if I see this.


4 thoughts on “Yet More on Homework”

  1. Hi Henri, I really enjoyed your post. I have had a lot of internal conflicts with this very issue (as I'm sure many other teachers have). I think that I am going to start assigning homework next school year and using the lagging approach that you (and others) in the MTBoS have discussed. I have a question, though. When students are working in groups, how do you keep them from just copying the homework? I really like your idea; however, I can see students just copying. Thanks!


  2. This is a tough question, and like everything involving school and department culture, there's no simple answer. First of all, students get credit for the homework just for doing it, even if all their answers are wrong. All I ask is evidence of having tried. So there is less incentive to copy. Second, I do walk around while students are going over the homework, so if someone is just copying it then, I would almost certainly catch them in the act. Third, my homework assignments are short, accessible, and lagged, so that too reduces the incentive to copy. Fourth, the students know that what I say in the post is true (homework is where you see if you can do it on your own) and they know that this is an important part of the learning process. Going over the homework is hugely valued time among my students for this very reason.That said, if you're comparing with not assigning homework at all, there's nothing to lose! Those students who copy will not gain anything, but those who do the work will get the benefits.


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