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Stop Assigning Science Homework for a BIG Impact

July 12, 2023 No Comments

I haven’t assigned science homework for over 10 years, aside from a brief stint a few years ago. When I started a new job, the teacher handbook said I was required to assign a certain amount of homework each week. Afraid to make waves, I waited to question this practice. Luckily, I soon learned that this policy was actually outdated.

In the first few weeks of that school year, when I WAS assigning homework it was awful. It confirmed everything I believed about the assigning homework. Both the students and I were thrilled when I stopped assigning it.

To find out the biggest problems with homework, keep reading.

Science Homework and Equity, and Student-Well Being

The biggest problem that I have with homework is that it isn’t equitable. From firsthand experience, I know what it’s like to have parents who can’t help with homework. And, my home life was infinitely better than many of my students. So, let’s chat about the circumstances that make homework inequitable.

Not Everyone Has Support At Home

Growing up my parents couldn’t really help me with my homework after elementary school, aside from proofreading essays (Thanks Mom!).  I was on my own for math and science. They were involved, caring parents who made me do my homework as soon as I got home from school. And, they didn’t let me do anything else until it was done.  I had a quiet place to work in my room, though I preferred to listed to music on my boombox while I worked.  ( I know, I am hella old.)

Many of my students don’t have the luxury of working in their own bedroom. And, they often have additional responsibilities after school. Some care for younger siblings, while others work. There are countless obstacles that students might face when they leave our building.

Starting Off On the Wrong Foot

There are many reasons why the practice of assigning homework is inequitable. But, I think it’s important to note the way that this practice can affect the way your students feel in your classroom.

We know that students struggle to learn when there is a perceived threat. When a student arrives to class without complete homework, we know this causes worry, anxiety and other negative feelings.

Personally, I don’t want students to enter my classroom feeling the dread of knowing that they didn’t get their work done.  That doesn’t set them up for success in the rest of the period. 

Instead, I want them to know that if they come in and work as hard at they can for 52 minutes that they can leave feeling accomplished and not have to think about me or my class until the next day.

Work-Life Balance

If you’re like me, you working on setting boundaries between your home and work life. Hopefully, the pandemic has taught us about the importance of down time. So, if downtime is important to us as adults, we know it also has to be important for our students. Here are a few ways that homework can interfere with their well-being.

Sleep is anything but overrated.

My daughter started 6th grade this year, and has already had a few late-night homework sessions. Already, she’s had to bump back her bed time to complete a project.

Admittedly, this is due, in part, to procrastination. But, my daughter isn’t alone in her inability to plan ahead. And, long term-planning requires skills and brain development that middle school students simply don’t have. Even the most organized students are likely to procrastinate.

Teenagers REALLY need sleep. In fact, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, teens need 8-10 hours of sleep each night. When they don’t, any number of negative outcomes can occur. For example, the American Academy of Pediatrics says lack of sleep can lead to inattentiveness and increased anxiety and depression. Click here to read more from Stanford.

We can’t control all of the aspects that interfere with sleep. For example, we know that cell phones contribute to poor sleep hygiene. But, we can limit our contribution to poor sleep by eliminating homework.

The Importance of Play and Self-Directed Time

Instead of doing homework, there are countless other beneficial things students could do instead. For example, participating in sports activities has unmeasurable benefits to students. Anecdotally, I’ve observed improved concentration, self-discipline and confidence in students who participate in sports. All of these benefits are likely to improve outcomes in the classroom.

What about the students who aren’t participating in sports? Many self-directed activities are also beneficial for students emotional and academic well-being. For example, many students are participating in art or music programs.

But, even if after school time is spent doing something that isn’t directly beneficial to their academic success, is there really anything wrong with that? As adults, we know the strain we feel when we are over-scheduled. Conversely, we also know the benefits that unscheduled down time has.

When we remove homework we allow this time to be given back to students.

The Problem with Giving Just a Little

Many of the teachers I work with have given up on traditional homework. Instead, they ask students to complete assignments that weren’t finished in class.

Still, it’s important to be mindful of how these little pieces add up. For example, if a student gets 10 minutes of homework from each class, that easily adds up to an hour of work without accounting for transition time. And, it’s likely that students who are struggling the most are the ones who don’t complete their work in class.

Be aware of the students who aren’t finishing on time. Consider if adding more scaffolding or a reduced work load would help alleviate the need for homework.

What about the benefits of science homework?

When you do your research, it’s inconclusive if homework is actually beneficial. The benefits depend on the age and ability of the student as well as the amount of homework that is given. And, when you compare assigning homework to other forms of practice, the benefits are even more limited.

In other words, structuring your class so that students have more time to practice will likely have more benefits than assigning homework.

Rigor doesn’t equal more work.

Unfortunately, many people equate homework with rigor. Recently, many teachers I’ve spoken to about homework state that parents are the major driving force for them giving homework. In these cases, the parents believe that students aren’t being challenged if they aren’t being given homework.

But, the amount of work given doesn’t correlate to the amount of rigor in the classroom. In fact, many homework assignments are often low-level recall assignments that ensure that students are able to complete them on their own.

The Quality of Assignment Matters

One of my major complaints about homework is that it often isn’t high quality. Frequently, students are assigned homework that falls into one of two categories.

First, many homework assignments are low level busy work. For example, low level worksheets or practice problem seem to be more of the norm than the exception. Unfortunately, in many cases, the academic benefit here is low.

On the other hand, many assignments are too difficult for students to complete on their own. For example, teachers often assign homework that relates to a concept learned in class that day. Often, students aren’t fully comfortable with the skill learned in class. So, assigning them homework leaves them to figure out how to complete the task on their own.

If I haven’t convinced you not to assign homework, please be aware of the quality of the work that you are assigning. Make sure that there is a clear purpose and that your students are able to access the material on their own.

Exceptions – When Science Homework Makes Sense

There are very few absolutes in life. To say that homework should never be assigned doesn’t account for exceptions or nuance. So, here are a couple of exceptions to my homework rule.

Optional Extension or Practice Work

Some students have a natural curiosity about the content you are teaching. Or, perhaps your students really need more practice with a skill. In that case, its okay to provide them with work to complete at home. However, this work should be option. And, it shouldn’t affect their grade.

I’ll be talking more about equitable grading practices soon.

Advanced Placement Courses

Also, I believe that it is often necessary to assign homework in advanced placement classes. If you are teaching an advanced placement course, the ultimate goal is to get them to pass the advanced placement test at the end of the term. And, it might not be possible to provide enough support to pass the test within the time allocated in class.

In this case, it’s still important that the homework you assign is meaningful and targeted to the outcomes of the class. When assigning tasks, ask yourself how the task benefits the students and if there is a more efficient way to meet the same learning target. For example, instead of having students read a chapter an entire chapter, it’s likely to be more beneficial if students jigsaw the work.

The Classroom Impact – Getting Rid of Science Homework

Benefits of getting rid of homework- a focus on learning instead of work- less behavior issues - a shift in self perception

I made a big promise in the title of this post. I promised a big impact in your classroom. Here are the benefits I have seen in my own-

A Focus on Learning – I start the school year explaining to students why I don’t give homework. This opens the door to discussions about other classroom practices that are inequitable. So, we start the year discussing how my classroom will be different. Also, I explain that I encourage students to talk to me if they think that I’m doing something that isn’t equitable. Since I’ve been doing this, I’ve noticed that its easier to focus on learning rather than assignment completion or grades.

Less Behavior Issues- When I did assign homework, I noticed that the students who didn’t have their assignment complete were more likely to exhibit behavior problems at the start of class. Now, I understand that this was due, at least in part, to the anxiety caused by not having their work done. Since I got rid of homework, I’ve noticed a decrease in the issues at the start of class.

A Shift In Self-Perception – Students who don’t complete homework assignments often have a negative perception of themselves. They believe they are incapable, disorganized and even unintelligent. However, when assignments are completed in class with support, it eliminates some of the negative self talk.

Erin Sadler

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