Community Voices

Beyond the Classroom: The key to homework success

In today’s column I hope to shed some light on one of the most hated word in American culture. Kids have to do it; parents have to enforce it and review it, and teachers have to make it and grade it. HOMEWORK.

If you are one of those parents who has felt compelled to actually look up Miami-Dade County’s policy on homework you will find among other things, that it:

▪ recognizes regular and purposeful homework as an essential part of instruction

▪ considers homework an integral factor in fostering academic achievement by extending school activities into the home and community

▪ provides opportunities for developmental practice, drill, the application of skills already learned, the development of independent study skills, enrichment activities, and self discipline.

Brian Sztabnik, an AP literature teacher in his article Is Homework Helpful? 5 Questions Every Teacher Should Ask comments that the new standards asks teachers to increase rigor by diving deeper into the material. Consequently, everything has been ramped up — class work and homework are no exception.

Sztabnik reports that students will spend 137,160 minutes doing homework from first grade to 12th grade. That equals 2,286 hours or 95 full days of homework.

Meanwhile, high school students in Finland rarely get more than a half-hour of homework a night. It, as a country, allows children to engage in more creative play at home. This is significant because Finland’s students scored remarkably well on international test scores. It has many parents and education advocates in America questioning our practices. Are we misguided with all this work? To answer that, one must step back and question the value of assignments. How often should they be assigned? Where is the line between too much and too little?

So what is meaningful homework and how much is appropriate?

If you reference the county website, you will find that it provides a guideline for homework assignments. It suggests an average daily homework as follows: Grades K-1: 30 minutes, 2-3: 45 minutes, 4-5: 60 minutes, 6-8: 75 minutes, 9-12: 120 minutes.

But if you peruse articles on homework you find that there are telltale signs of a good homework assignment. I agree with Cathy Vatterott who shares that homework should aim to deepen understanding and build essential skills. Here are five hallmarks of a good homework assignment.

▪ It has a clear academic purpose (practice, applying knowledge/skills)

▪ The work requires and demonstrates the level of understanding

▪ It promotes ownership by offering choices and being personally relevant

▪ It instills a sense of competence in that the student can successfully complete it without help

▪ It is aesthetically pleasing. it appears enjoyable and is interesting to do.

According to Sztabnik, a teacher should answer these five essential questions when creating an assignment.

1. How long will it take to complete? Assignments need to lead to better learning outcomes and one must balance efficiency and effectiveness. The more efficient the assignment, the more material and learning that can be covered over the course of a year. 

2. Have all learners been considered? Teachers make assumptions about the time it takes to complete an assignment based on the middle-of-the-pack kid. Yet, struggling learners can take double or triple the time as other students to complete an assignment.

3. Will an assignment encourage future success? A longer assignment can be justified if it is meaningful. Work that builds confidence and opens the door to future success is certainly worth it.

4. Will an assignment place the material in a context the classroom cannot? Homework is effective when classroom learning is transferred beyond the school walls. When teaching the concept of area, have students measure the area of a refrigerator shelf to determine what size sheet cake will fit for an upcoming party.  Make the learning applicable to everyday life, and it will be worth the time it takes to complete.

5. Does an assignment offer support when a teacher is not there? Students can reduce the time it takes to complete assignments if they know where to turn for help. Teachers should provide links to online tutorials, like Khan Academy, that offer instruction when stuck. 

So how can parents do their part to ensure homework success?

By helping your child with homework you not only improve his/her chances of achievement in school and life, you help them develop confidence, self discipline and a sense of responsibility. Topmarks, a British website, says that parents of successful children show an interest in their child’s homework. Talk about school and the assignments they have. This communicates the fact that school work is important and needs to be taken seriously.

▪ Ensure that the child has the necessary resources to complete the assignment. Paper, pencils, rulers, erasers are essential. Access to a computer and/or internet provide obvious benefits. Libraries and other internet cafes are great places to access the internet.

▪ Encourage children to complete homework to the best of their ability and express high expectations from an early age.

▪ Set a good example. Children’s attitudes to homework are mainly influenced by their parents’ guidance and examples. They are more likely to want to study if they see you reading and writing. Limit television, video game time, and spend more time studying and reading.

▪ Provide a quiet work environment that is free from distractions such as the TV and loud music.

▪ Maintain a regular homework routine. For children, late night is rarely a good time to study. They are tired. Don’t expect good results when the child is hungry. Everyone’s routines are different but a balance is necessary and homework should always be the priority.

▪ Praise their child’s effort and achievement. A positive comment goes much further than a critical one. Self esteem is the key to motivation.

▪ Monitor homework being done. Depending on the age of the child, his/her academic ability and level of independence all plays a role in how much monitoring is required. In any of these cases, it is a good idea to check homework over. Remember, the homework is not yours, it’s your child’s. If you do the assignments you are not helping them become an independent learner.

As these individuals and sources have articulated well, no one actually celebrates homework but it is agreed that students achieve academic success as a result of their commitment to their homework and extracurricular learning assignments. With the right tools, the right setting and meaningful work, homework can be viewed as a continuum of an effective classroom.

Teachers have a critical role in creating authentic, realistic and effective homework assignments that extend meaningful learning into the home and then providing feedback on it.

Parents also have a vital role in supporting the completion of this homework by demonstrating interest and supporting accomplishment through struggle.

And the kids, well homework is here to stay — at least for the time being.

Laurie Futterman ARNP is a former Heart Transplant Coordinator at Jackson Memorial Medical Center. She now chairs the science department and teaches gifted middle school science at David Lawrence Jr. K-8 Center. She has three children and lives in North Miami.