Help students build stamina for homework by creating a consistent, meaningful structure for assignments.
While there are a range of positions on the benefits and drawbacks of out-of-class learning (aka homework), many teachers recognize that learning outside of class can benefit students as they develop new skills. Research shows that student engagement and performance increases when students engage in meaningful, relevant, out-of-class opportunities aligned with the in-class curriculum. Additionally — and especially in high school — out-of-class learning is important for students to gain valuable college-ready study skills, move through content at a faster pace, and develop personal responsibility and executive functioning skills.
While many teachers see the value of out-of-class learning, the challenges around homework are so overwhelming that assigning any homework at all can feel like a lost cause.
We often assign homework as a way to build healthy academic habits for students to develop independence and personal responsibility. But building habits takes time and consistency. This means that in order to create a learning community where students regularly and reliably complete their homework, it must also be assigned consistently. Whether it’s assigned on specific days of the week, or in a set pattern, establishing homework routines and sustaining them for long periods of time is essential for developing the habit forming behaviors that students need to engage in their learning outside of class. Consistency is critical — but consistency without purpose can lead to its own set of challenges.
In an effort to create routines for homework, we sometimes fall into the trap of assigning homework for the sake of assigning homework, rather than for engaging students in meaningful practice. But when students can’t find the purpose or the relevance between their homework and the classwork or their own interests, they will lose a sense of purpose and their participation will begin dropping off. Homework should build a bridge between students’ lives and content topics in the classroom. Disconnected tasks have no impact on students’ understanding of the content, engagement in the course, or in developing the long-term characteristics of independent learners. When out-of-class learning is disconnected from the in-class content, it loses its value both to the student and the teacher.
Creating consistency & meaning
There are four types of meaningful homework assignments:
When students apply a concept or skill learned in class.
Practice assignments engage students in reading, writing, or problem-solving tasks that they’ve learned in class and can apply through different examples. Practice tasks help students internalize the concepts and skills, and encourage them to think through a variety of applications. Common practice tasks may be reading with a graphic organizer or notetaking protocol, completing a problem set, or strategic vocabulary building. The benefit of practice tasks is that the reinforcement helps students internalize content they’ve learned in class, which should better prepare them for new content in follow up lessons.
When students take something they’ve learned in class to a new application or new context.
Extension activities take in-class learning to a new level, stretching students to think about the concepts in different contexts. This might look like extending an application task in class to an analysis level or to a synthesis level outside of class. It may be asking students to make relevant connections between class content and their own lives, or drawing real-world conclusions on a given topic. The benefit of extension activities is that they help students see their classwork as relevant or important in the real world.
When students engage in learning that prepares them for in-class content.
Preparation activities provide students with the prior knowledge, skills, or context to prepare them for future classwork. This might look like including a pre-reading activity, or review of prerequisite information needed for the in-class task. When developing preparation activities, consider what types of tasks will help students engage in future tasks, avoid creating in-class learning that is 100% dependent on completed homework.
When students use personal expression to respond to in-class content or other learning goals.
Creative tasks are activities that go beyond recall or critical thinking and invite students to synthesize, reflect, or create a response to the topic being studied. These types of activities might include independent reading with a reading journal, personal reflection, drawing, or modeling a concept through multiple modalities.
Creating a structure
If it’s been difficult to establish a learning environment where students regularly engage in completing tasks outside of class, it can feel pointless. Unclear how to make a culture shift for our students, we can feel really defeated and give up even trying. But if we’re serious about cultivating these skills in our students and we know it will be better for their learning long term, we can make strategic choices to help our students develop important habits over time by leaning on some of the principles that drive athletic trainers to help people develop healthy physical habits.
In the sample homework sequence below, we can see how it would be possible to take students who haven’t done any homework all year through a process that would build to 30 minutes of homework within 8 weeks, using six principles that provide structure for a goal-oriented routine, and translate from physical habits to academic habits.
Creating the right conditions for change
We respond to patterns and cycles that help to structure consistency & variety.
In athletics, periodization may look like alternating weight training with cardio to develop a balance of strength training and heart health. In teaching, periodization is about creating a balance of interesting and relevant activities so that students don’t get bored or burnt out after a few days of practice. Creating a schedule, routine, or pattern for homework tasks is a great way to build in periodization.
Our practice will reverse if we’re inconsistent.
When engaging in skills-based activities, consistency is critical for establishing healthy habits and meeting target goals. When we’ve established healthy habits, the tasks are easy to complete and bring satisfaction. When we are inconsistent, our skills atrophy, and it can take a lot more mental energy to get back into the habit. The same is true for homework practice. When we’re inconsistent in assigning homework, students will fall into reversibility, and it can set their progress back to the beginning stages. Consistency is critical for success.
We can maintain interest and balance by rotating through a variety of tasks.
If we went to the gym every week and lifted 2.5 pound weights, we might see a jump in our strength in the beginning, but if that’s the only exercise we ever do, we’re likely to see those early gains fade away. Just like the body gets used to the same physical activity, the brain gets used to the same mental activity — and it loses its potency after a period of repeated use. This is tricky because we know we need to engage students in consistent practice, but that consistent practice must include a rotation of different thinking routines in order to maintain interest and balance.
We need to evolve our training needs over time to keep a consistent level of challenge.
Similar to specificity, progression is about ensuring a consistent challenge. In physical fitness, this means that as we get stronger, faster, or more agile, we move the target to increase the challenge. Similarly, with our students we want to ensure that as their skills improve over time, we continue to increase the intellectual challenge so that students’ interest, curiosity, and skills continue to increase over time as well.
We will benefit from instances of “maxing out” or a” big stretch”.
For athletes seeking a physical target, they create opportunities for overload, to periodically see how far they can stretch their skills. The concept of “maxing out” is about going as far as one can go to measure the extent of progress. Maxing out is not advised as a daily or even weekly routine, but rather as a periodic test designed to assess progress and set up parameters for a new training routine. The same can also be valuable in pushing students to new levels in their academics. Engaging students in progressively challenging content, texts, or problem-solving activities can stretch what students thought they were capable of and paint a picture of what’s next in their learning. Overload doesn’t just create a stretch for the next training level — it also changes our perspective. When an athlete routinely lifts 25 pounds each workout, and then maxes out to 50 pounds, lifting 30 pounds the next session will feel lighter. Similarly, when students engage in reading a complex text or completing an intense multi-step problem and then return to a text at their level or to a problem with a recognizable solution, their own confidence and perspective also shifts.
We each respond to challenges differently.
While we can recognize that there are some workout patterns that can be a helpful guide, everyone is unique and responds to stress and challenges differently. Whether they’re physical or intellectual challenges, we need to consider and plan for meeting students’ individual needs. This comes with talking openly and directly with our students about the tasks, what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and how it can help them reach their own goals. Additionally, it comes when students engage meta-cognitively in their own practice. How are we engaging our students to reflect on their challenges, their fears? How are we helping them develop tools that can empower them to strive toward their goals? We strengthen our students when we engage them in action planning, personal goal setting, tracking progress, and celebrating small and large successes.
Creating a culture change with respect to working outside of the classroom can be overwhelming, but it’s not impossible. With a strategic plan that engages students and focuses on building strong habits over time, we can cultivate a community of learners who develop personal responsibility and independence over time.
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