Changing homework habits and perceptions

‘My students don’t do homework’. We have all heard and said this before. Students say they do not have the time for homework, while teachers keep on assigning. Many teachers end up frustrated because students do not meet their expectations n that matter. Personally, I believe time is usually not the issue. We should try to think of homework more holistically and not just as part of our routine. We should ask ourselves why we assign homework in the first place. Here are some reasons:

 

  • We are expected to. Students, parents, institutions and, why not, us teachers expect homework to be assigned at the end of each lesson. It is a practice that we often take for granted.
  • Time constraints. In many scenarios, it is not possible to do everything we want and that students need in class, be it language or skills work, something is left out. Homework is the ‘perfect’ solution.
  • Because it helps. Homework is a chance to consolidate and revise content, making sure the learner is in contact with the language. If you teach where English is a foreign language, homework may be the only opportunity to experience English outside the classroom.
  • You want students to be autonomous. Homework encourages learners to work independently and explore new and existing resources. It is the time students will go through the materials and pinpoint what they need.

Assigning homework : ‘Page 42, exercises, 2 and 3’

 

The worst way to assign homework is to only write the pages / exercises on the board. Students will not do homework if they do not understand what they are supposed to do. What may be obvious to us is not necessarily obvious to them. Everyone will be frustrated, students will be insecure and will grow more dependent on their teacher. Homework can also be an excellent way to develop learner autonomy.

We have to be very careful when we assign homework, specially (but not only) with lower levels. That does not mean one has to keep modelling a true or false exercise after students have done it for the hundredth time. Here are some alternatives to assign homework more effectively:

 

  • Model the first items to make sure students understand the task. If possible, model with a student.
  • Nominate someone to explain the assignment. You may want to go for the strong students. The idea is not to test them, but to engage and guarantee that the tasks are clear to the group.
  • Divide students into groups and assign different exercises for them to explain. This is similar to nominating a student, but especially helpful when you have a longer list or more challenging tasks that will require more time. Learners will have the chance to discuss and check with their peers before explaining to the rest of the group, creating a more comfortable atmosphere.
  • Give students options. If you have several tasks that practice the same topic and with the same level of difficulty, tell your students to choose their homework. You may want to give them some direction, though. Indicate the number of exercises you want them to do. For instance, from a list of 15 exercises, they should choose 5.

Why at the end?

 

It is common practice to assign homework at the very end of the class. It is almost like homework gives a sense of closure, so students can stand up and go home after it has been written on the board. Again, this is what students expect. However, it does not have to be like that. There is no need to always assign homework at the end of the class. It makes perfect sense, for example, to assign homework in the middle of the lesson, after students have practiced the language more freely and you are going to move on to a next topic. It will still be organic, as you are ending a different cycle. Besides, learners will have a clearer idea of the reasons why they are going to be doing that specific piece of homework. If it is not, be sure you tell them.

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(Photo taken from: http://on.fb.me/1wRicQ0 by Roseli Serra used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license,http://bit.ly/1evKm84)

 

 

Correction

In spite of what is commonly done, homework correction and warm-up activities are not the same. When homework is corrected, students are, most of the time, reading answers. There is not much cognitive processing going on or personalization, students are not engaged, and therefore it doesn’t work as a warmer. However, it is possible to combine both, killing two birds with one stone. Here are some suggestions of games you can use as warmers when correcting homework:

 

Running dictation
If you teach kids and teens, this type of correction is more likely to succeed, but some adult groups may enjoy this challenge too. Divide the students into small groups. Put the answer key outside the classroom. While a student stays in the classroom, another student goes outside, memorizes the answers and whispers them to the student who stayed in. Encourage students to take turns. Time the activity, otherwise it may take too long. Show the answer key at the end, if necessary.

 

Grammar or vocabulary auction
Auction right and wrong homework answers. It is also a chance for students who did not do the homework take part in the correction process.

 

Hangman and crossword puzzle for vocabulary
These are popular games that have been in the ELT classroom for ages. Nowadays there are many puzzle generators online, such as this one .

 

There is also room for more traditional ways to correct homework. After all, even the most resourceful teacher can’t come up with a different game every class. If you also want to promote student autonomy, you might want to try these out:

 

Peer checking
Students check homework among themselves, teacher monitors closely.

 

Answer key
Students are given the answer key at the moment homework is assigned or when it is correction time. The teacher should always ask for students’ feedback in order to identify problem areas.

 

Nominating
The teacher calls out students’ names to read answers.

 

Volunteers
The teacher elicits answers from students or asks volunteers to conduct the correction.

 

Collecting students’ work
Collect students’ homework and give feedback later. Although this means more work to the teacher, it may enable you to discover a common problem area and do some remedial work.

General tips

 

Be consistent. Create a homework routine. Assign homework every class. If homework is occasional, students are likely to forget.

 

Be realistic. Think of the amount of homework you assign and whether there is proper time to have it done. Perhaps 2 pages of homework will be too much for the next day, but not for the next week. The more you know your students, the better able you will be to determine what works for them.

 

Be flexible. As much as it is positive to have a homework routine, we need to adapt to the circumstances. If your group of teenagers is going to busy all weekend with their end of terms, you may negotiate the amount of homework or even decide to assign no homework at all.
Depending on the class days, you may find it useful to devote part of a specific day to homework correction (instead of correcting every class), if that means students will have more time to it.

 

I’d love to hear from you. Do you have a hard time with homework? If so, how do you deal with this? Do you have other tips? Share them in the comments!

 

Thank you for reading!

T.

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28 thoughts on “Changing homework habits and perceptions

  1. Your tips are the best! You make teaching sound so easy that I feel like delivering a class right now!
    Thank you for taking the time to share all your knowledge with us!
    😡
    Maitê

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  2. Hi Thiago,

    This is great advice. I have been struggling with this for a year and experimenting in various ways. Some of my homework assignments are being done. Others are neglected. Recently, I noticed something very interesting in student behaviour and based on student feedback. I asked the students for honest feedback to know if they wanted homework and they told me sincerely that they did (there is a lot I did to build this level of confidence with them). So I told them I was concerned that I was assigning homework but the students weren’t doing it, what followed was that homework assignments started to be handed in, but late. My initial reaction was that they weren’t respecting the homework assignment, but later I realized that it really doesn’t matter when it’s done as long as it’s done. So I adopted a much more flexible approach to homework. In other words, I would allow them time to finish the assignments and, like magic, I started seeing more writings and filled out work. I absolutely agree with two points you make in your article. Firstly, that it’s important not to go with the expected approach to homework in the sense of assigning it just because you should, and instead focus on assigning what’s important, necessary and worthwhile. Secondly, to be flexible with the students and allow them to submit their homework “late” (I make it simple enough that I can check individual mistakes quickly and give immediate feedback). Thirdly, yes I know I said, I had to points, but I think an additional point here could help out, that is, to make sure that the homework assignment is absolutely clear. I don’t assign any subject matter I haven’t yet explained in class and dedicate time to make sure that they know exactly what they have to do.

    Happy teaching!

    Yuri

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    • Hi Yuri!
      Thank you for your comment. I agree with all your points and I’m happy to hear you found a balance between what works for you and your students. I used to be a bit angry at times when homework was neglected, but the thing is, it’s not personal.
      I love your third point. This could create so much frustration!
      Happy teaching for you too!

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      • I don’t think it advisable to give the answer key along with the home assignment. Let the students do the homework, and you may check the answers the next day. If the answer key is given in advance, there will be a tendency among the taught to check each answer immediately after the assignment is done, depriving them of the chance to apply their minds well. I am not casting aspersions on the intellectual honesty of the young minds.

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      • Hi Dr. N., thank you for your comment.
        I see your point, but don’t you think we could devote some class time to explain to our students how to use the answer key properly?

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  3. It has been a detailed explanation 🙂 I liked some of your suggestions.Unfortunately, students’ levels are getting lower ( at least the ones I met) To me, the best homework is the shortest one.It should also be original.It cannot be copied.This year, I wanted all my students to make surveys about their cities,hopes,problems,exams etc with their schoolmates,classmates,teachers,neighbours etc.The results were shining.They liked them too much.

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    • Thank you for your comment, Ömer!
      Totally agree, the more we are able to customize homework, the better.
      The surveys were a great idea, specially if you have students from different home countries. Did they share their findings with the group?

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  4. Thanks, all very good ideas. Some I knew, some I’ll experiment (the running tip). Something I sometimes do is this: depending on their age, the students are told at the end of class, some are chosen at random, they become teachers at the beginning of class and have to explain what they learned in the previous class to their friends (the rule for the comparative for instance, or how to ask a question using the present tense…) They love it, specially when I become student and take their seat. I can tell you, it works! They remember, not only through the lesson, but I can say it is completely acquired.

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    • Great, Agnès! I used to do something similar to that at the end of the class, eliciting from the group the things we’d just studied. Your way sounds much more fun, though!

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  5. Thank you so much for your wonderful tips about assigning homework and checking it. I will try some of the tips with my colleagues and of course in my class too!!

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  6. Thanks for this! I have been giving the answer key for years, saves time and we just go over any answers which may differ from the key but are often correct. I teach mostly high level students and preparing presentations is another favourite homework of mine, then we all get to learn something new too.
    Working in Spain, the schools here overload kids with homework, but often my own kids can’t do that work autonomously. Then homework also serves as a great divider where students from immigrant families do not receive the same assistance. As a parent, I hate my kids’ homework! So, I go easy on students who are already faced with a heavy workload. I would rather teenagers had enthusiasm for something which they can do in English, whether it is playing online games, chatting or song gapfills online (lyricstraining.com is excellent). I feel the more we can get away from the traditional idea of homework the better. The flipped classroom idea is beneficial, where homework could involve preparing for topics in the next lesson too.

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    • Hi Rebeccah, thank you for your comment.
      We do need to adjust homework so that students can do it on their own. I love the fact that you’re aware that your students’ background may influence their studies, you seem to be a great teacher!
      I’ll have a look at lyricstraining.com, thanks for the suggestion.

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  7. After I worked up learner profiles I assigned a choice of homework assignments from which students could choose. These ranged from a video about the family pet to doing interviews with family or friends. These got sent to me via What’sApp, email, recorded message or other media of the student’s choice. They responded well and a large percentage of them even did more than one homework option over the course of a week (without my asking for it!).

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  8. Interesting post, T! I have been lucky to count with students that actually do their homework these past two quarters, but I do think I need to make sure I model more often and slow down. I used to rush and give homework right at the last second, and since that changed I think I’m getting better results. Could also be coincidence, but I do think it makes the process a bit clearer. This quarter, I’m writing my homework assignments on a Google Document that I’ve shared with them. I’m hoping this will make everything clearer for all students.

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