Don’t eliminate homework. Make it more effective 

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Find ways to give students feedback as they work. 

 

A 10-year-old in Colorado dialed 911 last April looking for help . . . with his math homework. He was stuck trying to divide 71 by 3,052, and, without his teacher or parents nearby, he didn’t know where else to turn. After listening to the problem, the dispatcher noted that the equation was backward before telling the student the answer. While this is an outlandish example, it nevertheless highlights the lack of support some students have when completing assignments at home.  

In the United States, there is an ongoing debate about whether homework is worthwhile, with critics saying that it’s busywork at best and, at worst, it’s detrimental to student learning. Only, the problem isn’t homework itself but how homework is done. Instead of implementing “no homework” policies, we can and should use technology to improve how students do their homework — or at least their math homework. 

Students learn best through interaction with teachers, who provide feedback throughout the day. When it comes to homework, though, students tend to be on their own. I believe they could learn more if they received immediate feedback showing whether they reached the right answer and, if not, where they missed the mark. As research makes clear, effective feedback is one of the most powerful tools for increasing student learning (Hattie, 2009).  

At Worcester Polytechnic Institute, we developed a free online program that provides hints and explanations when the student needs them, as well as providing teachers with timely information about their students’ performance. In a randomized controlled trial, researchers found that Maine students in schools that used the free tool scored roughly 75% higher than students in schools that did not use the program (Roschelle et al., 2016). And thanks to the immediate feedback at home, along with online progress reports that helped teachers focus their instruction, low-performing students caught up to their higher-performing peers. 

Not all online homework platforms are so effective, of course. For instance, I suggest caution when it comes to so-called “student-paced differentiated technology” — in which the computer provides the instruction and students move ahead on their own schedule. In a recent study of highly personalized online programs, researchers saw no positive results from using such technology, noting that these programs may even worsen achievement gaps, given that some students race ahead while low-performing students fall further behind (Steenbergen-Hu & Cooper, 2013). 

Given the range of tools on the market, then, what should school leaders look for in a tech-based homework solution? I suggest three ground rules: 

  • Find a program that provides immediate feedback, including the ability to try a few times. This way, students will not repeat mistakes and then have to wait for their teacher to hand back their work to learn that they did everything wrong.
  • Find a program that lets teachers set the pace, allowing them to adopt the technology in a way that doesn’t interfere with their established curriculum.
  • Find a tool that saves teachers’ time and helps them plan classroom instruction. With internet-enabled systems, teachers can instantly see how students did on their homework and what concepts they might need help with in class.

Providing students with immediate feedback on their homework assignments, while providing their teachers with information they can use for course planning, is a powerful practice that’s proven to increase student learning and is easy to implement. It’s time we demand smarter ways to use homework.  

 

References 

Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. New York, NY: Routledge. 

Roschelle, J., Feng, M., Murphy, R. & Mason, C. (2016). Online mathematics homework increases student achievement. AERA Open 2 (4), 1–12. 

Steenbergen-Hu, S. & Cooper, H. (2013). A meta-analysis of the effectiveness of intelligent tutoring systems on K–12 students’ mathematical learning. Journal of Educational Psychology, 105 (4), 970-987. 

 

Citation: Heffernan, N.T. (2019). Backtalk: Don’t eliminate homework. Make it more effective. Phi Delta Kappan, 100 (6), 80.  

 

NEIL T. HEFFERNAN is a professor of computer science and director of the Learning Sciences and Technologies Program at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. He and his wife, Christina, are the developers of ASSISTments, a free web-hosted digital platform that provides teachers with specific insight into their students’ progress on math homework.

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