Building Flexibility into Your Homework Policy

Any teacher who has ever given out homework has certainly encountered a student the next day saying, “I don’t have my assignment.” Whether pitiful or indifferent, this admission often places us in the unfortunate position of asking why, which puts us in the even more unfortunate position of having to determine whether the student’s excuse is creative (or pathetic) enough to warrant an extension or excusal (or, perhaps just as often, a lecture or punishment).

It took me a woefully long time to break this habit of asking “why” and might not have finally happened had not one of my students told me that a tornado had taken his paper out of his lunchbox! Regardless of your feelings about the value of homework (or it’s lack thereof), should you decide to give homework, it will certainly be worth your while to develop a policy that will eliminate excuses and minimize stress to your students or yourself.

Here are a few things to keep in mind:

• Consider, first of all, the value of the homework you give and the intentions that go beyond simply wanting them to practice or be prepared for the next lesson. Keep in mind the importance of engaging (and maintaining) a love of learning, a curiosity about life, and the world beyond the subject itself. Some of the best types of homework assignments are those that help the students apply or extend what they are learning, those that challenge them within the range of their actual abilities and resources.

• Keep drillwork to a minimum. If doing five problems will adequately strengthen and reinforce a particular skill, why assign twenty?

• Keep tabs on how your students are doing with a particular skill. To whatever degree is possible, let’s match assignments to student needs and abilities. If I can’t do long division problems in class, how successful am I likely to be doing a page of them after school?

• Be realistic about the amount of time your assignments will require. Many researchers recommend about 10 minutes per grade level per night— total! If you’re only one of your students’ teachers, remember that other teachers’ assignments will be competing for their time, not to mention family commitments and activities, after-school activities, job commitments, and the need for sleep.

• Offer students choices to engage their autonomy and individual learning preferences. Allow the students to pick a certain number of problems on a particular page, for example, or to choose between the problems on two different pages. Some students will be perfectly happy writing spelling words a certain number of times each; others will learn better by using the same words in a story or puzzle.

• Because students can indeed have a bad night, rather than relying on excuses, build some flexibility into your policy, right up front. You might want to run your idea by your administrator or department chair, and let the parents know (and maybe sign off on) your policies. You’ll get a lot farther with their support. (And parents tend to support not having to write excuses for teachers who understand— and create policies that protect their children— in the event of a “bad night.”)

• To give you some examples of ways you can set up a safety net before you’re tempted to ask why your kids don’t have their assignments, here are some of the policies other teachers have shared with me, ways they built some flexiblity into their homework policies to allow them to avoid ever having to ask for (or deal with) excuses:

• Requesting a certain percentage of assignments be turned in on time: “You are responsible for 37 out of 40 of the assignments you’ll be getting this semester.” BONUS: Giving extra credit for any of the extras that are turned in, even if late!

• Giving some token for one free “excuse” which does not need any explanation for its use: “Here is a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card which you can use if you forget your homework any time during the semester.” BONUS: Keeping a checklist to keep track of when a child uses the card, not requiring kids to actually show the card to get off the hook.

• Giving kids a break after a certain number of assignments are completed: “If you turn in completed homework ten days in a row, you can have the next night off (or you can do the work for extra credit).”

• Having a specific date for assignments to be turned in. (Similar to deadlines used in many college classes, may work best for specific assignments or projects, or with advanced level classes and self-managing kids.) “As long as you get your homework in two weeks before the end of the grading period, you’ll get credit for it.”

• Not counting one or more missed assignment, or the lowest score on a series of assignments or quizzes, for example: “You can drop your lowest grade each semester.”

• Extending daily deadlines beyond the end of class, giving kids until the end of the day (or even the end of the following day) to turn in work: “You have until the 3:30 bell tomorrow to turn in this assignment.”

• Getting away from using punishments, penalties, or other negative consequences for not doing homework and offering positive outcomes instead. One school saw a change in students’ attitudes about homework— and a big shift in the amount of work being turned in— by simply shifting from giving a minus when the work wasn’t done to giving a plus when it was.

• Not requiring homework at all but instead, giving extra credit for any that is turned in. (One teacher got his percentage up from 10% to 85% of assignments in simply by using this strategy.)

Discussions about homework can become pretty heated and both pros and cons are worth considering. I do believe there is a way to find some balance and sanity, a way to accommodate kids’ needs for some free time and skill practice. Let’s do our homework to find out what the research says (see some of the links below for more information) and bring a level of mindfulness of the demands on kids’ lives and time, as well as their future academic needs, to the choices we make about this important issue.

Related links:

What About Homework? by Dr. Jane Bluestein
Is Your Child’s Homework Worth Doing? by Chick Moorman and Thomas Haller
Taking a Stand Against Homework by Chick Moorman and Thomas Haller
Synthesis of Research Findings on Homework by Chick Moorman and Thomas Haller
Also: Homework: What Does the Research Say? by Scott King-Owen.

Book: Creating Emotionally Safe Schools
Book: High School’s Not Forever
Book: Listas Para Padres: Qué Hacer Y Qué No
Book: The Parent’s Little Book of Lists: Do’s and Don’ts of Effective Parenting

Audio: Practical Strategies for Working Successfully with Difficult Students

Podcast: Ending the Homework Wars with Susan Fitzell
Podcast: The Fragile Learner with Hanoch McCarty
Podcast: Movement and Learning with Aili Pogust
Podcast: The Saber-Tooth Curriculum Revisited with Dr. Richard Biffle
Podcast: Technology and Special Needs with Don and Gracie Tillman

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