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Differentiated Homework Assignments


October 31, 2000 Categories: Engaging Academics / Homework

Ask any teacher, parent, student, or administrator about homework and you’re likely to get a different opinion about the quality and quantity at their school: there should be more, there should be less, it’s too easy, it’s too hard, it should start when children are very young, it should start when children are older.

While many schools have policies that clearly spell out homework expectations and sound simple enough—all students will have one hour of homework every night—every teacher knows that the reality of assigning and monitoring homework every day for a group of 20–30 students is anything but simple.

When the subject of homework arose in a recent workshop for K–8 teachers, the questions and concerns flooded out:

  • “What about the children who never do their homework? I’ve tried just about everything and nothing helps.”
  • “What about the students who only do part of the assignment?”
  • “What about the kids who don’t do it because there’s no one around at home to help them?”

If you’re like most teachers, you’ve probably experienced all of these problems and more. Is it possible to make them all disappear? Unlikely. But it is possible to greatly reduce the number of problems and to increase the chances that all students will experience success. In this article I offer a few key strategies which have proven successful.

Take the time to teach homework

The typical approach to introducing homework is to talk with students about homework expectations. We tell them how they are to do their homework; we may even talk about good homework habits. We then send them off to do it alone, and more often than not, we’re disappointed with the results.

The critical step that’s missing here is practice. If we really want students to understand our expectations for homework and successfully meet these expectations, then we must be willing to “teach” homework. This means introducing homework slowly and incrementally and providing plenty of time for students to practice the routine under our guidance before expecting them to do it at home independently.

At the K.T. Murphy School in Stamford, Connecticut, for example, during the first six weeks of school, primary grade students complete all written homework in class. Older students do the same for the first two to four weeks. During this practice period, teachers and students work to define expectations for high-quality homework and students bring home their completed “homework” to share with parents. In this way, parents gain a better understanding of homework expectations and are better able to hold their children to these expectations.

It’s never too late to begin

A proactive approach to homework early in the school year has helped many teachers keep students on track academically and away from the negative lessons of detention or missed recess. But no matter what time of the year it is, if your students are struggling with homework, you might want to spend a week or two re-introducing it to your class.

As nearly every page of The First Six Weeks of School reminds us, taking the time to slowly introduce classroom procedures, curriculum, and materials is vital to students’ success. The same holds true for homework, and the strategies used during the first six weeks of school can be applied to any time of the school year.

Be flexible and individualize as needed

It’s often the case that all students are given identical homework assignments. This practice guarantees failure for some students. Discouraged by their inability to meet expectations, many students invent ingenious excuses each morning for their failure. Their willingness to invest energy creating excuses, however, is a sign of their continued eagerness to do what is expected of them. Other students, more defeated, simply respond to the question of “Where’s your homework?” with “I don’t know.”

If we are to increase students’ success with homework, we must be willing to be flexible and to individualize assignments. As Melvin Konner, author of Childhood: A Multicultural View, states, “In order to be treated fairly and equally, children have to be treated differently.” Yes, differentiated homework, like differentiated instruction, will be more work for the teacher in the short run, but the long-term payoff of student success and investment will be worth it.

I suggest that teachers apply the same “3 R’s” they use for choosing logical consequences—consequences should be respectful, related, and reasonable—to choosing homework. That is, homework should be:

  • respectful of the child’s ability and development level,
  • related to the work of the classroom and, where possible, to the interest of the individual student, and
  • reasonable in amount and degree of difficulty.

This does not mean that teachers need to create different homework assignments for every student every day, of course. There are obviously some assignments that everyone has to do and can easily accomplish, like writing in a journal or practicing spelling words. This work, like project homework in which students have had some choice in the assignment, is differentiated by default because students will choose how much they do in these situations.

Specific differentiation is needed, however, for those students whose ability or work ethic is in need of support. There may be a student, for example, who struggles with math. For this child, completing the standard homework assignment of 20 math problems could mean two hours of grueling work as opposed to the 20 minutes it takes for most. Anticipating this, the teacher might adjust the length of the assignment accordingly.

Other modifications might include arranging for a child to get help with a homework assignment from a parent or sibling or modifying the way in which an assignment is done (for example, dictating rather than writing, or having a parent read a chapter from a textbook to a child rather than the child reading it him/herself).

The important question to ask is, “How might I modify this assignment to fit this child’s learning style and needs?” By having students complete homework assignments in school during the early weeks of school, teachers can learn a lot about students’ varying abilities to work independently, information that can be used to adjust expectations accordingly.

Involve parents

The most important strategy for involving parents is to inform them of your homework practices. Clearly, the more informed parents are about homework expectations, the better able they’ll be to help their children meet these expectations. Many teachers and schools send a letter to parents at the beginning of the school year explaining the homework policy and expectations and enlisting parent support. At K.T. Murphy School, this letter arrives with a packet of information, in several languages, offering guidelines for setting up a space and time for homework and a checklist for homework expectations.

A great early-in-the-year class project could be to write your own “Homework Manual” as a class, perhaps with a “homework hint” from each student, and send the manual home to parents. As mentioned earlier, having students complete their first homework assignments at school and bringing them home to share with their family will also help parents gain a clear understanding of homework expectations.

. . . and if students still forget or don’t finish their homework?

And, of course, this will happen. One approach is to use logical consequences. A student who has been given reasonable, respectful, and related homework and who still has occasional creative excuses needs to experience equally creative consequences that send the message that completing homework is a requirement of being a member of the class.

Perhaps homework is the students’ ticket into homeroom. No hanging out with friends or participating in Morning Meeting until homework is completed. If a child does not have his/her homework, s/he goes directly to a buddy teacher’s classroom to complete it. Or, perhaps a child has a choice of where to complete the homework, in the classroom within earshot of the activities of the class, or in the library or guidance counselor’s office.

These consequences are liable to work for the usually conscientious student. For the more frequent offender, a more careful proactive approach is warranted. I call this approach “incremental success” and favor it over daily failure. Here’s how it works:

Marie has not successfully completed a homework assignment for several weeks. I have a conference with her to ascertain what the problem is and to let her know I’m willing to work jointly on this. Then I ask her what a reasonable number of, say, math problems is for tonight’s assignment. If she says “none,” I say, “That’s not an option.” If she says “three,” I say, “Great! Bring in three beautifully done problems tomorrow.”

When Marie brings in the completed homework, I present her with a “learning log” or record sheet which I have prepared for her to keep track of her own progress. In it she records her successes and failures, her ups and downs, as we proceed through math homework for a month or two. I check in frequently with her during this time, and periodically we review her progress and adjust assignments accordingly.

At the end of a two-month period, with more success than failure now a daily occurrence, we decide together when to eliminate the log. I have used this approach successfully with first graders and sixth graders and am always delighted in the increased responsibility and sense of pride shown by the students. Of course, there are ups and downs to this process for the teacher, too, but in the end, this proactive effort often yields dramatic results.

We ask a lot from children when we ask them to do homework—we ask them to follow directions, to organize their materials, to manage their time, and to work independently. It’s a tall order and its value lies in students experiencing success. Only then will homework be effective in improving students’ sense of responsibility and accomplishment, their academic skills, and their independent study habits.


Tags: Child Development, Homework, Working with Families


Making Homework Matter- Differentiate The Homework

Sep 11, 2011 byWhitney Hoffman

In our book, Jenifer and I knew we’d have to address homework.  It’s one of the issues that constantly puts teachers, students and parents at odds.  The real issue with homework is that kids often don’t see the point and it seems like busy work, rather than something that seems to have value.  Can you blame kids? I can’t begin to tell you how many times my kids have said things like “She never checks the homework, so really, why should I do it?”  It’s not that they don’t understand the value of practice, but they do look at it as the teacher assigns homework, but seems not to care or be invested in whether the work is actually done or not.  Is it any wonder why they see no real reason to complete it and stop caring as well?

The New York Times wrote about the topic, in a great opinion piece entitled “The Trouble with Homework.”  One great quote is the following:

In a 2008 survey, one-third of parents polled rated the quality of their children’s homework assignments as fair or poor, and 4 in 10 said they believed that some or a great deal of homework was busywork. A new study, coming in the Economics of Education Review, reports that homework in science, English and history has “little to no impact” on student test scores. (The authors did note a positive effect for math homework.) Enriching children’s classroom learning requires making homework not shorter or longer, but smarter.

In the first chapter of our book, Jenifer and I came up with many ways teachers can differentiate the homework, making it more personally relevant for each child in the classroom.  In the best of circumstances, homework should be work that should be done individually, whether it’s practice, reflective work, or other work that frankly doesn’t require the audience and collaboration of the classroom itself.  By using homework to prepare for class discussions the next day, to make sure that students have critical pieces of projects dine and ready for group work and the like, makes it more likely that the homework will get done, and that it has meaning.

Making homework meaningful also means making class time more meaningful.  If you are together with thirty other students, shouldn’t this be a time to share ideas and collaborate?  To learn from and with each other?  If kids are spending class time doing things like sustained silent reading, this is in some ways wasting the purpose of spending time together in the class, unless the purpose of the exercise is learning to read in a library or public setting.

Assessments can also be part of homework,  Instead of looking at assessments as tests taken during the day, how about trying to give kids open ended questions or novel problems where they have to take what they’ve been learning and apply it to solve a bigger problem?  This gives kids more time to really display what they know, and show mastery (or lack thereof) on assignments in a way that  a multiple choice test in class never will.

We also encourage teachers to try to make homework interactive.  Sometimes this can be reading an article and commenting on it on a classroom blog or wiki.  It could be assembling artifacts about a topic on their own wiki, or with a group.  It could be participating in a discussion through Skype.  Any of these assignments give kids an opportunity to express themselves as well as serving as a jumping off point for classroom discussions the next day.

Homework shouldn’t be a punishment.  If a teacher adds extra homework when the kids are bad, kids will naturally start to associate any form of homework as a form of punishment, not just “discipline”, which in its most authentic form means To Teach.  Homework should  be an opportunity to extend learning, to make connections with the outside world, and start to see how the classroom learning connects with their larger lives.

Now I know full well that some kids need more practice than others, or may memorize things faster than others.  In which case, why do all kids need to do 35 math problems when some have mastered the concept in the first 5 or 6?  The rest of those problems, for those students, is mere repetition and sheer tedium, teaching them nothing new.  Teachers need to help figure out which students need more practice, or perhaps even a different kid of practice than blindly assuming repeating the same procedure over and over will make a kid smarter.  In fact, it seems to me Einstein said the definition of insanity was doing the same task over and over again yet expecting different results.  Maybe there’s room here to start thinking about homework, and what we want kids to get out of it.

Let’s not forget one of the options all teachers have is to ask their students not only how they feel about homework, but why.  If they say it’s stupid and boring, then you need to ask the next question- Why?  What about it is stupid and boring?  How could we make it better?  If you were in charge, how would you change the homework?  Most teachers will be surprised that the majority of kids will give you thoughtful and insightful answers to these questions, and will take them seriously.

I think both teachers and students (not to mention parents) deserve to have more thought and purpose put into homework, and for homework to become a more collaborative process for everyone.


What do you think?

Could you differentiate the homework in your classroom?  Why or Why Not?

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