There’s an old joke about homework. A teacher says to a student, “How do you like doing your homework?” The student responds, “I like doing nothing better.”
With the novelty of the new school year now behind us, it goes without saying that kids would rather be doing just about anything other than homework.
Every fall, the same debates persist: Is homework even effective? How much is best? In what ways should parents be involved? But the problem with homework does not revolve around these questions.
The problem with homework is motivation, or the lack thereof, because the major challenge for making homework an effective tool for learning is that even nothing often seems better.
As a researcher focused on teacher and parent practices that support student achievement, I believe that the call to action is clear: Teachers and parents must focus on motivation to make homework a valuable part of the learning process.
Teachers must put more focus on the quality of the homework. Homework is most effective when it relates to students’ existing interests, is meaningful, and is well suited to kids’ current skills. We are all familiar with this learning is easier when the task is interesting and seems important to master.
Studies suggest that teachers who use homework to develop students’ motivation and interest in the subject have students who put in greater effort on homework and demonstrate higher achievement.
The homework itself should be short and frequent, not long and few. Every year there is inevitably a news story about overwhelmed fifth-graders who come home with four hours of homework every night.
This always amazes me because we know from research that students learn better and can maintain motivation when they space out their learning and return to it frequently, rather than attempting to learn everything in one long session.
As students become frustrated or bored with an assignment, they reduce their effort, work less effectively, or give up altogether. Assignments should be short and regular.
Structure is important too. Clear expectations and having a routine can maintain motivation.
When students leave class feeling prepared to do their homework and know what teachers and parents expect of them, they feel more competent and positive about homework.
Studies have shown students who have a clearly defined routine around homework a set time, a set place and a set way to complete homework are more likely to believe they can overcome challenges while doing homework and take more responsibility for their own learning.
It is critical that teachers and parents explain why even the most boring homework is important. Not all rationales are equal, but explaining how information is used by that doctor or engineer in the real world or how the homework could help the student accomplish personal goals aside from just getting a good grade can help students persist even on boring homework.
Parents should also give their kids a little freedom. When kids struggle with homework, teachers and parents sometimes have an instinct to take control by using commands, incentives, threats or just do homework themselves for their kids. These tactics may work in the short term, but they won’t benefit kids for the long haul.
A better strategy is to help kids feel autonomous by giving them some choice about homework and emphasizing that they should work in their own way.
And finally, feedback. Teachers and parents need to provide feedback about the homework product, not the student. Feedback can be tricky when it comes to motivation because inevitably, no one likes to hear about what they did not do well.
But, whatever teachers and parents say about homework, it needs to be clear that they have confidence that the student can improve with effort and that making mistakes is not only tolerated but is a welcomed part of the learning process.
Motivation plays an integral part in the overall value of homework. The sooner parents and teachers focus on strategies to foster motivation, the better. What should be clear to everyone, though, is that homework can definitely be better than nothing.
Erika A. Patall is an assistant professor of educational psychology in the College of Education at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Austin American Statesman.
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— Texas Perspectives (@TexPerspectives) October 20, 2014