Steven Herder

How important is homework? – Steven Herder

Important homework is important. “Make-work” homework is evil. Workbook homework is too often mind-numbingly boring, and therefore not useful. Too much homework is cruel. Assigning the same homework for everyone makes sense for about 25% of the class, and therefore, is a waste of time for 75% of the class.

I’ve been battling what to do about homework for most of my teaching career. I feel like Charlie Brown trying to kick the football and never quite making it happen. I am very often disappointed with homework by the end of each school year – both what they do for my classes as well as what I see them doing for other classes. Undaunted, I am about to try another new idea from the new
school year in April.

Of course, the key to success is determining what is important with homework. Rather than trying to figure that out myself, I am finally ready to hand that task over to the students. This idea dovetails with my belief in promoting learner autonomy (learning how to learn) and it also supports my belief that students must be engaged in their homework in order for it to have any meaning at all. By giving them joint custody of their homework assignments, I’m hoping that will increase their emotional commitment and their efforts.

My plan is to present the idea that everyone has her own strength and weakness in English. For some it is one of the input skills (reading and listening); for others one of the output skills of speaking and writing might be weaker or stronger. First, they must decide their approach. Do they want to improve a weak area, or do they want to strengthen a natural talent they possess? Both are valid choices, and they are welcome to make changes along the way.

I plan to ask for diary entries that I can confirm in less than a minute by walking around at the beginning of class. I would also assign one student each lesson to give a one-minute report about her homework in front of the whole class. As far as the content of the homework, there are no rules: it can be academically oriented, focused on vocabulary, one of the 4 skills, Western music, TV dramas, etc. I’ll accept anything if they can explain why they are investing time in it.

What do you think? I would love to hear some success stories about homework.

Steven Herder

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Steven Herder

Steven has been teaching within the Japanese EFL context since 1989. Having over 20 years teaching experience at the elementary and secondary school level, he is currently an associate professor in the International Studies department at Doshisha Women’s College of Liberal Arts. He is also extremely active in professional development within the ELT community. He co-founded MASH Collaboration in 2007, an online community devoted to professional development through collaboration. He is an avid user of Skype and can often be heard saying, “Collaboration creates just the right amount of tension to get lots done.” He also spends time editing numerous articles, academic volumes and proceedings, and leading teacher training seminars for various companies throughout Japan. Steven works from the perspective that, “being a teacher means a never-ending commitment to learning”.

23 thoughts on “How important is homework? – Steven Herder”

  1. Perhaps only asking for success stories with homework is an unfair question.

    I’d also love to hear horror stories, happy stories, success stories, good tries, failed attempts, students’ opinions, and anything else about where homework fits or doesn’t fit in your classroom.

  2. Hi Steven,

    I think the idea of personalised homework is a great one. More meaningful, probably more effective and engaging. It would certainly foster learner autonomy.

    Sadly, I think for most English teachers it is impossible to do that (it’s all about the context we are in, isn’t it?). It certainly is impossible for me. I have 6 different groups, each with an average of 16 students. I see them for 1h15m twice a week. For the teen students, if I leave it up to them to decide what to do I have a feeling most of them would take the easy path and either choose something that will not really help their learning (or address their difficulties) or not do anything at all. As for the adult students… well, maybe a few of them would do it, and I’d be able to guide them into choosing things that would benefit them. But even in the best of cases, I could never correct each individual homework and teach a class in 1 hour.

    So I’ve been doing what I can to assign homework that addresses what I feel to be the biggest need / difficulty of most students in each group. I try to find varied, meaningful and enjoyable tasks but at times I admit I fall into the workbook for homework trap.

    But not all is gloomy and lost in the land of homework in my practice :-) I do have a recent success story. On a B1 level group I have, with teens between 14-16 years old, where we have been discussing language and slang (in the course syllabus) I asked SS to bring a segment of a video with a dialogue containing slang. They had to share their videos with the rest of the class and then analyze the slang used (what it meant, the appropriateness, etc). They loved doing it and everybody was very motivated to watch each other’s videos as well. As a follow up project, I asked them to transcribe the dialogue and rewrite it, taking all the slang out. I’m curious to see what they come up with!

    Thanks for sharing your views on homework. Maybe someday I’ll be in a situation that will allow me to try your idea – I’d really like to!

    1. Hi Cecilia,

      You were so busy responding on the last set of posts that I’m very appreciative of your taking time to share your thoughts of my post this time. You are a busy, busy lady.

      Indeed, I am lucky that I have only 12 classes of 12 students each in my current job.

      In my own case, what I’m actually going to try to do from April for homework is to evaluate their effort in doing homework. About 30% of their grade is for homework. At the start of each class, I can simply glance at their homework diary to see if they have done some reflecting or put in some effort. How I judge it is very basic: + means impressive, 0 means regular, – means no effort, and x means nothing attempted. I can either judge this in about 10 seconds each (2 minutes) or collect it and check through it during a practice activity in class. I would do this for the 15 or 30 classes that we have in each term and calculate their grade. Additionally, I plan to highlight how important homework is by having one student per class assigned to make a short homework report (up to 2 minutes with the same grading as above). I also hope to have students regularly talk to each other about their homework e.g. what is working, what isn’t, what changes they are making, etc. I will NOT collect and mark all of their homework because I believe that homework is not about “right or wrong”. I hope to give them a grade out of 30% based on what they show me, tell me and tell each other over the course of the semester.

      I’ll let everyone know what works well and what doesn’t in early August when the spring term is finished.

  3. Absolutely Steven. I agree that homework is considred by the students as a boring add-on to their work!
    We have to, however, make them see that homework is part of the lesson,and not an extra-part of school work. I think the mistake we usually make is when we assign homework after a lesson and we give our students the impression that it’s a choice and not a must to do it. This impression becomes fixed in the students’ minds especially when homework is not checked next time or when those who do the homework are not praised for their efforts, and when those who don’t do it are simply ignored, or praised in another way! Teachers, I think, have to take homework seriously. And to take it seriously I suppose that recognising and “real” praising the efforts of those who do it is a good hint to show that homework is part of the lesson. Teachers usually invent ways to grade homework assignment. I think grading shouldn’t target the “correctness” of an attempt; we simlpy have to “pay’ those who take homework seriously; and for adolescents and adults, praising with a “very good” or “excellent” comment no longer does the job. They have to really see that they have reaped the benefits of their last night’s work.

    One of the iTDi institute staff writers, Scott I think, has spoken of using technology in homework. I totally agree that while teaching methods and skills are continuously progressing, homework assignments are still in the form of paper and pencil exercises. Students already resist homework, and they will even resist and fight it bravely if the means used are lagging far behind the students’ everyday lives. This is why it’s a necessity today to exploit the gadgets students have within their reach wherever possible. And I think it’s always possible to do that providing that teachers are creative in their own methods. I am saying here “the gadgets that are within the students’ reach” because I know that there are still huge differences between global “citizens” when it comes to technology use. I am in a third world country and I am aware that most students own nothing more than an ordinary mobile phone; while, in other parts of the world an ipad is the least a student can own-in most cases. I am also aware that even in developed corners we still have “middle ages” people! The idea is that there must always be a way to make use of what the students have. Let’s make them value their mobiles most because a person values what he/she has and not what others have.

    1. Great post!

      You make me realize that I need to spend more time at the beginning of the year explaining my thoughts about homework to my students. My main points will be:

      1. Homework is important
      2. Homework must be meaningful in order to be effective.
      3. Homework is your responsibility to control, and my responsibility to monitor.

      I also learned that I need to consider exploiting their mobile gadgets as much as possible. Perhaps a discussion like, “How do you use your smart phone and how could you use it for doing homework?”

      Thank you very much for giving me new ideas.

  4. Some good ideas here. I am trying to make the homework I give in class, more than just homework. Making sure that we mark it together as a class, rather than just taking it in and applying some ticks and crosses. I think it´s important to show the students that homework isn´t just something we have to give to them and do so because it means we don´t have to deal with it in class. By focussing on the homework in the class, it gives a sense of purpose and continuity to it, as well as demonstrating that it´s important for the students to complete the homework as it supports and facilitates what is happening in class.

    1. Yes, I have seen this point expressed very clearly. I used to make the mistake of saying, “We’re very busy today, so we’ll look at your homework at the end of class, today.” Unfortunately, I would run out of time and say, “Sorry, we’ll have to look at your homework next class.” The look of disappointment on some students’ faces that we wouldn’t acknowledge their homework efforts made me feel like a lousy teacher. I was also sending a lousy message to them that their homework was not very important.

      I know always try to address homework at the start of class.

  5. Hi Steven
    This is very interesting to me, cause I have several experiences regarding homework. One thing in common though, wherever I teach, homework has never played a big part of my teaching.
    When I taught in an English course, I used to help my students with their school’s homework as most of schools here in Indonesia expect their students to study at home and figure that what they have given in school is enough for the students, when in fact it isn’t always the case. So, we -the course teachers- were always expected to fill the missing gap. That of course gave us no privilege to give any homework, for our students have already been burdened by school’s. So, yeah….no homework from me ;-)
    Now, as I am working in Montessori school, we are accustomed to teach and give tasks according to students’ ability and need. So, everyone is given special attention and our job is to know their weakness and try to improve it. This means there are personalized worksheet for each of them. The same deal goes for their homework. I only give them homework every Friday and each of them may not get the same homework. Some may have math while the other have logic or language ones. And the goal isn’t to ask them to study at home to master a lesson, but just as a reviewing session as I will not frown should they come back to class the next week with wrong answers. That should be a ringing bell for me to later work on what they haven’t mastered.
    How important is homework in my opinion? It is important, when you don’t put pressure on them. I believe homework can be a sign whether our students have understood our lesson and of course how responsible they are about it. And as I have never give them pressure on it, I have never heard them coming to me saying “the dog ate my homework” kind of excuses :) . But of course I still ask them to at some point return the homework as a token of their responsibility

  6. Thanks, Yitzha,

    I love your supportive approach to homework. You have certainly found the most important aspect of homework. It should show us teachers where students have missed important concepts or need further explanation or practice.

    Your students are very lucky to have you as their teacher.

  7. Hi Steven, great idea about letting them choose what to focus on between classes. When I started in my current position three years ago there was a language lab with 30 online computers and 200 current DVDs, but no program in place. A few colleagues and I quickly set up a “Self Study Sheet” and let the students choose what they wanted to do, but everyone had to do 10 activities of 30 minutes each semester. Luckily, the lab is staffed, so students can get a stamp for the work they do there. I made my sheets in three categories; movies/tv shows, websites for listening activities, and any extensive reading activities. In class I assign some extra work, sometimes, and I find that if there is some group discussion about it in the next class the ‘homework’ is much more likely to get done.

  8. Bingo, Chris P,

    We also have a staffed study room and you’ve got me thinking about how to use it in conjunction with my new homework plan. Geez, I love the ideas coming out of this blog.

    Thanks for taking the time to share.

    1. Just to throw a few other ideas into the ‘self study’ mix, some colleagues here have let them watch movies/tv shows for all 10 activities (and I recommend no L1 subtitles; English OK), while some have gone the other direction and made all 10 activities be grammar/vocabulary based work. Depending on textbooks, many are website-supported, and spending time on those can be an activity for self study too. One of my colleagues took it out of the learning lab and said “Anything you do in English outside of this school for 30 minutes counts as one activity” and in my Presentation class I made them watch 10 TED Talks presentations and do a small write-up for each. Maybe some of those ideas can work for others, too. ;-)

  9. Hi Steven, Good, thought-provoking article! In my experience, personalized learning is possible and works… namely, in the form of projects and portfolios. I’ve found that, if they work on something personal and fairly ‘meaty’, i.e., not short spurts of loosely-connected homework, the results are great: 1) students do what they can according to their ability, 2) they do more than they can, because they have something to be PROUD of (a key consideration here) and 3) they do it with pleasure!
    Interestingly, I interviewed a very sad and fed-up young teen in Quito a while back about her experiences… She hates English, she says, and goes on to explain why. “Well, have you ever done anything that you liked?” I ask. “I once did a project”, she replied, “and I liked that because I learned about food I like and how to ‘defend myself’ in English”.

  10. Personalised HW looks like a wonderful idea but I doubt that the idea of diary entries would work with my students for a number of reasons.
    I recently was surprised to find out that almost 80% of my students are reluctant to write about themselves; they are not willing to open up. In a home assignment I have given them in which they were supposed to use the first person singular ‘ I ‘, I was baffled by the fact that most of them used ‘ you ‘ or ‘ s/he ‘ instead. e.g they’d prefer to say, if you follow your dreams, you ….instead of, if I …. .They simply refused to refer to themselves.

    I’m teaching 7 groups ranging from 18 to 30 students in each. They are teens aged between 14 to 17. I teach 24 hours/week and most of my students have 3 hours of English a week except one group who has 4 and another 6 hours/week. The idea of personalised HW is tempting but would it work with so many students to look after individually?
    Asking students for a 2-minute report on their assignment orally is a great idea and sounds practical in my context.
    With my 14-year-old students (2 groups/ 30 students each), I have given them short stories to read; I asked them to choose among the range of books I brought to class and at home they would write a summary, a short biography of the author and two words about their personal point of view about the story:did they like it (why (not)? The best students obviously loved the assignment and returned it in less than two weeks; the average still didn’t hand it back but I know they will and the rest (5 % in one group and 40% in the other) I’m sure they will never do.
    I also asked students if they are willing to do an oral presentation of their work and let me video it; they don’t object to the idea but I’m sure the management will. But I’ll try to get the authorisation.

    Thanks for the sharing and for the interesting blog.

    Rima from Algiers

  11. Steven, thank you for sharing your reflections on homework. Now I have the term for what I’ve been doing in my lessons for more than two years – personalized homework! :)
    I teach ESP to young adults at Physics faculty of Moscow State University. They have only one 2 hour English lesson a week which is almost nothing considering the amount of material we have to cover according to the curriculum. No doubt I just can’t put everything which is required (grammar, vocabulary, speaking, writing etc) into one lesson a week.
    So, I came up with an idea of 4 min reports on individually selected topics related to any field of science the Sts are interested in at the beginning of each lesson. To shorten the time of presentations and to remove stress from the activity, I ask students to present their articles to each other in pairs. It’s very easy to check who is ready and who is not. And it’s also very easy to see who does a really good job by, say, using visual aids (like pictures, graphs etc) during their presentation and to assign an extra credit for such contributions. My students know about it and do their best to prepare good retellings.
    I should also add that my students almost never fail to get ready for the activity. :) They really enjoy the activity and do it with such enthusiasm that made me believe that when Sts have smth to contribute to the lesson and to share what they’ve done with others they learn the most and enjoy the learning.
    So don’t hesitate to try a new homework technique – be sure you will succeed.

  12. Dear Alexandra,

    Welcome to our blog! I was very happy to wake up this morning and read your inspiring post. It doesn’t surprise me at all that smart teachers like you have been doing personalized homework for some time now. I think it is not such a difficult idea, but it simply takes a little bit of planning before the year starts. I really like your idea and it seems to be just right for the students: the right topics, the right length, and the right kind of activity – congratulations on putting it all together. your experience convinces me even more that personalized homework can work well for my students this year. Thank you so much for taking the time to share your experience. I notice that you have left messages on a number of other posts by my fellow authors. I can’t wait to go and read them all.

    I hope we stay in touch because I always like to meet and continue to interact with great teachers.

    1. Hello Steven!

      Thank you very much for your wonderful words! I’m pleased and flattered, and feel my cheeks blush :)

      In fact, I’m delighted with the amazing job you and the whole iTDi team are doing! I was lucky to meet Chuck Sandy, Vladimira Michalkova and Luke Meddings in person earlier this March at Surpr@ise Day in Kosice and appreciate what great teachers and personalities they are. I hope to meet you too one day.

      As for the activity I described, I’m still elaborating it. And now I see that there is such a huge range of variations or directions this activity can take.

      Please, do write regularly on how your implementation of personalized homework will be going. It’s always so interesting and inspiring to share experience and reflections with like-minded people.

      Thank you very much once again, Steven.

  13. I agree Steve and would add that student expectations actually benefit teachers when we personalize homework as most of our students do expect homework of some kind. Personalizing it helps us move from “homework” to “self-study” as it is should be more interesting and of greater use to students. And for those of us who teach in EFL contexts where students have limited access to the target language, I have found that explaining why I am assigning the homework helps students. So often many teachers think that students will see the practicality of homework and that is often not the case.

  14. Cheers, Terry, for highlighting those two very useful points:

    (1) EFL students (in Japan, anyway) expect homework and may even think less of teachers who don’t assign homework, and

    (2) students often don’t know why they are doing homework and it behooves us as teachers not to forget that the things we seem to say endlessly, need to be told to everyone lest they remain in the dark.

    Terry, I really appreciate you sharing your experience with others on this blog. I hope you’ll continue to make the time to contribute.

    Steven

  15. Hi Steven, You asked for a horror story… wait for this! Last night my 16-year old neighbor Rosa came round asking for help with her homework. “Sure” I replied happily. “What do you have to do?” She showed me 35 (yes, that’s 35) texts, which her teacher had cut out of an old textbook. Rosa’s homework was to translate all 35 texts from English to Spanish, with no guidance whatsoever…

    Given that Rosa’s teacher plans to grade everyone individually and there are over 30 kids in the class, that means that the teacher will receive over 1,000 texts to review. Phew! It was boring for both me and Rosa, and she gained nothing from it at all. Oh, that’s an exaggeration. She gained a bad night’s sleep, because we sat up till after midnight and we still hadn’t finished by then, and she will be in trouble today for not fiinishing. How sad.

    Seriously, though… what would you do about it in my case?? Should I talk to the teacher? Or – since I don’t know her – just let it be? Any advice welcome!

    1. Hi Kate,

      God… I read this three days ago and have been stumped ever since. I’m rarely stumped. I always have an answer – even though I’m often wrong – I still usually have a clear opinion, but this time… Ugh.

      Without knowing Rosa, her relationship with Mrs. HWMonster, Mrs. HWMonster herself, or your status with Mrs. HWMonster, I’m really taking a stab in the dark…

      However, if it were not a 3-day trip over the mountains or through a treacherous jungle I might find a reason to drop by the school or contact the teacher in as non-confrontational way as possible, and explain how you know about the assignment. I would then ask as earnestly as possible if that was a standard approach and how it has worked in the past. I would try to weasel in my own opinion that it might possibly be more harmful than effective and offer to do something “real” like visit the class if she ever wanted to invite someone… maybe.

      Like you, I think it would be difficult to simply forget about it.

      Good luck and if there are any further chapters in this saga, please let us all know.

      In commiseration,

      Steven

  16. Hi Mr Herders.Its a great work indeed that you do.As a teacher i would like to know how i can make home work an effective technique.Stay blessed.Thank you.

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