In the first installment of Rick Wormeli’s homework advice, he made the case for take-home assignments that matter for learning and engage student interest. In Part 2, Rick offers some guiding principles that can help teachers create homework challenges that motivate kids and spark deeper learning in and out of school.
These articles are adapted and updated from Rick’s seminal book about teaching in the middle grades, Day One & Beyond: Practical Matters for New Middle Level Teachers. Rick continues to offer great advice about homework, differentiation, assessment and many other topics in workshops and presentations across North America. Check back in Part 1 for some additional homework resources.
by Rick Wormeli
I’ve been accumulating guiding principles for creating highly motivating homework assignments for many years — from my own teaching and from the distilled wisdom of others. Here are a baker’s dozen. Choose the ones most appropriate for students’ learning goals and your curriculum.
1. Give students a clear picture of the final product. This doesn’t mean everything is structured for them, or that there aren’t multiple pathways to the same high quality result. There’s room for student personalities to be expressed. Students clearly know what is expected, however. A clear picture sets purpose for doing the assignment. Priming the brain to focus on particular aspects of the learning experience helps the brain process the information for long-term retention. Setting purpose for homework assignments has an impact on learning and the assignment’s completion rate, as research by Marzano and others confirms.
2. Incorporate a cause into the assignment. Middle level students are motivated when they feel they are righting a wrong. They are very sensitive to justice and injustice. As a group, they are also very nurturing of those less fortunate than them. Find a community or personal cause for which students can fight fairly and incorporate your content and skills in that good fight— students will be all over the assignment.
3. Give students a real audience. There’s an audience for the students’ work and it isn’t always us, the teachers. For example, when students work on something that uses a lot of technology – whether it’s a PowerPoint talk over the internet, a project blog, or Twitter and other social media, it’s not the technology that’s motivating—it’s the fact that there will be an audience other than the teacher. Somebody will see this, they realize. What will they think of it? they ask themselves. So how can you create real audiences for homework?
4. Incorporate people whom students admire in their assignments. Students are motivated when asked to share what they know and feel about these folks. We are a society of heroes, and young adolescents are interested in talking about and becoming heroic figures.
5. Allow choices, as appropriate. Allow students to do the even-numbered or odd-numbered problems, or allow them to choose from three prompts, not just one. Let them choose the word that best describes the political or scientific process. Let them identify their own diet and its effects on young adolescent bodies. Let them choose to work with partners or individually. How about allowing them to choose from several multiple-intelligence based tasks? If they are working in ways that are comfortable, they are more likely to do the work. By making the choice, they have upped their ownership of the task.
6. Incorporate cultural products into the assignment. If students have to use magazines, television shows, foods, sports equipment, and other products they already use, they are likely to do the work. The brain loves to do tasks in contexts with which it is familiar.
7. Allow students to collaborate in determining how homework will be assessed. If they help design the criteria for success, such as when they create the rubric for an assignment, they “own” the assignment. It comes off as something done by them, not to them. They also internalize the expectations—another way for them to have clear targets.
With some assignments we can post well-done versions from previous years (or ones we’ve created for this purpose) and ask students to analyze the essential characteristics that make these assignments exemplary. Students who analyze such assignments will compare those works with their own and internalize the criteria for success, referencing the criteria while doing the assignment, not just when it’s finished.
8. Avoid “fluff” assignments. For example, assigning students to create a life-sized “dummy” of a person found in a novel (or in history, in science, in math, etc.) doesn’t further understanding. It’s a lot of coloring, cutting, wadding paper, and stapling (or stuffing old clothing with newspaper) for very little return. Make sure there is a clear connection to curriculum, not just something that would look cool when displayed in the classroom. Students will figure out how empty these assignments are very quickly. They’ll see homework as serving little or no purpose other than to give them something to do, which sinks motivation like a big chunk of granite.
9. Spruce up your prompts. Don’t ask students to repeatedly answer questions or summarize. Try some of these openers instead: Decide between, argue against, Why did ______ argue for, compare, contrast, plan, classify, retell ______ from the point of view of ______, Organize, build, interview, predict, categorize, simplify, deduce, formulate, blend, suppose, invent, imagine, devise, compose, combine, rank, recommend, defend, choose.
10. Have everyone turn in a paper. In her classic, Homework: A New Direction (1992), Neila Connors reminded teachers to have all students turn in a paper, regardless of whether they did the assignment. If a student doesn’t have his homework, he writes on the paper the name of the assignment and why he didn’t do it.
I’ve had students add their parents’ telephone number so I could call home and share what the student said about his homework. Calling parents usually results in a terrific homework completion record for students—at least for a few weeks. An added dividend is that classmates don’t get as many opportunities to see who didn’t do their homework—a reputation to avoid.
11. Do not give homework passes. I used to do this; then I realized how much it minimized the importance of homework. It’s like saying, “Oh, well, the homework really wasn’t that important to your learning. You’ll learn just as well without it.” Homework should be so productive for students that missing it is like missing the lesson itself.
12. Integrate homework with other subjects. One assignment can count in two classes. Such assignments are usually complex enough to warrant the dual grade and it’s a way to work smarter, not harder, for both students and teachers. Teachers can split the pile of papers to grade, then share the grades with each other, and students don’t have homework piling up in multiple classes.
There are times when every teacher on the team assigns a half-hour assignment, and so do the elective or encore class teachers. This could mean three to four hours of homework for the student, which is inappropriate for young adolescents.
13. Occasionally, let students identify what homework would be most effective. Sometimes the really creative assignments are the ones that students design themselves. After teaching a lesson, ask your students what it would take to practice the material so well it became clearly understood. Many of the choices will be rigorous and very appropriate.
Consider your true goal with homework: learning that moves into long-term memory, right? Cramming is the stuff of partial memories to be parroted for a quiz that week, then dumped in the brain’s recycling bin, never to be seen again.
This is one reason I always recommend that, as a basic premise, we avoid Monday morning quizzes and weekend or holiday homework assignments. Sure, there will be exceptions when long-term projects come due. But if we are really about teaching so that students learn and not about appearing rigorous and assigning tasks to show that we have taught, then we’ll carefully consider all the effects of our homework expectations. Our students will be more productive at school for having healthier lives at home.
▶ More resources from Rick Wormeli:
Although Rick never mentions the word homework in this article about helping adolescent students improve their “executive function,” you will immediately see the connections! At the AMLE website.
NEXT: In our final excerpt from Day One & Beyond, Rick Wormeli shares his approach to homework assessment – with an clear emphasis on maintaining teacher sanity.
Rick Wormeli was among the first National Board Certified teachers in America. His education career spans 35 years – teaching math, science, English, physical education, health, and history and coaching teachers and principals. He is a columnist for AMLE Magazine and a frequent contributor to ASCD’s Education Leadership magazine.
His books include Meet Me in the Middle; Day One and Beyond; Fair Isn’t Always Equal: Assessment and Grading in the Differentiated Classroom; Differentiation: From Planning to Practice; Metaphors & Analogies: Power Tools for Teaching Any Subject, and Summarization in Any Subject, plus The Collected Writings (So Far) of Rick Wormeli: Crazy Good Stuff I Learned about Teaching Along the Way.
He is currently working on his first young adult fiction novel and a new book on homework practices in the 21st century.
Hooked on Homework
Ideas for meaningful and engaging assignments
By Edward Graham
Found in:Advice & Support
Homework often gets a bad rap. It can be time-consuming for both students and teachers, stressful, and—as some unengaged students love to point out— “boring.”
But savvy educators know that the right assignment can engage students on a more meaningful level and lead to better student involvement in the classroom.
Dr. Cathy Vatterott, a Professor of Education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and the author of Rethinking Homework: Best Practices That Support Diverse Needs, believes that these types of engaging homework assignments are essential for impactful student learning.
“Rote tasks like worksheets are often easy to assign and easy to grade, but not always the most effective tasks for learning,” Vatterott says. “The Common Core Standards will require students to operate at higher levels of thought. Engaging tasks that allow for choice and ownership result in deeper and more permanent learning.”
It may take a little more time to create those tasks, but engaging tasks are more likely to get done and with less resistance!”
To help you create your own engaging homework, we asked your colleagues to share their tried and true assignments. Read on for their success stories.
Connect Assignments to the Real World
Terri Messing, a National Board Certified Teacher who has taught junior and high school social studies, recommends incorporating media coverage of current events into homework.
“Students watch various news stations and then compare and contrast how the story was delivered—looking for inconsistencies and forms of yellow journalism, for example,” Messing says. “Based on what they are learning in class about techniques used to persuade, students describe the techniques the station used, how they tried to entice people to watch their newscast, and what were the sources they used for their stories.”
Messing’s approach has helped her students connect their classroom learning to the real world while allowing them to grow as analytical thinkers. It’s also gotten them to pay more attention to important issues both in their own community of Port Orchard, Washington, and around the world—something that even caught the attention of their parents.
“One mom told me how she never listened to presidential debates,” says Messing. “But, because her son had to analyze the debates, she became more informed and felt for the first time that she knew who she wanted to vote for.”
Let Students Design Their Own Homework
Angela Downing, an elementary school teacher who teaches second grade in Newton, Massachusetts, asks students to come up with an original homework assignment that will teach them something new. Some popular choices have been presentations on science experiments, favorite animals, cooking, visiting museums, and interviews with community members.
Once students have completed their project of interest, they turn in a form summarizing their activity and what they learned as a result. They then present their assignment to the class.
“Students must speak in front of the class about what they learned about their topic and try to answer questions from the students,” Downing says. “They gain the self confidence needed for public speaking, and the empowerment of choosing a topic and following through to the end with perseverance. The results have been incredible! The kids have been so excited and engaged during these presentations.”
The homework is designed so that students can better visualize the connection between what they’re learning in school and real life with parental support. Downing works with parents to make sure that students have the proper resources to complete the projects. If they don’t, Downing works to provide the students with any in-school support they need to complete their assignment.
Once the projects are completed, Downing displays them “proudly in the hallway so that all of the children and adults that walk through see what our second graders are passionate about,” she says. “They linger in front of the projects and learn! I hear kids outside my door saying, ‘Cool! Wow. Look at this one!’ It has been a wonderfully motivating assignment for my students over the years.”
Give Students the Resources to do Their Work at Home
Jessica Meacham, a 17-year elementary school veteran who has taught every grade level between K-6, found a fun way to keep her students engaged at home—homework bags.
“The homework bags are literacy and math-based,” Meacham says. “Each bag contains all the necessary components to complete the activity. The bags typically take between 5-10 minutes to complete, but because they are open-ended activities, students can definitely spend longer with the bag.”
Typical bags contain math problems, journals, puzzles, books, blocks, and other hands-on resources to keep students engaged. Some include a camera as a fun way for students to document their activities.
And, because they combined independent work with some activities where they might need a little help, Meacham says that the bags are a great way for students and parents to spend time learning together at home.
“We have very active parents that love to be involved in their child's education. The idea for the bags spurred from a desire to create a parent-child activity that centered around literacy and math. The homework bags are another great way to strengthen the home and school connection.”
Incorporate Social Media into Homework
Some teachers assign homework that blends social media with classroom learning, allowing students to interact with their teachers and each other in a familiar setting.
High school government and history teacher Ken Halla, has found success merging homework assignments with Twitter.
Using the 2012 election as a timely lesson for his class, Halla and other government teachers teamed up to create a Twitter discussion for their students to live tweet the presidential debates and on election night.
Those who didn’t have Twitter accounts made their comments on Google Docs that were shared by the teacher so that they could also participate. Each time, there were over 500 tweets by the students.
“Every single comment was appropriate for the classroom,” Halla says. “It was the most fun I’ve had in a long time, sitting there waiting for the returns and having those kids—and even some of their parents—basically right there in the living room with me.”
While the students were only required to make about a dozen or so tweets, Halla says that most of them far surpassed that amount. On election night, Halla told his students that they only had to participate from 9-11 p.m. He wasn’t expecting the kind of response that he got.
“There were kids who got on at 7 p.m., and the last one got off around 2 p.m.,” Halla says. “Even former students from the school who heard about what we were doing started participating.”
Use Homework to Build Trust With Your Students
Sharon Connolly, a former middle school teacher in Walnut Grove, Arkansas, found great success in assigning a weekly free-response journal assignment to her students.
Each week, students would write about their interests, hobbies, favorite TV shows, and difficult situations in their own lives. Connolly corrected their responses for grammar and punctuation and graded them on completion, but not on content. The main goal of the journals was to get the students comfortable with expressing themselves, while allowing Connolly to build a trusting relationship in return.
“They could write about anything and everything they wanted,” Connolly says. “It was never shared with anyone else, and only I would respond to the entry. Each time I sympathized and reminded them that I could not tell without their permission, and how they could take positive steps to get through the difficult time.”
At the start of the school year, some students only wrote a sentence or two in response. By the time school ended, all of her students were comfortable writing longer entries. The journals helped Connolly grow closer with her students and gain a better understanding of what was going on in their lives.
“A lot of students have a problem with trusting their teachers, and when that happens it slows down learning,” Connolly says. “When you invest in your students, they’ll invest in you.”
‘Learning, not Working’
It can be challenging to get students to buy into the idea of homework, and some of them may never fully come around to the idea no matter what you do. But with the right approach and a little bit of creativity, you can turn homework into a truly powerful learning experience—and maybe even help a student discover a hidden passion in the process.
“Look at homework as a conversation between student and teacher that reveals their level of understanding,” Vatterott says. “Involve students in designing their own assignments based on the goal you want them to reach. Then let them share their strategies with other students. Make the focus of homework about learning, not working.”