Do you ever hesitate giving your students homework? By middle of the term, my students too often groan in agony when I distribute their next homework assignment. Despite their protests, I am convinced homework is worth the time students devote to completing it. I also believe the benefits of homework are worth the significant time I allocate to grading it. In the end, I suspect that students do not know that I will spend more time grading the stack of papers generated by my class than any one student individually will spend doing the assignment. However, I doubt if my students would appreciate that fact either.
Regardless, I keep giving—and grading—homework assignments because I believe it helps my students learn the material more completely, more deeply, and more durable. But, do your students know why they are being assigned homework? If students deeply understand the precise role that homework assignments play in your class, students just might embrace homework more.
At its most basic level, student effort allocated to completing homework should be connected to students’ grades and manifest itself as high performance on exams. Sometimes students think that your homework assignments are nothing more than meaningless busy work. It isn’t sufficient for a professor to be the only one to see the connection between homework and exam questions. For students to value homework, they themselves need to see the direct connection. Master teachers know the value of taking class time before and after exams to highlight how exam questions and homework tasks are connected to keep their students engaged in studying outside of class. If students cannot easily see the direct alignment between their exam performance and their homework effort, then they might be correct that your carefully considered assignments deserve the dreaded label of busy work.
For every homework assignment I give to students, I provide a several sentence written rationale about why they are being asked to do this particular homework assignment. My goal in giving them my rationale is to repeatedly remind them about why allocating their time to each homework will help them learn the material better.
Sometimes, I am giving my students homework questions to practice for the exam. I want them to get as many experiences as possible rehersing their skills, so I tell them that they should do the homework assignment several times to help prepare them for the skills based exam questions. For example:
HOMEWORK RATIONALE: This week’s homework is designed to help you practice the exact skills you’ll need to demonstrate on next week’s exam. The questions you see here will be very similar to the items on the exam—don’t waste time memorizing the questions and answers as the exam questions will certainly use different numbers. It would be worth your time to do each of these questions several times between now and the exam.
Other times, I assign students tasks to help them deepen their understanding of an idea, rather than rehearse a problem solving strategy. For this, I might use a case study teaching method or ask them to create a presentation that clearly demonstrates their nuanced insight. As this type of assignment is very different, I would use a different rationale. For example:
HOMEWORK RATIONALE: On the final exam, you will be asked to clearly explain the relevance and significance of specific concepts listed in the syllabus. The purpose of this week’s assignment is for you to take time to do some background research and make connections to demonstrate the relevance of each listed concept in a novel situation you’ve never seen before. You will see case studies in this format, but about different topics, on the next exam.
Finally, I sometimes take advantage of giving students rationale for their homework to create a bridge from what we did earlier in the class to where we are going. For example:
HOMEWORK RATIONALE: Last week’s assignment focused on giving you experience identifying and using traditional models and historical explanations. This week’s assignment is different. Instead, you will use a different theoretical model to describe the same phenomena. Two things I will ask you to explain in our class discussion next week are: (i) Does the answer depend on the approach you use and (ii) Which approach is easier?
The examples shared above in no way represent the absolutely best explanation that a professor could give to students. However, these examples do show that with just a little bit of time and consideration, professors can increase students’ engagement with homework if one purposefully takes time to explain how and why this week’s assignment contributes to the carefully organized pathway to success you’ve intentionally for the students.
Tim Slater, University of Wyoming, Tim@CAPERteam.com