Pedagogy

Opting Out of Homework

One of the required readings in early March involved an article on “Opting Out of Homework.” While writing a comment to respond to it, I realized I had enough to say for a proper blog post.

When I was a child, I opted out of homework. Of course, opting out of homework also meant opting out of passing grades. And by “opting out” I mostly meant “not turning my homework in.” Sometimes I did it and lost it (I was a very disorganised child) and sometimes I just didn’t do it at all.

While I know my story is just an anecdote and therefore doesn’t amount to much real evidence, after reading Rosenfeld’s article I found some points from my own experience were worth mentioning.

For example, at the same time I had failing grades in math, I was being placed into my school’s “talented and gifted” math programs. Why? Tests. Those terrible, boring standardized tests we had to take nearly every year revealed a strange pattern. I could read well above my grade level and I understood mathematical concepts my peers had yet to grasp, yet my grades were a string of 0’s because I wasn’t doing my homework.

Homework (worksheets as well as big projects) accounted for such a large portion of the grades that I was failing many classes. At one point in middle school I was moved from my top-level math class into the class that I had taken the previous year, despite my consistently good test scores and previously passing grade in that class. Not doing the 40 extra problems a night lowered my grade, and my low grade dropped me from the class. Then I was retaking all the same tests I had aced the previous year. Something seemed wrong there.

Grading is a whole other can of worms, and I often hear teachers point out that assigning a student’s grade based on a test can be very problematic. I agree, and I argue back that there are many other forms of assessment besides tests and assigning a grade based on how much busywork a student does is not a great measure of the student’s understanding of concepts taught.

By the time I got to high school my parents and I knew this system wasn’t working for me. We found a public** high school with a no-homework policy, and guess who graduated at the top of his class? (Yes, me.)

There is a particular quote in the article that highlights the problem with homework:

“The reasons for homework are pedagogically unsound,” [said Margery Bloom]. “You either ask a student who has already mastered a concept to do more of that concept—which is essentially busywork. Or, you send a child who has not mastered the concept home to practice and they will likely practice incorrectly, unless they have assistance.”

Perhaps there’s a middle point where a student mostly understands but hasn’t quite mastered the concept. That seems to be the point of homework, but I certainly can’t remember feeling that as a student. I wouldn’t do mine because it was either tediously easy or frustratingly difficult. If I knew the concept, the homework didn’t make me know it any more and if I didn’t understand it, the homework didn’t help.

As a teacher, I for one have opted out of giving homework. Instead I focus on making what little time I do have with my students count.

**Public, this case, is in the USA where public schools are primarily paid for by local property taxes. (As opposed to some countries where “public school” actually means “private school.”)

Previous post

#147notjustanumber, What If and open access, Jedi temples on Turkish campuses, and more: Required Readings, 04.12.15

Next post

Why the Opt-Out Movement is Growing in New York

Jay

Jay

Jay teaches English in Asia and loves skepticism and teaching above all else.

15 Comments

  1. April 13, 2015 at 2:40 am —

    I also ‘opted out’ of a lot of homework back in the day, though luckily it was never a big enough part of the grading scheme for it to make a huge difference. There was an interesting conversation about this topic between CGP Grey and Brady Haran on an episode of the Hello Internet podcast (www.hellointernet.fm), but I can’t seem to track it down.

    • April 13, 2015 at 2:35 pm —

      I think it was this episode: http://www.hellointernet.fm/podcast/10
      I was looking for it after reading this in hopes that there were study references in the show notes (alas). Listened to this episode and it revived my long time issues with homework. I can’t stand the amount of time my kid has to spend on it now, and he’s only in third grade.

      • April 13, 2015 at 11:02 pm —

        Thank you for finding that episode, I’ll check it out.

        The time commitment involved with homework was an issue that was brought up at my teacher school. I agreed with the attitude of “There are 24 hours in a day: 8 to sleep, 8 to work, 8 to play.” There’s a lot of research on the importance of play for children and piles of homework really does detract from that time.

  2. April 13, 2015 at 8:38 am —

    I actually wrote a one page essay in 9th grade arguing that homework was an unconstitutional violation of the third amendment, Yes I was comparing homework to unlawfully quartering British troops.

    My school history was a lot like yours. I hated homework.

    • April 13, 2015 at 11:04 pm —

      I remember doing something similar, though in my case I compared homework to the 8th amendment. It was rather sarcastic too, as I recall.

  3. April 13, 2015 at 2:31 pm —

    I had a similar experience and it really turned me off of school. Of course, there’s way more, as you note, to assess students on than standardized tests and homework. We had plenty of in class work, quizzes, and class tests, among other things. A couple of my favorite anecdotes: the economics class in which the teacher gave us the final as a pre-test at the beginning of the term, on which I got a perfect score, a feat repeated when it was the actual final. I failed the class. And tenth grade biology where I got really fed up. I strongly believed there was plenty of class time to do the educational work needed and homework was just busywork or because people thought they were supposed to do it. For one quarter of biology we used a book that covered the topic better than our regular text book, but there weren’t enough copies to go around, so all our work had to be done in class. Somehow, we managed to do it. And in a class where I was getting Cs and Ds I got a solid A for that quarter.

    • April 13, 2015 at 11:14 pm —

      I think your stories bring up some good points about assessment too. Many teachers seem to be approaching assessment and homework completely backwards and are not using them for their actual purposes. It sounds like your biology teacher had to actually teach well for a quarter instead of relegating the learning to “homework” as so many teachers often do and the results (your grade, which should have reflected your understanding) demonstrate that.

  4. April 14, 2015 at 5:10 am —

    I “smartly” opted out of most homework as a student. Most teachers didn’t collect them or walk past every desk to see if it was there, but checked in class by either calling up students more or less randomnly or going clockwise or something like that. So I’d either count and quickly do the exercise that was my job or volunteer for 1 or two which I would solve on the spot.
    Which shows that I really didn’t need to do my homework.
    I still think that there is a place for homework, but a very limited one. In language classes, some tasks are too long to do them in class. A good essay needs time. But if I make students write an essay, I also need to take the time to correct it individually, because unless each one of them gets individual feedback about their strengths and weaknesses, it’s just keeping people busy. Another one is repeating and practicing stuff, like new words. It’s here that the whole concept fails because homework teaches students to do it by the book and not to become independent learners. If you tell your students to “learn the new words”, most of them hear “have a good afternoon!”. Sure, you can write a test, but the result doesn’t tell you if they studied at home and still cannot do it (so I need to do something) or if they didn’t study and therefore failed or if they didn’t study and are just little geniuses.

    • April 16, 2015 at 2:02 am —

      I agree that there is definitely a place for homework. I wasn’t trying to imply that I was against all homework, just that something seems wrong with way so many teachers do it. Essays are one example, though my own no-homework school had plenty of essays which we all wrote in class. There’s also the idea of the flipped classroom, where homework becomes really valuable and important for the students.

  5. April 16, 2015 at 5:07 am —

    Then there are the students who actually like homework because they are more comfortable with the idea of doing lots of assignments for tiny grades than they are with leaving everything to high-value papers and exams that have the potential to make or break them. I really like the idea of optional homework: if you want to do it it will get marked and factored into your grade, but if you don’t you just get graded on the exams and/or bigger projects. I have yet to try something like that out in practice though.

    I remember having some terrible busywork over the years. Probably the worst offender was a 7th grade (!) history teacher who made us colour giant maps of the areas we were studying. This included colouring the water blue. The water was already blue on the printouts. That still makes me angry.

    The worst homework assignment I ever had was a recurring one though–in my 10th grade English class, every week ‘while doing our personal reading’ we had to come across twenty vocabulary words that were previously unknown to us, then do quotes from the source, definitions, and write our own sentences. For anyone with a large vocabulary this is basically impossible unless you deliberately sought out highly technical or seriously antiquated literature. I got a lot of mileage out of an atrocious, absurdly flowery 19th-century verse translation of the Divine Comedy. This was not a good use of my time.

    • April 16, 2015 at 7:55 pm —

      I don’t think I’ve heard of optional homework before, it sounds like an intriguing idea. I’m definitely against high-stakes testing or assigning an entire grade based on a single test because of all the other factors that could go wrong (like getting sick on test day, or worse) so I assess in other ways whenever I can. My attitude towards assessment leans heavily toward student choice and multiple options, and optional homework sounds interesting. One downside of it though is that students can cheat on homework, which makes it a less reliable way to actually assess their knowledge. That’s an issue with assessing through homework in general though.

  6. April 17, 2015 at 4:02 am —

    I know that many teachers assign optional extra homework which allows students to earn bonus points that can be swapped for “no homework”. The problem i see with optional homework is the feedback.
    The point where even simple fill in exercises can be useful is when you give feedback and use the solutions as a diagnostic tool.
    I assign my adult, completely voluntary Spanish students homework for two reasons:
    1. They want it. Sometimes it’s hard to get adults to understand that the way things were done “back then” (which varies from 5 to 50 years ago) was not the optimum. I always have one or two people who object to my refusal to test their orthography with dictations.
    2. It saves classroom time. Those groups are very heterogenous with some people needing 90 seconds for an exercise and some needing 10 minutes. If I do too many of them in class, the 10 minutes people will always feel stressed and will also be very aware that they are much slower than others, while the 90 seconds people get bored. Not good for either group. Checking them in class often shows me conceptual misunderstandings (and usually more than the one person who made the mistake benefit from this revision). I can address them in class. With homeowrk being optional (which it de facto is in those classes), this becomes more difficult as again those who didn’t do it are now left out of the classwork. With children, where you also have discipline issues, this becomes more of a problem.

    What I would like: sensible homework with good feedback. Much less of it, more choice (which would take away the checking in class, I’m aware of that, and it would add to the teacher’s workload as they need to give feedback), more geared towards independent learners.

    • April 17, 2015 at 4:34 am —

      I think we might be conflating homework and assessment. Homework may or may not be assessment, and assessment may or may not be homework. In my post I am principally arguing against homework as a primary means of assessment (I ace the tests but fail the class because of not doing homework, that seems wrong to me) but I not saying that all homework is bad or that it doesn’t hold a valuable place in learning. (Such as what you’ve described.)

      Using homework to assess student learning runs into several problems. One is that they can cheat (and if their grades and futures depend on it, many will), so you might think a student met objectives that she didn’t. Another is that a student could not do the homework yet still have mastered the concept. However, optional homework–in terms of assessment–seems like an interesting idea to me as it could accommodate students who might know the material but don’t test well (which provides a great middle ground for two main practices in grading). It’s a way for students to choose how they are assessed. Age is also a big factor, optional homework might be good for university but not kindergarten. There are other ways to assess too.

      Like you, I want teachers to give higher quality homework with good feedback (not just busywork). My reasons for no homework are largely because of my current situation.

  7. April 19, 2015 at 2:00 pm —

    I found both the op and the discussion extremely useful. I was a high anxiety student who also (because of abuse issues) had trouble functioning around groups. I welcomed any assignment that could be done in a private setting, and leveraged massive amounts of homework into great grades, but often without perfect understanding of material that required human interaction. I had impeccable Latin translations, but my verbal scores in Spanish were lower than my other work because I never practiced speaking to anyone.

    My Offspring has an opt-out mentality that I’ve understood, but is frustrating because she ends up being penalized in school. She wasn’t allowed to take the chemistry AP because her grade was a B- because of missing work. She got a 99.9% on her chem final and the state-wide standardized chem test. Things got worse when she started coming to terms with gender/sexuality issues and had teachers who wouldn’t relate to her at all and school became a completely stressful place. It becomes this vicious loop in which teachers don’t like her because they view her as an oddball slacker, she doesn’t turn in even more work because she’s hates having to interact with them, round and round.

    I dream of a world where there is enough money in education that teachers aren’t hopelessly overworked and can tailor teaching to topic and students, and there could be enough teachers that it would be easier to find good student/teacher relationships.

    • April 22, 2015 at 8:35 pm —

      Your story is a perfect example of why I want to encourage student choice in assessments. There can be a lot of other factors going on in a student’s life which make some forms of assessment unfair.

      What you said about your daughter was similar to a point I made on my last post, about fairness. It is all too easy for teachers to fall into a cycle of a teacher having an issue with a student, which causes the student to have an issue with the teacher, which causes the teacher to have an issue with the student, and on it goes.

      I too dream of that world. I think because of pragmatic problems (where does the money come from? school is very politicized, etc.) that ideal just isn’t going to be achieved, but I think with a lot of effort we can approach teaching in a way that better accommodates students as individuals than we do now.

Leave a reply