Why I Don’t Assign Homework

I’ve assigned homework once this semester. That was Geometry. In Algebra, I’m not sure I’ve assigned any. I rarely talk about this particular paragraph of my personal Manifesto du Education, simply because, unlike assessment reform, for example, this has always felt a bit disgraceful.

So here it is, and don’t expect this one to surface Whack-A-Mole-style like this again for a long time:

  • The kids who need math homework least (A and B students) will do it.
  • The kids who need it most (D and F students), won’t, or else they’ll do it halfassedly, gaining as much credit with the least effort possible.
  • This goes double for high-poverty students, where I performed a Master’s thesis study that concluded as much.

In that study, incidence of cheating rose significantly in the experimental group. Assessment scores, meanwhile, demonstrated statistically insignificant improvement. My class’ disposition towards learning (and math, particularly) took a nosedive. When I surveyed my students, few of them connected homework to practice, only to the points.

There were students in the C-range whose comprehension improved with daily practice but this only raised a larger semantic issue for me: what are we calling “homework?”

If it’s just schoolwork done at home, then what makes it more valuable than schoolwork done at school? The issue is more complex than that pat answer and deals with what I perceive to be a common failing even of effective educators.

I should state for the record my assumption that students need a certain amount of practice for each new concept.

That certain amount certainly varies by the student, however. Some students don’t need more than a couple problems. Others may need thirty takes to get the concept right.
My point is this: if my kids evaluate and graph forty points over a class period, as they did yesterday, why would I send them home with any more?

The issue for most math teachers, I believe, is one of time management. If your class is slow to start the period and quick to finish, if your transitions are labored, or if you waste time disciplining your class, then you won’t have the time to get through forty problems. The only year I assigned homework with any regularity was during my student-teaching, when my class management plainly sucked, failing by every one of those metrics and more.

It was such a criminal arrangement.

By assigning whatever practice we didn’t finish to homework (“… I’d like you guys to finish this for homework …”) or by using homework to compensate for underplanning (“… tell you what, I’ll let you guys start your homework early …”) I was transferring the cost of my poor teaching onto my students.


One more time: my time management was a bust so I helped myself to whatever time I wanted from my students’ personal store, whenever I wanted.

I’ve since taken a cane to my class management. I continuously examine and re-examine how I spend my instructional minutes. Between effective class management and my new hardware package, I am now confident that, in a two-hour block, my students are coming within a gnat’s eyelash of two hour’s worth of instruction and practice.

At which point, what’s the point of homework?

I know there is value in outside work. It falls to the teacher, though, to take that value seriously, to maximize it in creative ways, and to minimize its cost to the student. Are we there? Or are we somewhere else?


How Math Must Assess
Important Ratio #1
How I Work: The Software Package


Jonathan takes exception in the comments and, to his credit, he’s got a wily homework scheme that does right by many of my caveats above:

I assign 3 pieces: practice, regular, and challenge. Everyone does regular, and one of the others. So the stronger kids get a couple of challenge problems, and the weaker kids get a fistful of easier exercises to build up some proficiency. And since it is easier, they are more likely to do it.

I find “likelihood of doing homework” to be a troubling measurement, though. If I can’t secure 100% buy-in (like I can in my classroom) and if I can’t verify that the work on the page matches the name at the top, I can’t assume that, okay, we’ve all hit thirty factoring problems, I can move on to evaluating.

Update II:

Okay, so I am assigning homework.

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. Reminds me of a post by Borderland awhile back about an interview with Alfie Kohn, author of “The Myth of Homework” (2006):

    I think you’ve nailed the less-than-honourable reasons for giving homework (poor planning and time management), but let me add one more: to allow parents to goof off (“Dad! Dad! Dad!! Let’s play!” “Aw, I’m, erm, busy. Don’t you have any homework to do?”)

    There is 1 other reason for giving homework, and that is as prep for the next class. This is particularly true for subjects where background or prior reading are vital or extremely helpful, e.g. English Lit or Social Studies. Don’t know about Math, tho.

  2. I completely agree. Why “punish” the kids that get it, and use their time wisely in class by making them do more skill & drill worksheets? The kids that need the extra practice are not going to do it. In my class we have about 15 problems a day (I only have 50 min classes). Students get 10 – 15 minutes to complete those problems in class and to get help on those problems during that time. Anything after that is homework. The kids that understand it get it done in those 15 minutes, or choose to take it home to work on it. The kids that don’t use their time wisely have homework. I also stay an hour after school each day as a type of study hall for students that need extra help, and I’m at school at least a half hour early for the same thing. The ones that need help will seek help, and everyone knows it’s available.

    I did have one parent say to me at a conference “Could you please just give her homework everyday? I don’t care if you even grade it. She just spends to much time on the phone at home.” Sure, I’d love to make your child hate school by doing work that has no meaning. Phone time doesn’t sound like a problem your family should address at all.

  3. I can not tell you how excited I was reading this post. After much soul searching, I have recently decided to return to school to become a math teacher. In preparation for that, I have been reading everything I can get my hands on concerning education. One book I read entitled “The End of Homework” said pretty much what you did, but when I suggested the “no homework” concept to some teacher friends of mine, they all but laughed me out of the room. The fact that you are successfully removing homework from your classroom gives me renewed hope.

  4. This is a really important post for ALL teachers to read and I thank you for putting this out there. I appreciate your reasoning and the study you made to back up your reasoning, however there is a crucial point missing here… many parents are not able to or just don’t help their children with homework anymore. I am in no way blaming parents or saying they are not doing their job. I am saying this is a part of what Dan is talking about.

    My mother was a teacher for thirty years and she did not assign homework for the last part of her career because of the lack of home support. This was a risky move for a third grade teacher in a very successful school district. I don’t know how she achieved this without a riot.

    I do not assign homework, but I have it easier than majors teachers. I teach Art and Technology electives in a high school. I run my classes like workshops because we are a project based school, my students and I work on the projects together in class. I have told other teachers that I don’t assign homework and I have tried to have this discussion about not giving homework out and it never goes anywhere. I will now point them to this post to articulate the point better.

    Do parents, the administration, your colleagues, or your students hassle you about not giving homework?

    I like the time management tip, but if you answer yes to any of the above do you have some insight for other teachers that may be considering doing this for their class?

  5. Not with you on this one. I limit homework (and ask students to report back to me how long they spend on assignments), but a little bit of practice on their own helps identify what kids know and what they don’t. Weaker kids come afterschool for extra help or a head start with homework. And I assign 3 pieces: practice, regular, and challenge. Everyone does regular, and one of the others. So the stronger kids get a couple of challenge problems, and the weaker kids get a fistful of easier exercises to build up some proficiency. And since it is easier, they are more likely to do it.

  6. Have you read Alfie Kohn’s book “The Myth of Homework”? Here’s an interview: http://www.educationnews.org/writers/michael/An_Interview_with_Alfie_Kohn_About_the_Homework_Book.htm

    James Herndon’s conclusion on homework was that the point of giving it is simply to see who can do and who can’t, to separate the winners from the losers.

    Now, will WordPress let me in, or am I still blacklisted?

  7. Tony, I’m glad you’re getting into the classroom with your eyes open and your arms full of books. No sense in being uninformed, is there? I haven’t read much hard copy since my student teaching years but, for whatever its worth, Michael Grinder’s Envoy system is the beginning and end of class management as far as I’m concerned. Especially if you’ll be teaching any low-ses or low-achieving populations.

    Marcie, in my interview last fall at my current school, they asked and I (extreeeemely hesitantly) told, summarizing much of this post. They knew I would be teaching their lowest Algebra classes and both the math dept. head and the principal agreed with the philosophy. We all kind of put it out there, though, that higher level of mathematics, with a more committed clientèle can often derive some good from homework.

    I taught the same low classes at low-ses schools and didn’t have a great deal of parent contact, period, much less any clamoring for increased homework levels. Now I’m mid-ses and the (larger) crowd at back to school night surprised me when I asked if they minded. “We’re raising high schoolers,” one said. “Of course we don’t mind.”

    J.D.‘s experience notwithstanding, I have found parents eager to reclaim free time for their kids and grateful for a reason not to nag. And you bring a good point about their inability to help with homework in some instances.

    All that said, any teachers thinking about reducing homework need to justify it. (Which probably goes without saying for most pedagogy.) I made sure the parents knew I didn’t assign homework because we practiced so much in class. If I hadn’t offered justification, I’m sure they would’ve been less supportive and more concerned about their kids’ education.

    Jonathan, you’re there. Differentiating homework isn’t anything I’d considered until now and if I was pressed into the service of homework I’d tear pages out of your playbook. Good work.

    Even when I have assigned homework, though, it’s value, particularly w/r/t planning lessons, seems low. Since I can’t verify that the work on the page matches the name at the top, I can’t assume that, okay, we’ve all hit thirty factoring problems, I can move on to evaluating. Do I simply lack your confidence or have you found a turnpike past that problem also?

  8. If a child has copied some factoring problems (egads, why 30? Factoring is real work. 10 – 15 is a lot of repetition), anyway, if they’ve copied someone else’s (and I will post soon about how I teach factoring), then they have run through the steps 15 times, and have a better chance to be able to attempt it on their own, or at least to follow what is going on when watching it done. I would rather that they all get tons of practice, but it is sufficient that they all spend a few minutes (30 would be good) gaining familiarity with a topic, and running into a pitfall or two.

    Learning mathematics (as I like to say) is more similar to learning to play a musical instrument than to studying history. Fluency comes with repetition. Do all kids reach the same level? No. But practice, even in differing quantities, helps all.

  9. I agree with Jonathan. One hour a day (or two hours every other day) in class seems like hardly enough to master anything. Students must be reading at home for English or history, why would mathematics be different?

  10. When reading a book (in English) or covering textbook pages (in history) there is no shortcutting the process. Short of buying Cliff’s Notes or checking online outlines, you have to put in the time reading in order to learn the material. With history and English you aren’t practicing for mastery; you’re practicing for baseline comprehension.

    Math doesn’t suffer the same constraint, a fact I employ (along with liberal spiraling throughout a unit) to do away with homework.

  11. This is a tough one. I give homework because I want students to work on math outside of school. I realize, of course, that many don’t do it or that they try to copy. But think of the logic here: We know people will ignore the speed limits. Do we, in turn, decide to do away with them? No, we post them and kinda enforce them. We know every speeder doesn’t get caught. But somewhere between the letter of the law and what people would do without structure, we come to a kind of social compromise on the general norms for driving.

    This may be a totally invalid analogy. I haven’t done any research on it and I don’t have a master’s degree. The questions you raise about how homework is used (or misused) and how we value our time versus their time and how we are huge. But there are kids out there in, you know, the “good schools” who do homework every night in addition to getting a lot of good instruction and practice in class. How do students who aren’t getting homework stack up against that?

  12. Man, it took me a trip to the gym and the shower afterwards to figure out what’s screwy about the analogy.

    See, there’s very little that could go wrong by obeying speed laws. Morally, it’s an uncomplicated system.

    Homework, I believe, is very different. Homework is a very complicated system, the complications of which haven’t been given due consideration.

    Such as:

    There are issues of disposition. Are you assigning homework as punishment? Are you strengthening a negative association with learning?

    There are issues of class management. Is homework (in part or in whole) a cheap amelioration for lousy time and class management? When you can’t work enough practice into the class period do you assign the rest for homework?

    There are issues of meaning. Is the homework meaningful or is it #1-30 (odd)? Every day.

    There are more issues, several of which have been raised by the commenters.

    The point is that speed laws have only a fraction of the complications that homework policies do, making “to enforce or not to enforce?” an easy question. Not to kiss Jonathan’s ass any more than I already have, but I think his current policy stays on the right side of a lot of them. If my colleagues all had that kind of intentional, considered homework policy, this post would’ve stayed in the draft pile.

  13. I get that there are issues and questions about homework you think it’s important to consider. But with this awareness, you also choose not to give any homework. I see those as two different things. Do you do what you do because getting to a workable version of a thoughtful system like Jonathan’s is really hard? Or are there other factors that haven’t come out yet in this discussion? I’m just confused — it seems like you have a very well-considered take on what’s good and what’s not good about homework. What’s the problem then with assigning it in a good way? Would it take away from what you do now to, without changing anything else, give 5-10 practice problems every night that reinforce or recombine what your students did during the day?

    One deeper reason for me, underneath wanting students to think about math outside of school, is wanting students to learn that some personal responsibility and some self-direction in their learning is important. Now I know better than to leave huge, critical pieces of insight for them to find (or not find) on their own via homework. But if we teach our kids in high school that they don’t have to do homework as long as the teacher is good, what will happen when they get to college? Do we just say, well, that’s a different game and I hope that you will learn to do homework at some point during your first year of college?

    I guess I just don’t buy the reasoning behind “strong math students and hard workers will do it and the struggling students or lazy ones won’t, so therefore don’t assign it”. To return to the speed limit analogy, there actually are a lot of things that could go wrong there too: racial profiling, falsifying radar readings to meet ticket quotas, or unnecessarily restrictive speed limits. We address those problems not by removing all speed limits, but instead by making sure the laws are set and enforced in ways that accord with our ultimate goal of safety. I will also at this point acknowledge the irony of this analogy given my own driving habits.

  14. Even with inoffensive homework policies staring me in the face, I choose not to employ them simply because I find homework ineffectual on the whole. Esp. with my freshman Algebra students, the same kids who ace tests, ace them with or without homework. Those who bring a low work ethic into my class, fail tests with or without homework. (Which isn’t to say I’m not working my ass off trying to get their work ethics up to code.)

    I took several months to investigate the effect of homework on achievement and comprehension and found it didn’t do much. (Though it wasn’t statistically significant, scores dropped during the experimental week.) Meanwhile, by tossing it, my classes are happier. They bring the heat during class time knowing that if they get enough practice in they don’t have to take it home. And then, on the occasions that I do need to send a project home, they bring the heat there too.

  15. Thanks for the further explanation. I also think it’s really brave that you’re willing to just put out here what you do and let us talk about it, so thanks for that.

  16. (Which isn’t to say I’m not working my ass off trying to get their work ethics up to code.)

    Doesn’t not giving them something to work on at home reinforce that work is only done at school and nowhere else?

    I never thought of homework as a punishment. In my classes (not high school) I know I can’t possibly talk about everything I’d like them to see. So giving them those problems as homework I make them think more and about more topics than they would see in class.

  17. I hate to appear dismissive, e, but I can’t stress enough that the not-high-school-ness of your situation matters. My kids didn’t enroll in my class. Moreover, my particular crowd is far from honors. This is a crowd that is just 9% Proficient and Advanced, many of which members have outright hated math in the past. Reforming their work ethic and reversing their negative association with mathematics has to be an extremely deliberate, targeted process. It begins in the classroom and extends gradually — very gradually — into the home.

  18. With homework, students don’t learn anything. They practice what they should have already learned. They need practice, but in my opinion, I’d rather have them practice it with me there.

    I get notes from parents all the time that say “I don’t know how to do this so I couldn’t help my child.” That’s from the students that even attempt to ask their parents for help. Friday I asked my students to define what a prism is and one said “Prison, thats where my dad and uncle are.”

    Worksheets and problems out of a book are not going to make your students life-long learners. They need more of a buy-in than “This will help you with your grade/college/next grade level/state standardized test….” I’m moving more towards projects that are hopefully relevant in some way because then my students are doing “homework” because they want to, not just because it’s something I’ve assigned. But, we have the state standardized tests coming up next month, so we still get plenty of skill-and-drill.

  19. I can assure you that just because they enroll in my classes does not mean that they want to be there. The high correlation between interest and enrollment happens in higher level classes. Calculus, and below (and even some ways above) are classes that are often required by student’s major and are in their eyes unnecessary.


  20. Ok, why not this? Pick five questions, 1 that only the best can do, 1 that’s so easy everyone could do after the first five minutes of the previous lesson, and the other 3 somewhere in between. Number them or label them or rank them, doesn’t matter how, E, M1, M2, M3, H or whatever. And ask each kid to do the hardest 2 that they can do.

    It doesn’t have to be like that, but there’s a point: you can make the homework so short and so easy that it’s embarassing not to do. And leave a little challenging enough to make the A students think.

  21. I am so enjoying this site! I crave conversations like this. Conversations that make us reflect and have darn good reasons for what we do!!

    My thoughts on the discussion so far:

    Homework as teaching responsibility or about learning outside the classroom: I have found that the students who didn’t do homework in fifth grade are the same students who don’t do homework in eighth grade. Their fifth, sixth and seventh years of assigned homework did not teach them personal responsibility. I think it takes a parent at home to teach that. And if you assign homework, the kids who are not motivated intrinsically to do it, and who don’t have a parent at home to help them with the motivation, these are the kids who will be the high school seniors who still aren’t doing homework.

    I really don’t see any evidence that assigning homework helps develop responsibility, unless the parents are involved and, if they are involved, they are helping their child develop responsibility with other methods anyway. They don’t need our homework assignments to help them do that.

    Homework as practice: There is a quote (from who knows?) that says, “Practice does not make perfect. Practice makes PERMANENT.” So if struggling kids are going home and practicing something they don’t fully understand, there is the distinct possibility that they are making their errors even more entrenched. And that, in turn, means that valuable face-time in class has to be used to find their misconceptions, to “unteach” their errors and set them on the right track.

    And on the other side, students who fully understand how to do it, don’t really need to practice it anyway.

    By fully understand, I don’t mean they can repeat the method without looking it up. That they’ve memorized a formula. I mean CONCEPTUALLY understand. If they conceptually understand (and we spend our class time getting them to this point) why we invert fractions when we divide, then they don’t really need a lot of practice to make it perfect. That conceptual understanding is now a part of them and when they divide fractions, they know exactly what to do.

    I rarely assign homework. I want to see what my students are doing. I want to be there when they ask questions. Only when I know what they know and where they are struggling, can I plan meaningful instruction for the next day.

    If I do assign homework it’s after the kids have reached a conceptual understanding and I want them to process the idea, evaluate, and make connections and personal meaning. An example: I ask them to talk with their parents about the concept to see how it occurs in “real life”. Then we start the next day with a rich discussion of what they discovered.

    At the beginning of the year, I explained all of these thoughts to the parents at Open House. I saw plenty of nods of agreement, and I have received positive feedback throughout the year. So no parents or administrators have questioned my practices.

  22. Mindy: I rarely assign homework. I want to see what my students are doing. I want to be there when they ask questions. Only when I know what they know and where they are struggling, can I plan meaningful instruction for the next day.

    This part resonates with me most. Perhaps it’s lingering guilt over this post but for whatever reason I’ve assigned homework both days this week and, both times, I’ve felt as if I blindly tossed 30 different bowling balls down 30 different lanes.

  23. And I still don’t buy it. If kids have the answers in the back of the book, they will know that they don’t have it, and ask the next day. There’s no entrenching errors there.

    Dan has one of my “homework calendars.” If it is typical (I think it was), then most of the exercises are odd numbers, with answers in the back.

    The next day some kids put up homework exercises when they come in the room. They choose whether or not to do so, but they get “credit” for doing so. They can put up impressive work for us to admire, or a problem they were unsure of for constructive comments, or a problem that stumped them for complete review, and they get “credit” for any one of these.

    We gain a lot through homework. I would cover far less, at less depth, without it.

    Again, I think about learning an instrument. Kids practice between lessons. I think practicing math is analagous.

  24. Dan, what you describe is that ol’ education catch-22 about services and attention not getting to the folks who need it the most. It’s not a fun place to hang out.

    That said, I teach the lowest 7th graders in East San Jose, literally. That puts them in the running for some of the lowest in the state, and I homework the hell out of em, and they get it done. How? It’s always easy, short, predictable, and explicitely tied to what we do in class.

    I give numerous small assignments. Five minutes vocab, five minutes spelling, 10 minutes grammar, 10 minutes writing response, and the big one, 30 minutes reading. Of these, the only thing we struggle with is the reading, and that improves as accountability (an extra period to accomplish the reading) is added.

    I think homework, and the work ethic it develops, is too important to disregard, and too especially important to the kids who need it.

    That said, if you bring your students to proficient without it, that’s impressive as hell. As always, results over process.

  25. My Original Post: The kids who need it most (D and F students), won’t, or else they’ll do it halfassedly, gaining as much credit with the least effort possible.

    The “it,” here does refer to “homework” so Darren‘s query is fair. But what I’m getting at throughout the post is that “it” really signifies “the conceptual practice our students would ideally derive from homework.”

    These kids — 91% of them Basic and lower — need practice and far from writing them off as no-accounts I’m simply saying, why can’t we get exactly that amount of practice during our class hours. Occasionally, we don’t get enough breadth or depth so I send some problems home. Typically, though, I ask my students for a huge investment in class, they oblige, and in return their free time is theirs.

  26. There’s a lot of meaty stuff in this discussion, and I’m only chewing on a small, somewhat-left-of-point, chunk of it here.

    One thing this highlights for me is the need for much more varied, nuanced approaches to these big questions. It’s part of the problem of the “education” discourse as a whole (and most discourse of any importance, actually): namely, too much generalization.

    I’m not blaming anyone … it’s just the nature of the beast (and Dan did ask for perspectives from other disciplines, so that’s a start).

    When I hear things like “studies show homework is good / bad,” I think … in which grades? What kind of homework? How much of it? Always? etc.

    Common sense tells us bad homework (i.e. busywork) is always bad. Most studies tell us homework in elementary grades does more harm than good. Most studies tell us homework in the middle grades can be effective if it’s intelligently designed and kept minimal. Most studies tell us that homework at the high school level is generally helpful (again, providing the assignments are worthwhile to begin with).

    But those are grades, not levels of intellectual / social / emotional development, and not disciplines, and not specific goals within each discipline. These need to be considered, as well.

    I guess I’m just calling out, perhaps unnecessarily, the need to think and talk in ways that show we are aware of the particularly and context that informs our discourse and our practice.

    Case in point: TMAO says “results over process.” This may be true in math. It’s nearly anti-thetical to a composition class.

    Reading, reflection, and writing of any value is going to require “work outside of school” (or a significantly smaller scope to the curriculum) because of the simple limitation of time and because of the importance of process in those tasks.

    But even there, the work we’re asking kids to do better really be worth their time.

    For me, that’s the crux of Dan’s post. We are using their time–in class and out–whether they can appreciate that fact or not. We should use it well.

  27. Not to digress Eric’s good comment further, but I feel like we intensify the divide between Authority Figure and Those Under Authority — a divide that I find unfriendly to learning — when we treat our students’ time cavalierly. Their TV-watching / sleeping / friend-chatting / MySpacing / exercising time deserves respect, which isn’t to say, “Don’t assign homework.” Just that if you are going to encroach, have the decency to encroach thoughtfully. TMAO and Jonathan have both put forward strategies that are way more modest than my own, the sort of thoughtfulness our students deserve.

  28. I didn’t read every word in these comments, but in my scan of them I didn’t see any mention of the value of having students learn to learn something on their own. I realize I am working with community college students–so therefore older than elementary school kids–but I believe in helping students become more independent learners. Nothing I know of does that better than homework, as long as it is coupled with in-class learning and work and out-of-class support.

  29. I find it very interesting and incredibly encouraging to see so many educators on this blog, spending their “downtime” pondering how to to better their curriculum and classtime.

    I’m currently attending a community college, and taking a math course.

    I was one of those “ones that needed it most” throughout my highschool math experience. Although I was always brighter than average in other subjects, I could never grasp the math. No matter how much homework was assigned, it really made no difference to me. No matter how clear the teacher was, I would not be able to solve the equations on my own beyond what I could memorize. My parents were supportive, yet, there came a time when they were at a loss in helping me succeed.

    One teacher used the method that we’re discussing here; he required very little homework and demanded our greatest efforts in classtime. It was extremely effective with our class and myself included.

    If nothing else, understand that the sheer fact that you are spending time online, communing with other teachers, and engaging in these rebellious, revolutionary math-teacher discussions means that you CARE. You CARE about your work, and if your students are gaining something from their experience with you. And that puts you far, far, far above the others.

    I wish I had more teachers like you.
    you too, gator. :)

  30. Barry Garelick

    March 21, 2007 - 2:12 pm -

    I was an A math student in high school. Although I’m in the category Dan says will do the homework but don’t need to do it, I disagree. I needed to do it. Drill brings procedural fluency which leads to better understanding. For problems beyond drill, the more problems I did, the better I got at it.

    I’m not saying that Dan’s techniques are bad, it’s just that not everyone fits in the boxes he has so carefully defined.

  31. Certainly, I’ve generalized with my categorization. Even though my experience and studies have propped those boxes up, I’m always watching out for students like you were who need differentiated practice and instruction. (See also: the A student who needs one comprehensive problem rather than a fifteen question set.)

  32. Barry took the words out of my mouth.

    I was an A student in algebra in college. I could not have maintained that level of proficiency without massive homework. This was the only way to become surefooted. It was only through massive homework that things like factoring polynomials finally clicked. Without massive homework all those point-slopes, slope-intecepts and what have you would have been a jumble.

  33. I’m a parent who’s really happy to see so many teachers so thoughtfully pondering what’s best for their students. In my public school district, teachers don’t have a lot of individual choice about homework. Even our kindergarteners (who all go to school for a full day) get homework M-Th, in spite of the research that shows it’s either useless or harmful. I despise it — I think my 6-year-old has given school enough of his time during the day. He’s gone 7.5 hours/day, including the bus ride. I think that’s more than enough school time.

    In general, even for older kids, I’m a homework minimalist: it had better be infrequent and meaningful when it’s assigned. I would not be happy with an hour of homework for one 7th grade class. What if all teachers gave their 7th graders an hour of homework each night? That’s ridiculous, especially if they’re spending only 50 minutes in each class! If the homework time exceeds class time, we have a problem. (Not to mention that kids work at different paces — for some kids “one hour” of homework can take longer.)

    Kids need more time to come home and do the things that are important to them. I honestly don’t think you teach responsibility by compelling kids to do things and then punishing them if they don’t. Carrots and sticks don’t teach responsibility. Kids learn to be responsible when they make real choices and commitments and then honor them.

    Having said all that, I think the real issue here isn’t whether homework is good or bad. It is the one-size-fits-all nature of most public (and many private) schools. An entire class of students is covering the same material at the same time and pace, regardless of their ability to do so. The kids who can move faster wait for others to catch up. The kids who need more time — those who supposedly need the homework the most, but who really need more time with the teacher — have to try to keep up and often move to new topics without mastering the current one. The one-size-fits all model is the real problem, not homework itself.

  34. Uf. Definitely felt the one-size-fits-all-edness of public ed, today. I can usually do the differentiation game serviceably well, but the Justins finished the entire practice regiment while other kids were struggling to find some traction. I’m realizing this one class carries FBB all the way to Advanced, which, though partly a scheduling whoopsie, is a symptom of the current system. But what’s the alternative for educating our heterogeneous population en masse? Apprenticeship? Trade school? Nah.

  35. why even have math teachers? why not just have books? the good students will learn from them, the bad students won’t anyway. with good time management, they can practice in 2 hours.

    what are you for?

    you know, this talk of responsbility, etc. is irrelevant. what is relevant is behavior.

    Carrots and sticks DO teach behavior. A 14 yr old is not a perfectly formed adult. They need their behavior modeled, constrained, shaped, and reinforced. To think otherwise is to be unfair to the adolescent.

    Assigning homework, rewarding positively those who do it, and negatively those who don’t, reinforces positive behavior.

    Practicing what you learned in school also reinforces positive behavior, too. Because the ability to write a proof, or use the angle of cosines is a behavior as well as sitting still is.

    Behaviors aren’t learned by deducing them. They are learned by practicing them. Knowing the appropriate time to use the law of cosines vs. deMoivre’s theorem is a learned behavior. you are depriving your students of the opportunity to learn those behaviors to mastery.

    You don’t solve the mastery problem by throwing out homework. You solve it by homework AND more teacher time.

    Worse, though, is that you’ve abdicated teaching to mastery. You have no way of knowing which of your students could learn–you’ve assumed you already know. You have no way of salvaging an incorrect assumption by thorough student evaluation, either. You expect them to do that themselves. If they could, they wouldn’t need you at all.

  36. You seem to believe in the universal good of homework, that any outside practice is good practice, the good of which is impossible to replicate in class, and none of those is a priori true.

    I admit the broadness and coldness of those archetypes up there, but in the case of students who lag by multiple grade levels, I have found them accurate with a margin of error of maybe 4% of a class. I’m not saying, “you, you, and you will never be able to do homework, so we’re done trying.” I’m saying, “you come into this class with a very specific set of needs and wants, each of which I will accommodate and, when necessary, help you exterminate.”

    In the specific, it would be profoundly irresponsible of me to ignore their negative association of homework with math, particularly when I don’t find a lot of value in homework I can’t replicate in class. I’m not going to waive attendance simply because they’d rather be elsewhere. I can’t replicate the value of attendance elsewhere. Not so with homework.

    The short, probably unsatisfying, answer to the question “If not homework then why math teachers, even,” is that I’m worth a lot more to my students’ learning outcomes than homework is. I mean, the idea you put forward that without homework students can’t build positive behaviors, a strong work ethic, or attain mastery — that without homework I can’t evaluate them — is preposterous.

    My students practice. And when I italicize that, I’m talking lengthy problem sets often built from scratch that scaffold at a surgically precise rate, that allow advanced students to cruise through the easy and struggle with the hard, that allow me plenty of time to help those who need the help. We work from bell-start to bell-end, a merit badge that hasn’t come easily, and since you’re keen on behavior, it’s worth mentioning that I come down hard on laziness and publicly prop up the students who power through moments which they’ve predefined as I Can Do No More.

    For whatever else it’s worth, if I thought for a second I was “depriving [my] students of the opportunity to learn those behaviors to mastery,” I’d bail instantly and assign some problem sets pronto. But I haven’t and your comment, which equates homework with (variously) mastery, behavior, assessment, and teaching itself, is unconvincing. I mean, is there anything homework can’t do?

  37. My high school calculus teacher spent large portions of our math period going over LAST night’s assigned homework, for those of us (and I include myself) who struggled with it.

    More direct instruction up front, and less reteaching later, would have helped immensely. I often got home to do homework in high school about a concept we’d only vaguely covered in class. As an A+ student it was assumed I could “figure it out”. If that were the case, I wouldn’t need a teacher.

    Homework does have its purposes, but it isn’t going to teach kids something that they failed to learn through direct instruction, only reinforce what they already got from it. I think it’s very useful for kids with processing speed problems and memory issues (such as the group I now work with) who can’t get through enough practice problems during the class period because their learning disabilities slow them down. Then they get home, and it’s a struggle to remember what they did in class. If homework is not assigned, they return to class the next day barely remembering what we even covered, and very likely have lost much of the hard work that they put in the previous day.

  38. Carrots and sticks DO teach behavior.

    The behavior they teach is compliance. They don’t teach responsibility, which is by no means irrelevant. Carrots and sticks manipulate student behavior — take the carrots and sticks away, and what do you have? Where’s the internal motivation to learn or to take responsibility for one’s own education?

    What’s wrong with practicing in school, anyway? You can practice in school and determine mastery by giving a test.

  39. BTW, Dan, you sound like a great teacher. Please move to my district soon.

    You asked: But what’s the alternative for educating our heterogeneous population en masse?

    Montessori schools do a good job of educating mixed age and ability classes of students. Each child learns at his or her own pace by using self-correcting materials. Montessori schools truly offer individualized education, particularly in reading, writing, and math.

  40. —The short, probably unsatisfying, answer to the question “If not homework then why math teachers, even,” is that I’m worth a lot more to my students’ learning outcomes than homework is.

    really? prove that. I mean, where’s your evidence? because you say you, with your in class two hours of practice are *it* to achieve mastery. put up some darn evidence that I can’t replace you with a well written schaum’s outline. and for the below-grade-level students? I see *zero* evidence that you are worth more.

    I actually believe in direct instruction, but I see what you’re describing as undermining it, since you are already writing off large portions of your classes. Better upfront direct instruction coupled with well wriiten homework is a heck of a lot better than busy work. that you jump to busy work as a defn of homework is merely a straw man.

    –I mean, the idea you put forward that without homework students can’t build positive behaviors, a strong work ethic, or attain mastery – that without homework I can’t evaluate them – is preposterous.

    no, it isn’t perposterous. but let’s put it to the test, shall we? let’s see which students succeed. the KIPPers with homework or your kids without? i’m willing to admit I’m wrong if you show results. so how can we evaluate them? hm?

    –My students practice. And when I italicize that, I’m talking lengthy problem sets often built from scratch that scaffold at a surgically precise rate, that allow advanced students to cruise through the easy and struggle with the hard, that allow me plenty of time to help those who need the help.

    uh huh. that’s sure working for the kids you wrote off. not to mention that you could design such problem sets and assign them for homework TOO, and build the actual mastery of the A students, instead of stopping when your two hours is up.

  41. Quick response to e who mentioned that students must be doing HW in English and History. My kids do now and then have HW in both English and history, but it’s project based and not particularly frequent. In math on the other hand, they both have 20-30 problems every single night. So I see thought going into the English and History homework assigned. In math I see tradition.


  42. Greifer, if you are able to write problem sets scaffolded so well that 9th graders in low-income areas can progress through them without having anyone holding their hand, could you please publish some samples? I have been assigning a lot of homework, but have had to recognize that the homework I collect contains so much error and misunderstanding that I must revise the ratio of homework to in-class work heavily in favor of the former, and I can well imagine that doing away with homework altogether would be just as well. However, if you can write Algebra and Geometry assignments that work for students who struggle with place value, multiplication, placing decimal numbers on a number line, and plotting points – in such a way that the assignments are useful to all students – please do make them available; they would be much appreciated. I have put some work into writing assignment sets that allow students to check for consistency themselves, but the level of understanding and commitment required by students in order to use these features is often just not there.

  43. Lori‘s comment is important, that homework in math is often assigned by tradition. It is also important to acknowledge that math homework is often given to ameliorate the effects of crappy time/class management.

    Conversely, it’s important for me to acknowledge the work of teachers like Jonathan and TMAO (see further back in the comments), who are giving targeted, differentiated, and well-scaffolded assignments to their students.

    Teachers have a universal mandate to think about why we do what we do. That goes for every element of our jobs. The only reason this post is riding the top of the Most Read tally is that homework rarely gets this meta-cognitive treatment. We should do better.

    My meta-cognitive question has been this: what is it about homework that I can’t replicate in class?

    So I’ve appreciated all the comments that have exemplified effective uses of homework, reasons homework oughtta stick around. I’m thinking about assigning one, maybe two problems a night, and revisiting my Masters thesis. In that regard, this has been a very useful conversation for me. Thanks.

  44. GREIFER: put up some darn evidence that I can’t replace you with a well written schaum’s outline. and for the below-grade-level students? I see *zero* evidence that you are worth more.

    Almost forgot about Greifer. Look, brah, we’re beyond yin-yang on this point. I’m urging moderation and meta-cognition on the homework issue and you’re some kind of cartoon.

    I’m happy to post my CST results when we get them. I know I’m scoring gains without homework. It’s possible I could do even better with homework. I have my doubts. Regardless, I don’t think it’ll matter one whit to someone who thinks any teacher is replaceable by a robot with a lesson outline much less a teacher who puts in the hours that I do.

    Where I check out:

    GREIFER: well wriiten [sic] homework is a heck of a lot better than busy work. that you jump to busy work as a defn of homework is merely a straw man.

    I never defined homework as busy work. Never used the words. So I’m not sure whose comment you’re responding to.

    Conversation’s too bizarre for me, thanks.

  45. Dan , you have a great conversation going here and it’s good to see multiple perspectives. Let me add my two cents.

    Jonathan’s point on repetition makes sense on the surface but misses an important component of drill, and that is feedback. At home, there may be no appropriate feedback, so a student could do a drill incorrectly 15 times, thereby reinforcing the wrong skills. Hal says that students should “learn to learn for themselves”. I agree, but that motivation must be intrinsic not directed from outside. As John Taylor Gatto (author of the 7 Lesson Schoolteacher) said; “to do your homework is a fake responsibility”.

    Another issue is that math homework competes with homework from all the other subjects, so students get a potpourri of unrelated assignments. Dan Pinker wrote in Slate Magazine, “Cognitive psychology has shown that the mind best understands facts when they are woven into a conceptual fabric, such as a narrative, mental map, or intuitive theory. Disconnected facts in the mind are like unlinked pages on the Web: They might as well not exist. Science has to be taught in a way that knowledge is organized, one hopes permanently, in the minds of students.” Your learning flow in the classroom probably accomplishes more than any homework assignment could possibly do.

    You ask, “But what’s the alternative for educating our heterogeneous population en masse? Apprenticeship? Trade school? Nah”. One of the more interesting proposals is from Alvin Toffler. Here are some things he proposes for the school of the future:

    Open twenty-four hours a day
    Customized educational experience
    Kids arrive at different times
    Students begin their formalized schooling at different ages
    Curriculum is integrated across disciplines
    Nonteachers work with teachers
    Teachers alternate working in schools and outside

    To me, this approach is better than “one-size-fits-all”, which I don’t believe is working.

    What I find interesting in our school system (I only speak from knowledge of our local department of education) is how little the curriculum developers, administrators and teachers know about cognitive science. Too often, discussing education is like discussing religion – too many beliefs and not enough facts.

    Keep up the good work. I wish my sons had you as a teacher.

  46. Thanks for your thoughts on the issues brought up, which have kinda multiplied over the comments. To anyone interested (like I was) in Dan Pink’s Slate article, which Harold references, it’s here. Love it when name-brand authors slum it on Slate.

  47. Harold,

    I generally only assign exercises with answers in the book, so there is instant feedback. For questions where they cannot match the book answer, I have a relatively compulsive homework review routine (see this post) that gives (only slightly) delayed feedback.

  48. There was one good thing about homework when I was in elementary school and high school. It gave me an idea of what the teacher wanted me to learn, but it was studying the matierial that was covered that was helpful. However, if I had too much homework one night, then I would neglect studying that subject later on. I would feel stressed that I had spent so much time on one thing so I woud move on to something else that I was not as sick of seeing. Having huge amounts of homework irritated me more than helped. If I was irritated enough, I would avoid it for as long as possible and then try to do it last minute if only so I could get partial credit. I am not saying that all homework is bad, but I think that if it is important enough to a student to do well, then they are probably going to study, ask questions, pay attention in class, etc. without a huge bunch of homework. Also, as DAN said, students who did not really care would not benefit from the homework anyway because they would not do it. If anything, teachers taking the assignments up for a grade hurt them.

  49. high-poverty students?

    When I was a boy they were called students from poor families (as opposed to poor students). I’m wondering if you are avoiding casting a similar aspiration on families, i.e., avoiding calling them dysfunctional?

    high-poverty students is a new term for me and it doesn’t appeal.

    I’ve heard “economically disadvantaged” but never “high-poverty”. It’s really not elegant.

  50. Interesting discussion, much of which I disagree with, but I will make the following comments:

    1. Students _can_ learn from homework. I remember many times working through math assigned math problems unable to quite get it, often because I couldn’t remember what was explained or what I did in class. My solution? To figure it out on my own, usually be re-reading the instructional materials in the book, reviewing my (often poorly transcribed) notes, or–as a last resort–asking someone else for help. Sure, if my teacher had been the stellar, surgically precise, and uncompromising instructor that you describe yourself as I probably would have remembered every iota of information and instruction… Anyway, at the very least I learned how to learn on my own, and the self-directed discovery was quite valuable. If I had been in the classroom I probably would have just feigned along with the rest of the class, or else asked for help, simply because its so much easier that way. At home I had no choice but to figure it out (mmm, the stick). In my own teaching I’ve found that students who are forced to figure out some things on their own are better for the experience, as the impact of such discoveries are often stronger than the spoon-fed or even collectively/collaboratively constructed alternatives.

    2. I think there’s pedagogical value it the repetitive pattern of schoolwork + homework _partitioned by time/distance_. My previous anecdote implies the value of distance, but time also can be useful in activating and reactivating memory. The farther your get from the original instance, the harder it will be to recall and apply, and so practice recalling and applying at multiple temporal distances seems appropriate for learning.

    3. Someone complained about carrot-stick as being inducive of mere compliance. There’s a difference between compliance, discipline, and self-discipline. Compliance may produce discipline, but self-discipline? Can that ever be developed without loving womb of external disciplinary forces (mmm, the stick)? The positive value of self-discipline takes me back to other positive character traits that can be developed through homework, namely self-reliance and independence–both of which I find to be sorely neglected in public (and even private) schools.

    I think those partially answers dan’s question, “What is it about homework that I can’t replicate in class?” I daresay the most significant answer to that question is “more time”.

    BTW, I love the concept of omitting every instructional practice that does not show resulted, however my caveat would be, if you’ve absolutely proven that its consistently ineffective when conducted using reliable methods. At present I’m not convinced that homework is ineffective; so far any such evaluations of homework appear to be primarily anecdotal, not to mention limited in breadth.

  51. It’s #2 that’s kind of shifted my perspective this year. Particularly on a block schedule where my kids put math out of sight and out of mind for two days, I’ve found retention is to be shamefully low. Even for the populations I’m teaching. Having them hit a classwork problem several hours after class would have an effect, as you cite, that I could not reproduce in class.

    So next year: one homework problem. Maybe two, tiering them a lé Jonathan’s method above. But something. And only because I don’t see my kids every day. Otherwise, I remain unconvinced of homework’s efficacy in low-level math classrooms.

  52. Interesting results on your homework thesis, dan.

    What do other studies on homework show? Well, reading assignments of 20 minutes seems to be the only type of homework shown to benefit learners.

    Researchers have found that reading 20 minutes every night improves fluency, writing, concepts and vocabulary acquisition, and OVERALL school performance.

  53. I never assigned a lot of homework, and what I did focused on an application of the math or science I taught in the home or elsewhere outside of school (e.g. perform a pH test on your pets’ saliva, then create a class graph of the results, discuss possible patterns, etc.).

    I see some clear benefits, however. First and foremost is the opportunity to engage parents in their children’s learning. I realize not everyone receives equal assistance or attention from their folks, but life is not equal, is it? As for the concept that something is only worth doing if 100% get the benefit, that’s like saying you have a vaccine that will prevent cancer, but only in 10% of those receiving it, so why bother? 100% is great and something to shoot for as often as possible, but to pass up on the chance to impact even 1 out of 25 kids is a mistake. The opportunity to have a kid actually work WITH their mom or dad to solve a problem is priceless.

    The problem, as I have witnessed it, is that many teachers’ concept of homework is to simply assign busy work or repetitive practice which they could do in class, and which the students would be better served doing with the teacher’s guidance. This is missing on a great opportunity to apply what is learned in a place schools don’t spend much time–the real world.

    BTW, Greg Farr pointed me to your site as a great example for the possibilities of a teacher’s blog, and I’m grateful to him. Your site is tremendous–keep it coming!

  54. We teach students, not parents. Homework is assigned to the student only, not parents. That’s never the intent of homework, is it? A parent working with a child on homework is a completely unintended side effect that should never be taken into consideration when deciding on homework assignments.

  55. NEVER considered? If you work in a eutopia where parental involvement in their kids’ is a given, maybe not. Not all parents have the slightest clue how to be involved in their children’s education, and homework can be a very effective tool to help them do so.

  56. *sigh* 69 comments in, I’ve got to mention I’m kind of embarrassed that this is my flagship post. It’s got this bluntly provocative title, the sort of thing that’d show up on digg if diggers had any interest in education.

    I would’ve taken more care in writing it If I Had Known Then What I Know Now.

    Anyway, things I’ve learned since, and which Rebecca partially spoke to, is the benefit of a short assignment, completed some time after the instruction. Jonathan’s got his tiered system and TMAO has small, explicit tasks, and I dig that.

    Basically, I worry that teachers (especially math teachers) don’t consider why they’re assigning problems one through thirty odd or what instructional outcome it brings about and whether that outcome is worth the cost to the class’ disposition.

    Randy, I agree with Todd that homework oughtta be assigned for the student, though I should fully disclose that I don’t have kids. I dig the parent involvement angle but, more often than not, in math, I have parents telling me they’re grateful I don’t assign much homework because they have no idea how to help.  Even if a parent were college educated and could help, it’s unclear to me how a teacher would a train (for lack of a better word) a parent to take part in the kid’s homework.

    The inconsistency in the cancer vaccine metaphor: even if the vaccine only affects 1 person out of 25, it doesn’t hurt the other 24. If only 1 student out of 25 finds the assigned homework valuable the other 24 are, in some form or another, experiencing a negative outcome, one which I can’t ignore.

  57. Yes. The title sounds highly “diggable.”

    But, this shouldn’t make the topic “Homework or Not” and the questions that come from a discussion less salient.

    It is certainly of concern to parents (who are tired of the stress and conflict caused by homework), students (who feel overwhelmed and underengaged by homework), and teachers (who hate assigning homework and grading it).

  58. I’m late on this – just want to give you a virtual high 5. I completely agree.
    I give homework, but it is more like school work or extra work. You’re right, those kids who will do it don’t necessarily need it. The kids who may need ‘it’ actually don’t need homework, they need extra practice, guidance, and explanation – which they get from me during homework club.
    Love homework club – it’s basically become an extra period for me to work with those kids who need an extra period to complete the work.
    Sometimes I give true homework – but it’s usually in the form of a scavenger hunt or something when I want them to bring some material into the class for a lesson.
    I have had teachers get angry with me for not giving homework, that the kids are getting away with something. hmph. Generally my kids work their butts off in class – they aren’t getting away with anything but learning, sorry.

  59. It is such a simple concept. How can I help kids do their assignments if I can’t monitor what they are doing and help guide them through the processes and procedures? I think there is too much emphasis on “getting the right answer…by yourself…use only a pencil…keep your eyes on your own paper…”

    I remember taking “geo-trig” in high school (many years ago..) I remember copying tonnes of homework off of the class “brain” so I could at least get marks for the “homework check”. I barely passed the class…but didn’t learn a darn thing. As a teacher, I have always taken that experience with me into every course I have taught.

    I think some teachers assign homework so it looks like they are doing something.

    Thanks for the excellent post!

  60. I totally agree with your philosophy on homework. I remember being a student and hating homework that was given to me. I often copied it, rushed through with a minimal amount of effort, or sometimes did not do it. I can recall several lessons given by teachers in class that stuck with me to this day but cannot remember a single homework assignment. Real learning comes from a great teacher in a class, not from homework. A teacher can successfully teach a classroom of students with minimal homework, or possibly none at all, if the class operates with ruthless efficiency and the content is engaging.

    Now that I am a teacher, my anti-homework philosophy has grown even stronger. I see students copying work or finishing assignments from other classes in my room multiple times a week. Sure, students should do their homework at home but it does not always work that way. Many students have responsibilities or living conditions that make it very difficult to work at home. In addition, some people have posted that students who do not complete homework will be “punished” with a bad grade, but it is these same students who do not do their homework that are unmotivated by poor grades.

    The best way to motivate these students is to create a classroom environment that is safe, fun, and highly structured to maximize learning opportunities. I am happy to see other teachers questioning the true nature of homework and looking for the most efficient way to teach students.

  61. Wow! Great post. I’ve got to admit to skipping the comments. Maybe I’ll read them some other time. I expect there is both agreement and disagreement. But I agree!!!

    I’m not a k-12 teacher. I educate adults, but I am a parent of three elementary children. I hate homework. Teachers, I have better things to do with my children when I get home from work, than do your job for you. Yes I said better things to do. Things like playing in the yard. Things like teaching them to play guitar, since most music programs get secondary attention at best. Things like going for a walk, since P.E. programs also get second rate attention.

    Did I mention that I hate homework. Teachers are constantly complaining that if parents did their job at home, then the teachers job would be easier. I agree that much parenting is ineffective, probably even some of mine. But… I could be a better parent if I had more time with my kids. Like the time they currently spend doing homework.

    My final point: My first and second graders do NOT need a 10 hour work day. They need time to run and play, and learn things by doing them. Oops, that’s another pet peeve slipping in.

    Great post!!!! I wish my kid’s teachers and principal would take a lesson.

  62. I don’t think this idea has been mentioned in the comments, so I’ll share, even though I’m late jumping in.

    From years as a tutor, I knew that most of the kids who needed the practice only did homework to “get through it” not generally to practice or understand concepts.

    I can’t emphasize enough, as someone who worked with these kids outside of the classroom: the HARDEST thing to do is to tell a student that they need to do more questions when they have “finished” what the teacher assigned. In their mind, they are DONE, even if they couldn’t get through a single one of those questions on their own. This has always been my biggest beef with assigning specific homework questions — it’s seen as the goal itself, not the means to the goal.

    So, when I taught, I didn’t want any student to have an arbitrary checklist. I knew from private tutoring that each student would be “done” (as in, well-versed enough to go on) in a different amount of time, with a different number of practice questions. I needed them to understand when and why they were done.

    Instead of assigning homework, at the beginning of each class there would be a quiz. Just a short quiz of 2 – 5 BASIC questions covering the bare minimum I’d expect them to have gotten out of the last lesson. Their “homework” was to prepare for the quiz.

    For some kids, that would mean a couple of practice questions. For others, it would mean asking me for MORE questions from different sources because they’d done everything in the book but still needed assistance to get through them. I purposely only chose basic questions for the quiz because each kid learns at a different pace, too. And, sometimes it’s only after a few interconnected lessons that things really “click.” But, if they can at least keep up with the basic concepts on a daily level, then there’s time (and hope) for building up to the advanced questions they should expect on a test.

    Now, our situation worked well for that because
    -we had huge blocks of time for each class, so I could still teach a new lesson, let them work on problems even though the beginning of each period was taken up with assessment
    -our schedule was such that students had the same classes every OTHER day, so there was always adequate time to get extra help between classes, or spend 2 nights practicing. I didn’t have to expect “instant comprehension.”

    What started to happen was kids would show up early EVERY class, often as much as an hour early, and they would all work on practice problems together (and I’d usually be there, and willing to help). Our schedule meant that math was either first thing in the morning, or right after lunch, so often kids just ate their lunch in the math room working on problems. I found that most students did MORE work than they would have had they just been assigned homework questions, and also that their focus was very different: they strove to be able to do the questions, not just get through them.

    The other advantage is they had feedback every single class as to whether they had put enough time/effort in to understanding the last class’ material. Teacher and student both had a very clear picture of how ready each individual was to move on because of the constant assessment. And, with so many quizzes, each one was worth such a small portion of their grade that they could have a bad day and it wouldn’t significantly affect their over all mark.

    I don’t buy the “homework is practice in responsibility” argument because it mischaracterizes the goal. The goal is to be able to do, not to check off which questions you have done. Kids need more help/practice/training with being self-assessors, and that’s what I was trying to do with my students. That’s what they would face in the next year or two at university, where self-knowledge is key to academic survival.

    So, hats off to no homework, but for helping students to become academically independent so that they can make good, sound decisions for themselves about how to use their time outside of class!

  63. I grew up with math homework, so like some posters, I’d expect to see teachers today assigning homework out of practice. For one, I did learn something from my math homework. But I’d go to my mom for help, and that time we spent together was indeed learning time. I had self-motivation. I was in advanced algebra and all the upper-level courses. I was college-bound.

    I think since I graduated from high school (1992), the times have changed with attitudes. I agree with your premise… that kids that need extra practice won’t do the work; those that need it less, are the ones that might be motivated to go for the effort.

    I’m glad you’ve found a solution that is working for you. I agree with others that the problem is not necessarily the pedagogical approach of homework, but a societal problem with learning, expectations, etc.

    I’m not math teacher, but am a K-12 educator. My guess is… I’d be assigning homework, but not “problem sets.” I’d be asking kids on occasion to bring-in artifacts that could be used in real-world problem solving. Math homework of a different sort. Despite the popularity of your post, it was refreshing and insightful to read.

  64. I teach high school math to seniors in a suburban Cincinnati school. The class is for students who plan on furthering their education after high school but are not great math students. I assign homework and post the solutions online for the students to use to check their work. I believe a great deal of learning goes on when students are given the opportunity to find their own mistakes and correct them or help others correct their mistakes. We all learn best by teaching others and so I have my students try to help each other as much as possible. They can look at their homework while taking the weekly quiz so the better they do on their homework and the more they show their work the better they do on the quiz which is worth more points. At the end of a unit I give them 2 assessments. One is a traditional test which, if they do poorly, they can retake after correcting their first test. The other is a project based assesment where they must demonstrate their knowledge of the concepts taught through some sort of performance task. There are still some students who don’t do their homework but the ones who truly buy into the system do very well in my class as well as in college after they graduate. I have had many students come back after a few years and tell me they never would have made it through college algebra without my class and that makes it all worthwhile.

  65. I am just a parent who sees the light of curiosity dimming in her formerly enthusiastic 5th grader’s eyes because of unrealistic homework demands. It sickens me that educators can’t do their jobs in the 6 or 7 hours they have with our children every day. I’m sorry you folks have to teach to these ridiculous standardized tests. Is that what it’s all about after all?

  66. I am a 5th grader with the every day homework of 2 hours and when I’m sick it has taken me 3 extra days to finsh missing work. I do not understand why the give us so much homework to have it done in so little tim!!!!!!!! we are punished if we don’t do our homework. the problem I have is Y have so much homework I lose trak of all my other homework! so I hope they will litten up on homework soon!

  67. I always have trouble finishing inthe short time we are given to finish in class so I hope someday homework will be gone!

  68. @Ann: most of the people who write on this website are teachers, and even though I am not one, I am a parent of four children. Let me offer you this advice:

    Many times in your life, someone will require you to do something you have a hard time doing. Unfortunately, most of the time, you will still have to finish the task even if you don’t understand why or don’t agree that you should have to do it. You are not alone in finding this frustrating and difficult.

    Still, you should do your best to complete the task anyway. There is a great lesson in finishing assignments not just when you want to but also when you are required to.

    While you are doing the work, remember two things: 1) someday you will be older, and you will be the one making decisions about what other people should do, and 2) you will find lots of people in the world who are like the teachers on this website, people who are trying to do things differently because they think they can do those things better! The day you find those people will be the day you know all the hard work you are doing now was worth it.

    Best wishes,


  69. I really enjoyed your post. I agree with it wholeheartedly. It was also very interesting about a teacher being well organized and one who manages the classroom effectively.

  70. Apparently, there’s no need to assign homework if other teachers can use your blog as their homework assignment.

    There is no irony in education.

  71. Dan, I really appreciate this blog. I am a high school English teacher who teaches a wide range of students in both grades (9th, 11th, 12th) and abilities (very low 9th to AP 11th). I really appreciate your thoughts on homework; I’ve seen some of the same conclusions in English studies regarding grammar. I also think it cuts down on cheating (I’d rather not mention all my parent-written or Internet-copied writing assignments).

    I do think, however, that your ideas are easier to implement in math than other disciplines. For me, I greatly believe in the value of having kids read long books, not just short stories found in textbooks, so I often assign 20-30 minutes of READING (not grammar exercises or pointless writings) 4-5 nights a week.

    Anyone have any better ideas on how to integrate Dan’s thoughts into other subjects?

  72. Suppose that the amount of work that a student need to do to understand a math concept is a constant. Reducing the amount of homework means more work at school. Could you please tell me how to boost efficiency at class?

  73. It is not necessary for practice to happen at home. In fact, not only could it happen at school, I think it should. But, we’d have to have a different structure to the school day. Practice (and while we’re at it… grading and evaluating) could become part of the daily in-school routine, freeing up everyone to go home to their other activities. If we had the time built into the day for that practice. Five uninterrupted 90 minute classes a week and I’d never give homework. But, that is not my world. So, I give homework.

    Your argument for not giving homework is not persuasive to me, however. You suggest a couple of things that I have questions about. One… that those who do the work don’t need it. That seems to be about the work itself, not about whether to give assignments. My first thought is that maybe your practice needs to be more differentiated, so that your top workers can get benefit for their labors, as opposed to just routinely drilling one size fits all work designed for less able students.

    But, the reason that really doesn’t reach me is the idea that you don’t give homework because the students who need it won’t do it. That is probably the worst reason I can think of not to give homework. I am not a big fan of avoidance. It is convenient and temporarily happy-making, but it denies students the daily opportunity to choose and choose yet again. By removing the reasonable requirement of practice, you create a certain level of ease. You relieveyourself of the frustration of observing your students making poor choices and you relieve them of direct contact with those choices. You choose for them. What have they learned other than that the world moves with their whine and that nothing much matters until they hit the hard, cold floor that no one told them was there?

  74. If I were to use the no homework approach the reason would be that my theory is that it would improve learning for many students and not do any harm to those who would comply. In my mind, student choice is often confused with compliance to teacher direction. If the goal of school is compliance to authority then penalties for choosing not to practice make sense.

    On the other hand, if the issue is “choice” then practice should be a choice without a penalty–if the benefit of practice is clear–for example, improved learning–the students would choose to practice without coercion. I don’t believe that not assigning homework restricts students from making a choice to practice at home–it just doesn’t penalize students for whatever reason are unable to do so.

    Here’s an analogy: improved teaching benefits from professional development within the workplace. As professionals, teachers should choose–without any additional pay–to participate in regular improvement of practice (Since many teachers only work 7 hour days–1 hour extra daily sounds a reasonable requirement for professional development.) There’s little doubt that this sort of choice would improve the quality of teaching–after all practice makes perfect. To carry the analogy a little further into the ridiculous, let’s say that teachers who choose not to improve would be faced with failure (firing)–I’m sure we wouldn’t hear any whining.

    (I may be guilty of exaggerating one side of an argument to make a point–apologies if it seems that way.)

  75. Joel:

    I don’t agree that choice and compliance are confused. I think the responsibilities of teacher and student are confused, particularly in the United States of happy endings achieved by any means necessary.

    The teacher’s job is to create opportunities, provide support and to be a mirror of student response to those opportunities and support. The student’s job is to accept or reject opportunities and to find themselves in the mirror of the teacher. There are always choices and consequences. The teacher who resists being a meaningful source of opportunity and consequences is merely being an inadequate teacher and a weak mirror.

    As to the issue of professional development, teachers should always be in the mode of developing their craft, renewing themselves, etc. However, whether they do so or not has no bearing on their obligation to their students.

  76. I totally agree with you in regards to assigning homework. I teach in a Title l school where the students are on their own at home most of the time. They rarely complete the homework if they need help while doing it there is no one there to help. Only my students that earn A’s and B’s consistently do their homework and like you say they don’t really need it.

  77. Dan, I tend to agree with your philosophy for low achievers in your comments to Marcie “in my interview last fall at my current school, they asked and I (extreeeemely hesitantly) told, summarizing much of this post. They knew I would be teaching their lowest Algebra classes and both the math dept. head and the principal agreed with the philosophy. We all kind of put it out there, though, that higher level of mathematics, with a more committed clientèle can often derive some good from homework.” I do think homework has a place even for the lowest math students. It should help them not frustrate them. They can do a few problems where the correct answers can be checked in the back of the book or on a site like hotmath.com. The homework can be graded for effort and not for correctness.
    For gifted / competitive students, there is value to homework. Class time should be spent not just on examples, it should include time for peer to peer collaboration and enrichment activities. Homework for these students reveals their level of understanding and, with the right assignment, how far they can take a concept. All homework is not bad. Homework must be geared to the audience – as with everything we teachers do every day. I hate for parents to read headlines like “Whi I don’t assign homework” … it makes those of us who do look like we are behind the times – and we are not!

  78. As a parent and a teacher, I think homework is important–not so much that students should ever have to go to their parents.
    I have taught college courses, high school courses, and middle school courses. Students who are hoping to advance to college will need to develop independent learning and time management skills. They will have to learn to learn outside the classroom.

    Meanwhile, I discourage parental help–I know the parents can pass middle school, high school and often college courses; the question is, can the kids? Without homework, some kids cruise through the course discussions and exercises, believing that they understand the material and then BAM! the test hits them with surprising results/

    Homework in skills/practice is a small way of preparing students for the tests–there should not be an overwhelming amount, but enough so that they can realistically assess their progress before there is anything significant on the gradebook.

    Reading the literature can sometimes be done in class, but often needs to be done at home. Students read at different rates and it is an inefficient use of classtime to use all of it reading when some of it needs to be used on writing skills development and the discussion of literature.

    While I agree homework should never be a substitute for teacher planning, I do believe it has its place.

  79. I dont understand? Why would you give a student 40 problems if they dont get it. then they would just get in the habit of doing it wrong because they did it wrong 40 times.

  80. Practice is important. You give homework so that students can practice the skill they’re learning. What skill doesn’t need to be practiced? Music? Art? Writing? Reading? Mathematics? Drama? Athletics? They all need practice. No matter how organized you are, students need the opportunity to build their own muscle in an area. A master class is a way to point practice, not in lieu of doing your own work.

    My feeling is that if the student knows the material backwards and forwards and can gain nothing from practice, then you’re not teaching enough. If your classes are so hetereogeneous that you have students who are completely wasting their time in class then the problem isn’t homework, the problem is a flawed system that puts too great a range of ability and preparedness in one place. In that case, not giving work to those who are already not being challenged in class is just compounding the injustice.

  81. Practice is important if they are practicing! I teach a very low level 6th grade intensive math class. To get them to do any type of homework is like pulling teeth. So, when I do assign homework, it consist of only 3 to 4 problems.

  82. I really like what you have to say Dan. Like many edu articles I read, I think your ideas are sound. Now I want to see exactly how your class unfolds – a step by step lesson plan that shows how you make sure each moment is used most effectively – and then I want to see how you could do it in the 50 minute periods I have in my school. Would you be willing to share? Notes are great, but a veido would be amazing.

  83. Ann, I’d like to record some lessons if for nothing else to put something on my hard drive for posterity. I need to figure out some release issues with my students and then I’ll start recording a few classes.

  84. Thing 4
    Why I don’t assign Homework- I found this blog very interesting. I am torn about this topic. How much is too much. Is it really helpful. I teach 5th grade. I do wish my 5th graders would read a little bit more than watch TV. I liked reading the opinions of other teachers. Thank you

  85. I am a teacher with almost 30 years to my credit. I’ve changed my views about homework dramatically. Homework, given for the right reasons and in a fair amount, is justified. However, loading students down with enormous amounts of work outside of school is counterproductive and just plain wrong! Do we as adults come home from work and say to ourselves, “Oh, I can’t wait to think, think, think, work, work, work, some more!” The human as well as the human brain deserves some rest. Now, having said that, if we could somehow get our students in “ready to learn mode” when they walk in the door, this discussion would be moot. Unfortunately, we get our students, warts and all. Much time is wasted with discipline issues.

  86. Jessica Eastman

    April 8, 2009 - 3:44 pm -

    Hey Dan,

    Thanks for this – I’m the Secondary Math Content Curator for Teach for America. I’m doing a blog post about homework for math teachers, and this will be a great addition. I’ll be sure to link to you so that the teachers can read what you have to say.

  87. “Secondary Math Content Curator”? Are you sure that’s your job and not, say, a paid hobby? Sounds like an incredible way to spend your work week, regardless. Stop by again sometime and say hi.

  88. Jessica,

    Is it possible to get Dan a log-in to the TFA website? Show off what it is that you do there?

    CM, South Dakota, ’07

  89. For several years now I have assigned homework 3-4 nights a week for the students. I have developed a partern 3 questions about what we did that day and 3 questions about something in the past or something we will do in the future. I have found the previewing to be extremely helpfull in exposing simple skill sets that might be needed for new concepts. Example linear equations in standard form and calculating the intercepts from that form. I write instructions how to work each set of problems. Now for the challenging part getting them to complete the homework. My class is divided into teams they compete for rewards at the end of certain time periods. They never know when the homework will be for a grade or for team points. This motivates them.

  90. This is obviously where Mr. Cox had come up with all his ideas about “homework being pointless”. I have a B in Algebra, and it will never go up because I can’t do homework, and Mr. Cox doesn’t collect anything.

    Thanks Dan. Just Thanks.

  91. I’m finishing my fourth year of teaching and am constantly toying with the idea of doing away with homework. One of the issues I run into is not having the instructional time to get everything done so somethings have to go home. In essence, I hope for the best on those things, knowing that many students won’t complete them or will cheat.

    I also struggle with the question of preparing students for their future jobs. Many jobs require students to be self directed and to take work home. By excusing them from the ritual of homework, do we cripple them in the future?

  92. You talked about poor classroom management as one of the reasons why teachers give homework. Then go on to explain that kids don’t do the work anyway (the ones that need the help the most do the least) so don’t give them homework. These seem like rationals to tell yourself that homework is useless so why assign it. I have never been one to assign tons of homework, maybe two times a week. But the quality of homework is extremely important, I feel. Sure doing pages out of the text might not be the most engaging or useful of time, it does serve a purpose to reinforce major concepts to get the students prepared for statewide test so that they can graduate. But homework in the form of projects that develop creativity, inventiveness, and ingenuity expands upon what I can do in class and gives the students the freedom to create fantastic results that build upon what was taught in class. I don’t see homework as a dinosaur in today’s world, but as a useful changing tool that is still important if you want the next generation to build upon the successes of this country.

  93. Do what you have to do to teach/survive/feel you’re making a difference. No one “religion” fits all. Keep is simple simon.

  94. I sometimes feel that homework is just work for the parents to do with their child/children. Sometimes, I don’t see the relevance in the work that is assigned to do at home. In our district, homework is suppose to be a practice not work to be learned at home. It is also not suppose to take too long to complete. The kids who do the homework are usually the ones who really don’t need the extra practice. The kids who don’t do the work are usually the ones in need of some practice. A lot of times, the students who don’t do the homework to get the extra practice, are the ones who don’t have family involved in their education. They are usually taking care of themseles.

  95. I meant to write,” Keep it simple Simon!”
    I try to give them what they need: (I teach HS)

    No w.end HW- need time to play but all previous week work is due by Mon. so the one’s who didn’t do it have w.end HW.

    Honors- higher expectations on products etc Also c.prep below.
    C.Prep – outside class work: studying for quizzes/tests, the occasional research topic, and reading assignments related to class work.
    Non c. prep – all in class work, when absent, class work becomes HW

    I try to minimize cheating by not handing back assignments until after the due date and not giving assignments that are easily copied. If they do, I speak to the individuals, show them a copy of the state university policy on plagiarism, and explain to them they have to become independent workers, looking to friends for help but doing their own work.
    I do the same when they ask for help- guide to the answers rather than give.
    I ask the athletes if they tell others they got the winning goal etc. if their teams wins and point out that cheating is the same as lying so if they wouldn’t lie about their performance, don’t cheat.

    All of this works well for me.

  96. I agree with the no homework idea. Most of the parents are not at home to help the students with the homework if they have any questions. The student will not understand it and get mad and not do it.

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