Making Homework Relevant

  • Making Homework Relevant

    February 2024

    Recently, on social media, a mathematics educator was justifiably lamenting the fact that her child was assigned a worksheet with over 60 problems of the same type that were due the next day. Educators frequently complain about how infrequently students complete their homework or that caregivers do their students’ homework. I’ve also heard fellow educators say that their advanced classes receive more homework than their grade-level classes. I’m guessing that you are hearing this or thinking about homework's purpose and relevance, too.

    Kindergarten-12 mathematics students typically focus on memorizing procedures, but students deserve more; they deserve to make sense of and be able to reason with the mathematics they are learning. If students are to understand mathematics, doing 60 of the same type of problem will not achieve that goal. Students must see the relevance and usefulness of their learning and understand the concepts they are studying.

    We should consider limiting the amount and frequency of mathematics homework. Other subject areas don’t assign daily work to be done outside of class, so why do many mathematics educators feel this need? Homework should only involve tasks students can complete with a high success rate, focusing on reinforcing learned concepts and gaining additional practice rather than introducing new ones.  I remember my daughters complaining about lengthy homework checks – some as long as 30 minutes -- during class time, leaving little time for learning new material. Valuable class time should be spent on developing understanding rather than reviewing a rushed previous lesson. Students must collaborate to make sense of the mathematics; those “deep thinking” questions and problems should be done in class rather than at home. 

    Educators must also recognize that students often have limited time after school. Some secondary students serve as after-school caregivers for their elementary siblings. Many students are involved in extracurricular activities through their school, church, or community. Assigning excessive mathematics homework can add additional stress for our students and their families. Assigning a few well-considered problems, including some on new material and some on reviewing recent topics, seems to be a more effective approach.  

    It is essential to provide students with adequate, purposeful practice that is not excessive. Assigning fewer problems, contrary to what has typically been the norm, still meets the necessity for practice. This allows opportunities for students to complete their work during class where they can receive immediate feedback from their teacher.  Time is such a precious commodity, and it is beneficial not to spend a lot of time .reviewing previous homework or answering questions from only a few students. This additional time creates more opportunities for students to develop a deep understanding of the mathematics and helps students see the relevance and usefulness of what is being learned.

    Kevin Dykema
    NCTM President