The No Homework Experiment

After reading Alfie Kohn’s The Homework Myth, I told my classes that I wanted to try an experiment. No homework from the start of the 2nd semester through the first test. I had a feeling that the homework wasn’t really doing much for my students, and I wanted to see how/if things would change when I just stopped assigning it.

My honors students were nervous. Would we be able to go as fast? Would we learn the material as well? Aren’t we supposed to do homework? Meanwhile, I was thinking, “What have we done to them?? The teacher says, ‘No homework,’ and they panic?” My intro students were more excited (At least one kid say something along the lines of, “I would really like school except the homework just kills me.”)

Some background

I already wasn’t grading homework, so in some ways, not assigning any wasn’t that big of a change. Homework is practice. I was just starting to feel unsure about how beneficial the outside-of-class practice had been so far.

My weakest students weren’t doing much (or sometimes any) of it. It seemed to be because they didn’t know how to start. Their peers would inch ahead in understanding each night, then the “weak” students would scramble to copy (even though they knew it would not be collected nor graded) or would simply watch the action the next day without getting involved in solving problems. Kids who had started to “get it” just a little bit earlier than their peers were able to make progress on their own, and then (unintentionally) excluded their classmates from the process of discussing, discovering, and building the model together. Could taking that head-start of outside work away keep the class closer together so that everyone moved forward?

The best mastery-building practice has quick and obvious feedback. With the homework that I did collect (and wrote on, but still never graded), they were missing that quick and obvious portion of the feedback. Even with my reputation for crazy-fast return rates (sometimes back in their mailboxes by dinner), a significant amount of time still lapsed (time that included several meals, discussions in other languages, writing English papers, playing sports, sleeping, etc) between their sustained thinking and their ability to get some feedback (if they even read it at all— some did for sure, but some never bothered to take them out of their mailboxes).

Then there’s the guilt factor: with my flavor of Standards-Based Grading, I had been expecting students to spend time outside of class correcting earlier work, practicing to meet older objectives, and scheduling time to reassess with me so that they could demonstrate improved mastery. How could I expect them to spend so much time on homework in addition to the time spent on reworking old skills?

They asked for it back. Sort of.

After the first test of the semester, I asked them how they thought the experiment had gone. Did they want homework again? Was their learning hurt by not having it?

They universally agreed that they were happier without the homework. By the end of the year, the honors students commented that they were surprised that we could still move so quickly (and understand everything) without having homework every night. Early in the semester, one of my classes asked for an optional hand-in homework for each unit so that they could get feedback on their individual written work before taking a test. Sounded great to me, although I was dubious as to whether anyone would complete an assignment like that.

Still, I handed one out for nearly every unit, giving them about a week before the test. Very few students turned it in (though I saw many honors students working on it each time). Here’s what was more impressive, though: after a bad test, a good number of students would ask, “Can I still turn in that optional homework for some feedback if I do it now?”

Near the end of the year, I asked them again about the No Homework experiment. From even my best students, I heard: “I don’t know when I would do my physics homework if I had it.”  The end of “junior spring” seemed to consume their out-of-class time and raise the stress level. Although I’m sure my class was still stressful for them, and it demanded that they work very hard in class, most seemed to appreciate that we were using our time in that way.

There was a moment after spring break when, at the very end of an intense lab period filled with a lot of great work from my honors kids, one of my students paused and looked like he was going to ask something. Then he smiled and turned and said to himself, “Oh, I just remembered how OG this class is.”

My plan for next year, or How do I want them to spend their out-of-class physics time?

As of now, at least, I plan to start the year with minimal assignments. I will use the type of assignment that I think works best: 15 minutes or so worth of work on “the next few problems” in the packet, always whiteboarded the next day (and starting the year immediately with full-court rounds of The Mistake Game— got to hit them hard and early with normalizing mistakes).

I will consider it part of my job to convince them that we don’t need to have homework. That is, that what we can do when we’re all together in the classroom is foremost. The hard work that they do during our class time is the most important part of learning physics. I plan to phase out the out-of-class work as we move through the first two units.

By that time, we will have covered enough objectives for them to start using their outside time to make corrections, to practice the skills they haven’t mastered, to meet with me for extra help, and to initiate additional assessments. I want to teach them how to structure those activities for themselves. I guess this is the ultimate in differentiated homework assignments, right?

Finally, I am going to put together a class webpage for next year. Each unit will have a page that includes several extra practice problems (and a link to click for the answers (not solutions)). The extra questions should help them with the practice, and checking their answers should prompt them to seek help only when they aren’t able to figure it out on their own.

9 thoughts on “The No Homework Experiment

  1. So in other words, this is a flipped classroom in another sense of the word: class time is used for all activities that students do in common — the shared learning process, while out-of-class time is reserved for the differentiated part of the instruction — the individual work that varies from student to student and that is determined at least in part by them individually in response to their performance, with the help of your SBG system.

    I like it…. and I’m thinking how I can steal the idea in my own context….

  2. […] The No Homework Experiment – Kelly O’Shea tries no homework for the first part of a course and the kids love it. At a student’s request she started making up optional homework assignments that were just for feedback which led to this fantastic shift in student mindset toward actually wanting to use feedback productively: “after a bad test, a good number of students would ask, “Can I still turn in that optional homework for some feedback if I do it now?”” […]

    1. It seems silly to closely base a high school class on what a college class does, anyway. The classes serve different purposes, ages of students, etc. Also, giving much less homework feels a LOT better. 🙂

  3. Hey kelly — thanks for a leaving a comment on my blog. I appreciate the tipoff about the Homework Myth book. I’ll have to check it out.

    Loved reading this post. I expect similar challenges and definitely some different challenges. I think my students will probably NOT do anything practice wise for some time and will suffer the consequences. I expect a lot of backlash (both from students and parents) and feel somewhat prepared to defend my position with my rationale.

    What a great idea about “optional” homework — practice problems a week prior to a unit test as well as putting practice stuff on a website.

    1. The great thing about SBG, though, is that suffering the consequences means learning to do the practice necessary to move forward instead of getting a bad grade. And after the first term, a lot of the students start to figure out that waiting until the last minute isn’t very fun. Some of those students even start working earlier! 🙂

      I think another great thing about the optional homework is giving them the answers (not solutions, just answers). That shows them that you trust them and that you are working with them instead of hiding things from them. And it makes for much better extra-help conversations (“I just can’t figure out why I’m not getting the right answer to this problem” is a better start than “Is this right?” or more likely them saying nothing because they don’t know what question to ask).

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