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Several years ago, my school decided to make homework voluntary and not part of final grades. When parents were alerted to this change, several begged me not to tell their children. They knew their kids would skip homework if they didn't think it affected their GPA. Some parents, on the other hand, were thrilled by this update because they thought balancing extracurriculars and homework was too much for their children. Being on the receiving end of these opposing views forced me to consider whether there was a better way to achieve the goals of homework while respecting students' other responsibilities.
Many education stakeholders equate homework with rigor: the more homework, the more rigorous the program. For high school students, the belief is that homework prepares them for the demands of college and future careers by helping them learn to work independently, at their own pace, and in a location of their choice. Studies show that students who aren't prepared to take responsibility for their learning struggle in college. On the other hand, a 2014 Stanford study looked into whether homework was a solution or impediment and found that too much homework has negative effects on the well-being of students.
As a teacher, your goal should be to find the right balance for your students. This is especially true if they're applying to college because admissions departments often place equal emphasis on extracurriculars and academics. My daughter was accepted to the U.S. Naval Academy, a science-intensive university where admissions are based on a well-balanced high school career of academics, extracurriculars, sports, and demonstrated leadership. While homework can help enforce learning, too much of it can leave not enough time for students to participate in other growth opportunities.
Oftentimes, assigning homework isn't the problem. It's what is assigned: rote drills and work sheets. A lot of learning is now addressed through other methods, such as play, socializing, and following students' own passions. As education moves away from memorization-based work, you can use homework as an opportunity for higher-order thinking, problem-solving, and critical understanding. Instead of focusing on the work itself, it should be more about the joy of learning, and these two methods can help.
Learning can be motivating, inspiring, and even addictive—think of the programming kids happily learn when playing Minecraft—but too often, what grabs student interest lies outside the rigid lesson plan presented in class. Many schools, including mine, address this with a program called Genius Hour. In this program, students spend 20 percent of each week's class time working on a project of their choosing. They are, of course, expected to follow guidelines on research, preparation, evidence, and presentation, but the important thing is that they get to spend considerable time on their passions. You can then frame homework assignments around these passion projects. I find that most students learn more by following this type of self-initiated program than any other teaching approach I use.
The expanding number of schools offering independent study programs indicates how successful student-driven learning is. My school had to eliminate many of the specialty classes designed to address particular student interests, but now students can design a course of study that satisfies their interests while complying with state and national requirements. This makes homework assignments more valuable to each individual student. For example, Songwa is one student I'll never forget. She spent two years researching DNA signalization for a project that she ultimately entered in the Siemens Competition in Math, Science, and Technology. She made the quarter-finals, and while she didn't win the scholarship, she nurtured her interest in biotechnology until it blossomed into a major at Johns Hopkins University.
Despite the varied opinions on how balancing extracurriculars and homework affects students, no one disputes that excelling after high school requires a little extra effort during those four years. Then the challenge isn't to convince students to do their homework but to make it worth completing. Educators should ensure any work done outside of class supports not only education goals but students' personal ones as well.