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The Role of Student Work


The Role of Student Work

Merely to absorb facts is of only slight value in the present, and usually of even less value in the future.  Learning how to learn is the element that is always of value, now and in the future.“     —Carl Rogers

“Control of your own attention is the ultimate individual power.“ —David Brooks

Consider a classic scene, repeated countless times every night: A student has lugged home a backpack loaded with five or six heavy textbooks.  She opens one up.  Her assignment is to read fifteen pages and answer a set of questions at the end of the chapter. 

Maybe she skims through the pages, or maybe she turns directly to the questions at the end.  She reads the first one, looks back through the chapter to find the answer, and dutifully writes it down.  She repeats this for the rest of the questions, closes the book with relief, and turns to the next subject’s homework.  Tomorrow she will turn the homework in, the teacher will acknowledge that she did it—probably by rewarding her with some points—and the class will go over the answers together.  Tomorrow night she will repeat the process.

Perhaps this student has learned something, but that isn’t really the goal for her.  Completing her homework is an essential part of earning good grades.  She is successfully doing school.  What she has completed is a simulation of learning.  It only looks like the real thing.

Fortunately, there is another model for us to consider.  It is possible for students to perceive the work they do in class and at home as both meaningful and useful—as a powerful tool in the learning process.  It is possible for students to work less, but much more effectively.  But to accomplish that, we must reconsider the very purpose of the work students do.


3.1 Reframing Student Work

3.1 Reframing Student Work

The discouraging and ineffective process of doing school is a mainstay in the lives of many students.  And those are the successful ones.  As every teacher knows, unsuccessful students often lack the motivation to do even this much work.  For many teachers, the fact that a student completes all her homework is evidence that she is learning the material—and of course, that does sometimes happen.  But when homework is experienced as busywork—a common experience for many students—learning is a fringe benefit.  Doing hours of homework every night does not ensure that learning has taken place.

Our task is to convert student work from busywork into an essential part of the learning process.  Doing this can have a profound effect on a student’s motivation, which, in turn, can dramatically increase how much and how deeply she is learning.  

Most importantly, well-designed work teaches the student more than the immediate learning goals.  It also teaches her to become a more metacognitive and self-directed learner. In other words, it is an opportunity to teach her some of the basic skills of learning.

Reframing the purpose of homework and schoolwork can also boost a student’s sense of ownership of her own learning.  For many students, work is done for the teacher. They do it because they want to please, they are afraid of being humiliated, or they want the rewards.  Only when the student starts to perceive this work as an essential step in learning will she do the work, not for the teacher, but for herself.

Appropriately designed student work can boost intrinsic motivation.  Students will begin to internalize their motivation and decision-making, rather than taking their cues from others.  This is, of course, central to students becoming self-directed, effective learners.


3.2 Cultivating Metacognition Through Student Self-evaluation

3.2 Cultivating Metacognition Through Student Self-evaluation

"In other science classes, I so concentrated on the gradethat I would do my homework and cram for tests, but not actually understand what I was learning.  This year in order to do my homework and take tests I felt it was necessary that I really understand what I was studying."    —Jocelyn B., student

In general, when a student is in the process of learning new material, she understands some of it, but not all.  The specific work of learning takes place at the boundary between the domains of what she knows and what she doesn't.  One of the most important purposes individual student work can serve is to shine a light on that perimeter. Only the student can know that boundary intimately, which is one of the reasons why self-directed learning is generally more effective than teacher-directed learning.  

If a student is working on autopilot, unaware of what she does and does not understand, she will not learn very well.  However, students can be taught to be self-aware while working. Well-designed work teaches a student how to pay attention to how well she has mastered the material and how to steer the learning process accordingly.

One way students’ metacognitive skills can be cultivated is through self-evaluation.  When a student assesses the level of her understanding of her work, she is forced to pay more careful attention to the material.  She needs to stop and ask “Do I get this?” before moving on. She is also clarifying whether she needs to do further work to master the material.  This serves as the basis for deciding what to do next and enhances self-directedness.

It is critical that students learn to be realistic in their self-evaluations.  Without a clear and accurate appraisal of her level of understanding, a student will be much less likely to make good choices.  The accuracy and honesty of self-assessments need to be checked regularly when students are first learning this skill, and periodically thereafter.  The intent is not to “catch” students being dishonest in their self-evaluation, but rather to help them become more clear-headed and subtle in their analysis.

The more specifically a student can identify what she has not yet mastered, the more effective her learning becomes.  Zeroing in on precisely the concept or skill that is still eluding her leads to more accurate and useful questions in the follow-up conversation.  Those questions drive the learning process and make the discussion more productive for everyone.


3.3 Guidelines for Student Work

3.3 Guidelines for Student Work

Student work should never be busywork

Intentionally assigning busywork corrodes student motivation and creates unnecessary resentment.  Of course, busywork for one student may be a much-needed review for another student. That is why differentiated learning is so important.

One way to dramatically reduce the amount of busywork is to give students choices about how much and what kind of work they need to do.  The choices should include doing more review and/or practice if the material hasn’t been mastered yet, or moving on to enrichment work if it has.  If every student has the ability to work at a level of challenge that is appropriate to her, busywork will be dramatically reduced.

Student choice requires both an appropriate classroom culture and a structure that provides the necessary scaffolding.  Learning contracts — often the best and simplest way to create that scaffolding — will be discussed in depth in later chapters.

Students work should be as light as possible

To paraphrase Albert Einstein, the work that is required of students should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.  If a student can do five problems and know whether she has mastered a new skill, don’t assign six. When this work is promptly followed by feedback, the students who need to continue practicing can do so.

Students need to know why they are doing the work

Explaining why the work is important and how it connects to the rest of the curriculum (or the real world) helps motivate students and gives that work context.  It reminds students that they are doing the work to learn, rather than simply to receive a grade. Defining the learning goals embedded in the work also tells students what they are striving for.  In other words, a thoughtful introduction can make student work more meaningful.

Student “buy-in” boosts motivation

When a student understands that being prepared for a conversation about her classwork or homework dramatically increases how useful it is, this helps internalize her  motivation. Similarly, if she is aware that her study group expects her to be prepared, the pressure comes not from the teacher but from the student’s desire to belong, which is also an internalized motivation.  If students come to see their work as an important exploration of the material that benefits them directly (rather than a chore to be gamed as quickly as possible), they will be more motivated to complete it.

Reviewing work in study groups encourages conversational learning

For many students, speaking or asking questions in front of the whole class is intimidating.  If, instead, they can ask a question about their work in a small group of peers who they know and trust, they will be much more willing to expose what they don’t know.  Students who do understand the material will also be much more likely to explain it to others in a smaller setting. Using study groups will encourage more students to teach and learn from each other.  Study groups will be explored in the next chapter.

Student work should never be used as a punishment.  We want to encourage students to understand that their work is useful and essential to mastery of the material.  Using student work as a form of punishment sabotages the belief that the student and the teacher are on the same side in the learning process.  Such punishment is often perceived by students as an abuse of power and is therefore resented. There are other ways to create consequences for inappropriate behavior that are less damaging to the collaborative relationship between a teacher and her students.

For work that has a deadline, work that is done on time should be acknowledged and rewarded

If students are going to discuss the work and learn from each other, they obviously need to be prepared.  Students have a responsibility to identify what they don’t understand yet so that they can ask good questions of each other.  They should also know what they do understand well enough to be able answer each other's questions. Work can thus serve the function of preparing students for teaching and learning from each other in the review that takes place in class.  Rewarding timely completion of homework with a stamp or other indicator reinforces the belief that the homework is valuable.

There are two parts to doing work effectively.  The first is working as an individual, using the work to prepare as much as possible for a conversation about the work.  The second is getting everything possible out of that conversation. The stamp serves as the bridge between the two. It states clearly that the student has done all that she can as an individual learner — she has mastered as much as possible at this moment.  It does not recognize whether the student has mastered the material yet, or that the work is all correct or even complete; evaluating completeness and correctness shows up later in the process. For now, it indicates that she has pushed herself as far as she could by herself and has done the metacognitive work of assessing how much she understands.  In other words, it states that she is prepared to join in a conversation about the work.


3.4 Designing Conceptual Work - Cultivating Conscious Reading

3.4 Designing Conceptual Work - Cultivating Conscious Reading

For the sake of simplicity, student work can be divided into two broad categories: learning new concepts, which often come from reading from a textbook or other resources, and learning new skills, such as practicing mathematical problems or conjugating verbs in a foreign language.  This section will explore techniques that enhance the effective use of the first type.

(Note: You may have student work in your classes that doesn’t correspond well to either of these categories.  In that case, you will need to adapt the fundamental principles described above to your circumstances.)


The ability to read effectively is central to the task of learning new concepts.  A metacognitive reader is aware when she comes across a word or phrase she doesn’t know or a concept she doesn’t understand.  The following suggestions for conceptual work are designed to help cultivate that awareness and help students discover how to make good decisions about learning new material.

To promote metacognition, student work needs to serve several functions.  If the student is reading a text that imparts new concepts, for example, her  task will include at least these three basic functions: 

  • Identifying and articulating the big ideas being presented. Students can do this by expressing the main ideas in their own words.  A wide range of literacy techniques, such as Cornell notes or annotation of the text, can also be used.  If possible, a student should be allowed to explore what forms of note-taking are most useful for her. Regardless of the format, effective notes will provide a clear summary of the major ideas, with enough detail to serve as a comprehensive resource for reviewing the material at a later date.

  • Self-assessing comprehension.  An example of concepts-based homework from a physics student is found at the end of this section.  The left-hand column is her summary of the text. The right-hand column is the commentary section, which includes her assessment on a one-to-five scale of how well she learned the material in each section.  A five means that the she knows the material well enough to teach it in her study group. A four means she would like to talk it over because her understanding isn’t solid yet. A three means there are some things that she really doesn’t understand about some of the material, and she needs to have some questions answered about it.  A one or a two means a serious lack of understanding of the material.

  • Identifying the topics that were difficult to understand.   For every section that is assessed at less than a five, the commentary also includes a description about what specifically prevented that section from being a five.  This can be a word or a phrase, a reference to a certain diagram or equation in the book, or any other indicator that will help lead the student to ask useful questions about it in the study group discussion.  In this book, the process of finding the specific impediment to learning is known as “isolating the difficulty”, and it is an important metacognitive skill.


Here is a form for reading homework.  It may be used at the start of the year for the first few homework assignments, so that students can get used to the structure and receive prompt feedback.  After that, homework summaries may go into a journal or any other appropriate format. An example of such homework is also attached.

What happens in class following an assignment can be as important as the work itself.  Reviewing work in class presents an opportunity to maximize the amount of student learning.  A useful format for review is study group discussions. If a student comes into the discussion with a well-defined sense of what she doesn’t yet comprehend, she will be able to ask good questions.  Within each group there will be discussions based on the specific needs of each member.

Students are often assigned questions such as those found at the end of a chapter as part of a reading assignment.  They may perceive this as a chore to be done quickly and superficially in order to satisfy the teacher and may choose to just look up the answers.  They may not even read the assignment. In this case, the questions can actually undermine the fundamental goal of the assignment.

A different approach is to hold off on presenting these questions until the study group has met in class and gone over the reading.  Now the same questions can serve as a springboard for further, more sophisticated discussions within the group. It may also prove useful to follow these discussions with a whole-class summary of what was learned.  This can solidify comprehension and air any misunderstandings that have arisen in the study groups.

Remediation for misunderstood conceptual work can come in many forms.  For example, the student can write about her misunderstandings in order to identify them more carefully.  She can do additional, alternative reading, or she can find some other mode of learning that might be more appropriate.  The subject you teach and the particular students you are working with will determine how you design remediation work. The central task, however, is always for them to identify what they don’t understand and continue working with it until they do.

The Life Cycle of a Conceptual Homework Assignment

The following is a scenario which demonstrates how the process might unfold, using the strategies described above:

In class, before the assignment:

  • The teacher introduces a concept or set of concepts the day before homework is due.  

  • Some class discussion or activity sets the stage for the reading.


At home:

  • Students do the reading and summarize and assess their own understanding.


In class, after the assignment: 

  • Students are given a check-up question (not for a grade) to see if their own assessment of their comprehension was accurate and honest.

  • The teacher verifies that each student's homework is substantially complete at the start of the class.  Work may be stamped, initialed or otherwise marked as good preparation for the discussion to follow.

  • Students get into study groups. Study groups review the homework, going over everyone’s reading notes and answering every question raised.

  • Study groups then answer teacher-generated questions about the homework and take notes on the answers.

  • The whole class reviews and summarizes what has been discussed.

  • Every student is given an individual check-up.


Further work:

  • Students are given a choice of remediation or enrichment activities to work on in class or as homework.  Their decision is based on the results of the final check-up.

  • Finally, there is a quiz or other evaluation that generates a grade.


3.5 Designing Skills-based Student Work—Scaffolding Independence

3.5 Designing Skills-based Student Work—Scaffolding Independence

The ultimate goal of skills-based work is for students to be able to independently execute a skill correctly and completely.  This gives every student a concrete, attainable goal, and a means of knowing when she is successful. Knowing that she has to become independent gives her a legitimate purpose for choosing to practice the skill as much as she needs.

Complex skills are best built in a sequence of learnable parts.  Breaking a complex skill into a set of increasingly difficult sub-skills allows students to master all the parts before attacking the whole.  Success in one area at a time boosts self-confidence. This technique also allows the student to see specifically which part(s) of the skill are most challenging for her and which she still needs to practice.  She will know whether she is ready to move on, and if she is not, how much and what kind of practice she needs.

This technique also counters the common belief by some students that they “just don’t get it”, which leads them to give up prematurely.  Separating the work into distinct building blocks can show a student that she has already mastered parts of the skill and reinforces the technique of isolating the difficulty and practicing it.  This, in turn, enhances the student’s sense of tenacity, which is a useful attribute in attacking any problem.

The number of building blocks needed to approach a complex skill can vary dramatically.  Factors that will determine the design include the experience, the readiness, and the motivation of your students.  Too many sub-skill assignments lead to busywork. Too few, on the other hand, leave some students lost and struggling with the size of the intellectual jumps.  This is discussed in full in the chapter “Unit Contracts”.  

Introductions to new skills begin with examples and opportunities for students to practice, preferably with support.  Teaching a new problem-solving technique often begins by first demonstrating one or two sample problems completely, showing the details of the process and explaining any relevant strategies.  If there are multiple variations on a new type of problem or skill, avoid the temptation of explaining them all yourself. It is exactly in working on such variations that students can often discover the bigger picture for themselves.

Following a teacher-led introduction, typically every student does a few problems on her own.  This is an opportunity for her to recognize how well she understands the new material. Students can do this alone, with the teacher moving around the room, offering assistance as needed, or by having students working in small groups, solving the problems alone, but sharing  techniques and asking each other questions as they occur. 

 Helpful Hints and Answer Keys

Providing “helpful hints” with the work can be useful in assisting a student who is stumped.  Helpful hints will typically guide her from the beginning through the middle of a problem, but not give her the path all the way to the conclusion.  Hints can be on a separate sheet, in the textbook, or on the back of a worksheet.

It is important to make the hints something that the student has to actively decide to use.  If she takes the step of intentionally using the hints to help get started on a problem or get past an impasse, she will be much more likely to work through to the end of the problem.  Success in completing the work is important for building confidence.

This technique also offers training in metacognition.  A student who makes use of the helpful hints now knows that she needs more practice to master the material independently.  With experience, she will pay attention to which specific part of the skill she still needs to practice by noticing where helpful hints were needed.  

You may be concerned that a giving a student “helpful hints” is simply a shortcut she can use to avoid doing the work on her  own. Since the student will soon be assessed on whether she can do this specific skill independently, however, using helpful hints inappropriately simply means she is wasting the opportunity to practice the skill.  She is, as the saying goes, “only cheating herself”, and the next check-up, quiz or test will give her immediate feedback about what a bad choice that was. When she sees this clearly, her motivation to do the work independently and use the hints appropriately becomes increasingly internalized.

Another technique for enhancing metacognition is to provide answer keys for study groups to use when going over their work together.  (This means, of course, that you have to do the work too.) By modeling the appropriate techniques, you are showing students what excellent work looks like.  This has the side benefit of informing you whether the amount of work is appropriate. If it is too time-consuming or repetitious for you, it will be even more so for them.

Here is an example of a physics problem set, helpful hints (which were printed on the back of the problem set), and an answer key that was used by study groups reviewing the homework.

The Life Cycle of a Skills-based Homework Assignment

Here is how the process might unfold using the strategies described above:

In class, before the assignment:

  • The teacher introduces a new skill or subset of a skill.

  • Students practice individually or in groups.

At home:

  • Individual students do homework, using helpful hints if necessary.

In class, after the assignment:

  • Students get into study groups and review the homework, using an answer key to verify correctness.  Corrections are made as needed.

  • Every student does a check-up.

Further work:

  • Remediation/further practice is available, as is enrichment.  The decision about what to do next is based on whether each student needed to use the helpful hints or answer keys, or whether, after the whole process, she was still unable to do the check-up correctly.  


3.6 The Question of Mandatory Homework

3.6 The Question of Mandatory Homework

"The fact that we did so much actual work in the classroom made learning a better experience than in other classes.  I never felt like I was being overworked.  I was actually under the impression that we didn’t do much work in physics.  Now at the end of the year I have all my work and tests back and I see how much we did.  It is a lot, but it never felt like a lot."            —Rachel K., student

No discussion of student work would be complete without addressing the issue of whether or not to assign mandatory homework.  Many teachers assume this is a natural part of school and essential for learning. However, there are circumstances in which mandatory homework is truly counterproductive.  

It is important to remember that there is no sacred mandate for assigning homework.  In order to decide whether to assign mandatory homework, you must ask first whether it obeys the Prime Directive and enhances self-directed learning.  It is essential to evaluate the homework’s utility on a case-by-case basis, one class at a time.

There are strong arguments for and against.  Here are a few:

Why You Should Assign Homework

Homework is necessary to cover the required curriculum

Having students do all their individual work in class simply requires more time than having them do some of it at home.  Individual student work in class inevitably displaces some other activity, like the introduction of new material. As a result, less material can be learned.  Given the ever-increasing demands on time and the curricular pressures that are currently in vogue, homework is an essential mechanism for moving through the curriculum at an effective pace. This is particularly true for advanced placement or other content-heavy courses.

Working alone is an important part of the learning process

Part of the learning process requires individual effort.  A student must struggle with new material, making mistakes and running into roadblocks.  A student’s efforts at metacognition — identifying what she doesn’t understand yet, figuring out what to do about it — is an essential ingredient in learning.  

Of course, a student can do these things alone in a classroom (and should, if you decide not to assign homework), but sitting at home alone and facing the material without the support of peers or a teacher is a different experience than working alone in the classroom, surrounded by classmates.

Homework trains students to be responsible

The decision to do homework is made by each student alone, and thus reinforces her personal responsibility in the learning process.  If homework is designed well and students take ownership of it, it reinforces tenacity. The effort of pushing through work on her own helps train her in the ability to stay focused and motivated.

The “flipped” classroom requires regularly assigned homework

In most classes, the teacher introduces new material in class and students are assigned homework so that they can work with the new material on their own.   The flipped classroom is based on the premise that it makes more sense for students be introduced to new material at home through self-guided software, video lectures, or other means.  This, in turn, allows the student to work through those ideas in class the following day, where she can be guided by the teacher and learn through conversation with her fellow students. In this sense, the roles of classwork and homework are reversed.  Obviously, this requires assigning homework whenever new material is being introduced.

Everyone else does it

Once you decide to reconsider whether it is appropriate and useful to assign homework to your students, you will probably be confronted with the realization that you are alone in questioning this ubiquitous practice.  Deciding to forego homework in your classes may put you at odds with your colleagues. You may also feel guilty for not be able to make your students do the work, even though in reality many teachers are unsuccessful in getting all their students to do so.  

This is not a good reason to assign homework, but recognizing that it is a factor in your decision-making is important in coming to a conclusion on your own.

You are required to do it

There may be departmental or school-wide expectations about assigning homework.  In that case, any damage that can result from this practice (as described below) must be ameliorated as much as possible.  Your task is to minimize the amount of time students must spend doing your homework. This can be accomplished by reviewing the upcoming work with them in class or even giving them class time to complete the work.  

Why You Should Not Assign Homework

"I think what the problem was for me in other classes was that there was too much stress and pressure put on me to learn and do the homework.  Due to me getting so stressed out about the homework, I wouldn’t do it because I was too stressed about it and then like a reaction I wouldn’t learn anything."      — Megan L., student

Mandatory homework systemically exacerbates the problem of the bell curve

It is critically important to set aside the idea that students should do their homework.  Instead, we must acknowledge the reality that unsuccessful students, for a wide range of reasons, often do not do their homework.  This is both a cause and a result of their lack of success. A student who doesn’t complete her homework is already a failure when she walks into the classroom.  Mandatory homework sorts students into successes and failures regardless of what happens in class. And, of course, a student who is feeling guilty or is shamed for not doing the work is less likely to learn in the classroom.

Homework can interfere with the personal growth of students

Staying focused on optimizing self-directed learning (rather than on what students should be doing) allows you to work on the underlying problems that interfere with a student’s ability to learn.  As Carol Dweck discusses in her book “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success”,a student with a fixed mindset  believes she is incapable of change, regardless of how hard she works.  As a result, she may give up before even starting. Helping her attain a growth mindset — the belief that she is capable of effective effort — will allow her, in turn, to have successful experiences and build on that success.  Changing a student’s mentality requires support from the teacher, which can be given in class or in individual meetings with the student outside of class. It is unlikely to occur while the student is doing homework alone.

A student may also be too insecure  or shy to ask for the help she needs to even be able to start the work.  Cultivating a classroom culture where asking for help and peer tutoring are integrated into everyday experiences can make admitting a lack of understanding or making mistakes acceptable.  Again, this is a function of the classroom experience, and not likely to occur by doing assigned homework alone.

Homework rarely teaches students to be responsible

The idea that homework builds a responsible posture in students is based on the premise that they want to do the work.  If they are merely doing school, and only completing homework because they want to get good grades, then they are in essence being bribed — not a particularly responsible attitude.  If they resent the homework and do it anyway, (as many successful students do), they are being trained to be subservient, rather than responsible. 

Homework can be unfair

Some students live with circumstances that make doing homework difficult, or even impossible.  Some must put in long hours at a job outside of school or be caregivers for family members. Some are homeless.  Even in less dire circumstances, some don’t have access to computers or other technology that can preclude completing homework.

Homework can interfere with the student-teacher working relationship

In many traditional classrooms, homework has the counterproductive effect of forcing students to do something that they would not do if they had a choice.  It often leads to unnecessary power struggles and can put the teacher in the unhappy role of nagging students to do the work and criticizing them when they don’t.  It also reinforces the role of the teacher as the sole decision maker, which undermines student self-directedness.  

Homework causes widespread sleep deprivation

Ask your students how many of them got nine hours of sleep last night.  In my experience, very few do, especially students who are academically successful.  Since that is the amount of sleep that most adolescents need, they are nearly all sleep-deprived.  If, in addition to time spent socializing (which they are hardwired to do), participating in extra curricular activities, holding a part-time job, or spending time with their technology, they are required to do hours of homework, sleep deprivation is inevitable.  Combine that with the fact that the diurnal cycle for most adolescents naturally keeps them up late into the night and sleeping late into the morning, and you can see why asking them to do rigorous academic work at 8 AM or earlier is simply unrealistic.

Sleep deprivation is physically and psychologically stressful, particularly when it is chronic.  Beyond that, it is an unpleasant way to live and further erodes many students’ enthusiasm for school.  There is no question that sleep deprivation, exacerbated by excessive homework, is a major impediment to self-directed learning for many students.

There is too much school

When a student spends the whole day in school and most of the evening doing school work (as successful students often do), it creates a sense of relentless effort with little time for personal pleasure.  For such students, school work can be reduced to drudgery, and vacations and holidays feel like a major relief. If we want to cultivate self-directedness and a desire to learn for the sake of learning, this posture towards school is counterproductive.

Homework often doesn’t work

The research on the efficacy of homework is ambiguous at best. Despite the almost universal belief by teachers that homework increases learning, a number of studies indicate that in most circumstances it does not significantly enhance students’ understanding of the material.  In addition to the issues listed above, this raises a natural question — if students are not actually learning while doing homework, what purpose does it serve?


3.7 Guidelines for Assigning Homework

3.7 Guidelines for Assigning Homework

Once you have decided that it is appropriate to assign homework, the guidelines for student work described above should be considered. Here are some additional considerations in how and when to assign homework.

Differentiate homework based on the needs of individual students

 A check-up at the end of the class period will tell you and your students what they need to work on at home.  If you are using learning contracts, it is relatively straightforward to have the check-up determine which of several assignments a student should work on that night.  When they return to class the following day, the different work they have done can be discussed in study groups that are created based on who did which assignment. Alternatively, homework can be discussed within study groups composed of students who did different assignments; students who did more challenging homework can help teach students who did more remedial work.

Whenever possible, allow students to decide for themselves whether they need to work at home

If a student doesn’t finish her work in class, it can always be self-assigned as homework.  This, of course, adds an incentive to work more effectively in class to avoid having to take the work home.  It is often best to keep a low profile and simply remind students that the work is due the following day, rather than to be in the position of browbeating them into working more effectively.  The structure itself will train them to get work done in class without your putting yourself in the position of nagging them.

Homework assignments shouldn’t be excessive

Even infrequent doses of the right kind of focused homework can have a large impact on mastery.  It’s worth noting that in Finland—whose educational system is consistently ranked among the most successful—students average less than a half hour of homework per night for all their classes combined.

There is no way for you to truly know whether they are doing too much homework because the homework you assign is, of course, only one part of what they have to do every night.  Therefore, it is important to ask for and pay attention to your students’ feedback. If the amount of homework you assign is widely perceived by students as excessive or onerous, it probably is.

If you give them a voice, they can give you important information; it may be that the pace of the class is too fast, the level of difficulty is too steep, or that students need more time to digest and work through the problems.  If, on the other hand, only a small minority of students feel that there is too much homework, it is not necessary to slow down the pace for the whole class. However, it is essential to address those students’ needs by working with them to develop more effective techniques, explore the circumstances that are preventing or discouraging them from completing homework, and discuss other issues that make it hard for them to keep up with the class.

Listening to students requires trust.  This can only happen when a classroom culture has been created in which mutual trust exists.  If you trust your students, they are much more likely to give you honest feedback and live up to that trust.


3.8 Setting the Stage For Homework

3.8 Setting the Stage For Homework

One of the considerations of whether to assign mandatory homework is whether students are doing it for the right reasons.  If homework is to serve a positive function in a class, it is important to have a critical mass of students who see it as beneficial and worth doing for the sake of learning.  In my experience, this is more easily achievable than one might imagine, but it requires a multi-pronged effort:

1. Redefining the purpose of homework to serve as preparation for in-class conversational learning.

  1. Giving students choice so that homework is more likely to be at an appropriate level of challenge and usefulness for every student.

  2. Offering open work time and flexible deadlines to free up students to be self-directed and manage the timing of completing their work in class.

  3. Cultivating a positive form of peer pressure by making homework completion a prerequisite to the study group’s ability to function.  When four out of five students in a group have completed the work, they will exert real pressure on the one who didn’t.

  4. Redefining the purpose of school to help students believe they are there to learn and grow, and that a reasonable amount of homework is an important part of that process.

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3.9 Managing Student Work

3.9 Managing Student Work

Many students have piles of papers accumulating in the bottom of their lockers or strewn around their rooms at home.  A lack of organizational skills can be a serious impediment to learning and academic success. Students may miss deadlines because they can’t find the work that is due.  They may discover that they can’t review for an upcoming test or exam because they have lost the work they need to study.

Teaching students to organize their work and their materials is an explicit goal in helping them become effective learners.  Three powerful techniques are described below.

Learning Journals

Deciding between physical and digital journals.  While there is enormous pressure to move to an all-digital format in many schools, there are some considerations worth paying attention to.

  • Cost is a factor.  Some schools and some students cannot afford tablets or laptop computers.  A spiral notebook is an affordable alternative.

  • Distraction can be an issue.  Screens draw students’ attention and offer all sorts of temptations —games, texting, emails, random internet searches, etc.

  • Handwriting has its purposes. There are some aspects of expression which are better suited to handwriting.  Algebraic equations, graphic organizers, doodles, sketches, brainstorming, and rough outlines come to mind. For some people, the pace of handwriting is better suited to thinking through what they want to express.  It is also a skill that can be useful in certain real-world circumstances, and there is no substitute for practice.

  • Technology is undeniably efficacious.  For some students, word processing is much more efficient than handwriting, both in terms of speed and the effectiveness of editing.

  • Student choice must be considered.  Ultimately, students know best what the most effective means of recording their work will be.  They should, however, make an informed choice, which means experimenting with both well-organized hand-writing and digital writing.

  • A hybrid approach may be optimal.  While having student work collected in both digital and physical formats can be harder to organize and keep track of, both formats can be accommodated using a combination of a good system of documentation and an effective use of portfolios (see below).

Whether physical or digital, journals should provide a single location for most written work.  When students put most or all of their written work — class notes, homework, labs, reading notes — in a journal, it becomes a learning log and a record of their process.  Of course, there may be other aspects of the process that are separate, such as quizzes and tests, or loose-leaf worksheets, that don’t easily fit into the journal. These separate pieces can be collected in portfolios.

Journals can be used to instill pride in the production of an excellent product.  When students are taught to create consistent, thoughtful, well-executed journals, it can cultivate a sense of pleasure in having created something substantial and excellent.  For some students, this will be a new and important experience.  

Physical Journals

Spiral notebooks are generally the best format.  A single spiral notebook is more practical than a three-ring binder or a fixed-binding essay book.  Binders are bulkier and harder to stack when collecting student work, and fixed bindings prevent students from ripping out pages that, for whatever reason, don’t “work”.

Students should have a single journal that is dedicated to only your class.  Three or five subject notebooks are not practical when you are collecting student work and need to keep it for a day or two for grading purposes.

Have each student create her own journal cover.  The front of the journal should ideally have the student’s name, the name of the subject, and the class period, so that they are easy for you to organize.  Lettering must be legible and large enough to read easily, and there should not be excessive decorations that interfere with clarity. Giving students permanent markers in a number of colors and giving them class time to create their covers is a worthwhile investment in time. They can take turns using the materials while working on some group task.

Teach students to use a consistent format for their journal entries.  Every entry needs a title (which you should initially define for them), and a date.  Each entry should ideally start at the top of a new page for clarity. Simple elements of design should be encouraged, like allowing enough space around the margins and leaving space between paragraphs or problems.  Other possibilities include numbering pages and/or leaving the first two or three pages blank for the ongoing creation of a table of contents.

Digital Journals

While many of the same guidelines for paper journals apply to digital versions, students may also need to be taught how to create and organize file folders as well as creating effective document titles.  The organization of student work will, of course, depend largely on the particular software being used. In any case, the software should allow the following functions:

  • An option for student reflection and self-evaluation, including an assessment of mastery, commentary on what was understood, and what needs to be reviewed in class.

  • A mechanism for teachers to respond to student work.

  • The ability for student work to be used in group discussions, both online and in class.

  • The ability for students to work within specific formats and/or document forms designed by the teacher.


Giving each student a portfolio helps them all to keep their work organized and available.  Whether digital, physical, or some combination of the two, a portfolio provides a permanent home for their work in the classroom.  Portfolios can serve an essential function during grade conferences with students.

Deciding between physical vs digital portfolios.  As with the format of learning journals, portfolios can be physical or digital.  Both have advantages and disadvantages. Physical portfolios are inexpensive and are essential for collecting work that is paper-based, such as worksheets, paper problem sets, tests, learning contracts, etc.  Physical portfolios help student learn the skills of organizing their work. On the other hand, they are also bulky and can take up considerable space in a classroom. Digital portfolios are easy to set up, take up no space at all, but require expensive equipment for every student.

Using physical portfolios.  The most effective structure for physical portfolios is hanging folders in a portable rack.  Having one rack per class provides clarity and flexibility in storing student work. File folders for different classes can be different colors to aid in keeping student work from becoming lost or misfiled.  File racks can also be clearly labeled.

Portfolios should remain in the classroom.  While learning journals can leave the room every day, the portfolios are a stationary record of work.  There are times, while reviewing for a semester exam, for instance, when a student needs to remove a portfolio from the classroom, but in general, keeping them in the room provides stability and prevents the loss of this important record.

Students should maintain portfolios in alphabetical order.  While it is possible to have a student take on the role of portfolio manager, it is optimal to have students take responsibility for keeping their own portfolio in the appropriate alphabetical order in the rack.  This encourages a sense of a common purpose and belonging.

Documentation of the Learning Process

Giving students a form that allows them to keep track of their work can have a powerful effect on their ability to keep the learning process organized.  Such a structure can summarize what work is available, what they have completed, and what they still need to do. This is particularly important if differentiated learning is happening in your classroom.

The structure can be as simple as a check list or a cover sheet on a packet of materials, or as complex as a unit learning contract.  It can be a sheet of paper or a digital record. It can include space for self-evaluation, teacher’s comments, or student self-reflection.  Such structures are discussed in depth in the chapter “Grades Reconsidered”. What is essential is that a student can look in one place and see a comprehensive record of her work.


3.10 Tenets of a New Paradigm

3.10 Tenets of a New Paradigm

Internalized motivation is the key to genuine learning

Excellent teaching is necessary, but not sufficient. The best teaching in the world becomes ineffective when students are working for points at the expense of working to learn. The difference between doing school and self-directed learning is not whether students are doing their work, but why they are doing it. It is essential to replace the habits of gaming the system with an internalized motivation to learn.

Doing individual work to prepare for a conversation with other students gives that work meaning

It is more appealing to have work lead to socializing than to do it for points. When a student begins to feel peer pressure from his study group to do the work and engage in the learning process, it supplies a natural compulsion that, for once, is not coming from the teacher..

Well-designed student work fosters metacognitive skills

The boundary between what a student knows and what he doesn’t is where all his learning takes place. A teacher can ask a lot of questions to assess what the student currently understands, but this is something that, with training, a student can get very good at.  It is an important life skill in and of itself, and it is an essential component of self-directed learning. If a student doesn’t know what she doesn’t know, how can she steer herself to learn it?

Self-evaluation boosts an internal sense of excellence

When a student assesses his own learning, he begins to take responsibility for how well he is learning. He internalizes the question of whether he is doing excellent work. This is a powerful tool in cultivating self-awareness, and it helps him also internalize the motivation to do the work of learning.

Students must be taught to be honest and accurate in self-evaluating their work

It is a skill, and like any skill it requires modeling and practice. Learning this skill is also a means of undoing the adversarial, dishonest, and sneaky posture students often have when they are doing school.

Like everything else in school, homework must serve the Prime Directive

The costs of assigning mandatory homework are real and must be weighed against the benefits. One must always ask “Is this enhancing both the intellectual and personal growth of my students?”

Homework can and should be differentiated to meet the needs of students

While it may sometimes be useful to have every student do the same homework at the same time, there will also be occasions where the learning needs of students will vary and will call for them to do different homework. Whenever possible, the students should decide for themselves what they need to do.


Organizing their work is a useful skill for students

Whether it is in paper or digital form, they should be provided with a consistent structure, and taught how to use it.