As a student in elementary and high school, I recall having homework assignments in most, if not all of my classes each night. I remember carrying home a lot of worksheets, lugging home several textbooks, and at times transporting poster board and binders back and forth to school. We had a lot of tests, pop quizzes, and projects. Most of the time, I remember the homework was the same for each student, in each class, and I cannot recall now nor do I even know if I was aware back then, of students doing different assignments. I understand why teachers assign homework which is the same, the purpose is to assess students on a particular skill, and maybe it just really works for that learning target. And some benefits for students are having a peer, to work through an assignment with or ask for clarification, can be helpful. But it can also be detrimental, for a few reasons. Students are not getting the practice they need by having the same assignment, and the possibility of students copying assignments is also something to consider. Copying assignments leads to a loss of learning, and students will have to re-learn the material twice. There is a lot of discussion about the real value of and purpose for homework, and these are just a few of the pros and cons to consider.
Over the past few years, with the rise of technology and so many options available for learning experiences through it, solely using a worksheet or assigning the same homework does not have to persist. I have noticed variations in my students, both during our interactions in the classroom but also while grading assignments and projects, or even just reading the responses to their reflections or blogs. For homework, some students can finish the worksheet in two minutes, possibly before the end of the class period, if time remains. And there are others, who may struggle to complete the work and as a result, end up spending 20 or 30 minutes on the exact same assignment. So, I asked myself, how can I reach both types of learners, and provide opportunities that will be beneficial, meaningful, but more importantly more personal to their needs. How can I give each student the practice that they need?
Making some changes
So how did I decide to change the “everybody has the same homework” practice? After a holiday break and taking some time to reflect over the first part of the year and talking with students, I decided to seek ways to give students options for the type of homework they wanted to complete. I came up with two or three choices of how I could do this, and will admit, that I was a bit anxious, since changing the traditional homework assignments would involve taking a risk. But I truly believed that it was worth it, to see what, if any difference it would make for my students.
The three options I started with were:
1. Quizlet: I had sets of cards and as an alternate assignment, I asked the students to select and complete activities which they felt would help them the most. Because we have a class account, I can monitor their progress and they have many options for practicing the vocabulary, playing games and other activities to build their skills.
2. Kahoot!: We have played games of Kahoot! in class for the past few years, and initially I was using it as a class game, using games which I created. But I soon realized that making up so many quizzes was really time consuming. While there are lots of public quizzes available, I wanted to have the questions be more specific to their needs. So for a different type of homework assignment, I asked students to create their own Kahoot! game using a specific number of terms or verbs and share it with our class. This led to more authentic practice and a lot more resources for all students to learn from.
3. Blendspace: I have an account with Blendspace, and I can create and share lessons that I have created which include videos, games, tutorials and much more. As homework practice, I can decide to assign a particular lesson for students to work through or I can simply share the URL and provide resources and give students the choice to use the resources within the lesson.
4. Other options: Some other ideas for changing the type of homework assignments used are to create a list of different assignments or tasks and give students some choices in how to practice the content material. They may decide to work through all of them, or simply use some, but the important thing is that the choice is theirs and the practice will be more meaningful. Assigning homework in this way encourages students to have a choice on where to begin, not all students have to do the same thing, and it helps to focus on their individual needs.
What did the students think?
The students appreciated having more of a choice in assignments. Using these options gave them the chance to try some new ways of learning, which they were not used to, but it was a way to provide differentiation. I know that having a lot of games available to play in class with Kahoot and the extra Quizlet study cards, benefitted all students. The one tricky part is being able to monitor their work, but this comes with developing the relationships and having clear expectations. Including students in the conversation and making sure we focus on the accountability and responsibility aspects will help. The students are more engaged, become more empowered by having a choice in their learning path.
We can use methods like this to focus on the areas where students need help the most. Personalizing the homework assignments in these ways can prove to be time consuming, as far as tracking their work, but it is completely worth it because of how beneficial it is to their learning. And that is what matters most.