5 Ways to Make Homework More Meaningful

Use these insights from educators—and research—to create homework practices that work for everyone.

Homework tends to be a polarizing topic. While many teachers advocate for its complete elimination, others argue that it provides students with the extra practice they need to solidify their learning and teach them work habits—like managing time and meeting deadlines—that have lifelong benefits.

We recently reached out to teachers in our audience to identify practices that can help educators plot a middle path.
On Facebook, elementary school teacher John Thomas responded that the best homework is often no-strings-attached encouragement to read or play academically adjacent games with family members. “I encourage reading every night,” Thomas said, but he doesn’t use logs or other means of getting students to track their completion. “Just encouragement and book bags with self selected books students take home for enjoyment.”

Thomas said he also suggests to parents and students that they can play around with “math and science tools” such as “calculators, tape measures, protractors, rulers, money, tangrams, and building blocks.” Math-based games like Yahtzee or dominoes can also serve as enriching—and fun—practice of skills they’re learning.

At the middle and high school level, homework generally increases, and that can be demotivating for teachers, who feel obliged to review or even grade halfhearted submissions. Student morale is at stake, too: “Most [students] don’t complete it anyway,” said high school teacher Krystn Stretzinger Charlie on Facebook. “It ends up hurting them more than it helps.”
So how do teachers decide when to—and when not to—assign homework, and how do they ensure that the homework they assign feels meaningful, productive, and even motivating to students?

1. Less is More

A 2017 study analyzed the homework assignments of more than 20,000 middle and high school students and found that teachers are often a bad judge of how long homework will take.
According to researchers, students spend as much as 85 minutes or as little as 30 minutes on homework that teachers imagined would take students one hour to complete. The researchers concluded that by assigning too much homework, teachers actually increased inequalities between students in exchange for “minimal gains in achievement.” Too much homework can overwhelm students who “have more gaps in their knowledge,” the researchers said, and creates situations where homework becomes so time-consuming and frustrating that it turns students off to classwork more broadly.
To counteract this, middle school math teacher Crystal Frommert said she focuses on quality over quantity. Frommert cited the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, which recommends only assigning “what’s necessary to augment instruction” and adds that if teachers can “get sufficient information by assigning only five problems, then don’t assign fifty.”
Instead of sending students home with worksheets and long problem sets from textbooks that often repeat the same concepts, Frommert recommended assigning part of a page, or even a few specific problems—and explaining to students why these handpicked problems will be helpful practice. When students know there’s thought behind the problems they’re asked to solve at home, “they pay more attention to the condensed assignment because it was tailored for them,” Frommert said.
On Instagram, high school teacher Jacob Palmer said that every now and then he condenses homework down to just one problem that is particularly engaging and challenging: “The depth and exploration that can come from one single problem can be richer than 20 routine problems.”

2. Add Choice to the Equation

Former educator and coach Mike Anderson said teachers can differentiate homework assignments without placing unrealistic demands on their workload by offering students some discretion in the work they complete and explicitly teaching them “how to choose appropriately challenging work for themselves.”
Instead of assigning the same 20 problems or response questions on a given textbook page to all students, for example, Anderson suggested asking students to refer to the list of questions and choose and complete a designated number of them (three to five, for example) that give students “a little bit of a challenge but that [they] can still solve independently.”
To teach students how to choose well, Anderson has students practice choosing homework questions in class before the end of the day, brainstorming in groups and sharing their thoughts about what a good homework question should accomplish. The other part, of course, involves offering students good choices: “Make sure that options for homework focus on the skills being practiced and are open-ended enough for all students to be successful,” he said.
Once students have developed a better understanding of the purpose of challenging themselves to practice and grow as learners, Anderson also periodically asks them to come up with their own ideas for problems or other activities they can use to reinforce learning at home. A simple question, such as “What are some ideas for how you might practice this skill at home?” can be enough to get students sharing ideas, he said.
Jill Kibler, a former high school science teacher, told Edutopia on Facebook that she implemented homework choice in her classroom by allowing students to decide how much of the work they’ve recently turned in that they’d like to redo as homework: “Students had one grading cycle (about seven school days) to redo the work they wanted to improve,” she said.

3. Break the Mold

According to high school English teacher Kate Dusto, the work that students produce at home doesn’t have to come in the traditional formats of written responses to a problem. On Instagram, Dusto told Edutopia that homework can often be made more interesting—and engaging—by allowing students to show evidence of their learning in creative ways.
“Offer choices for how they show their learning,” Dusto said. “Record audio or video? Type or use speech to text? Draw or handwrite and then upload a picture?” The possibilities are endless.
Former educator and author Jay McTighe noted that visual representations such as graphic organizers and concept maps are particularly useful for students attempting to organize new information and solidify their understanding of abstract concepts. For example, students might be asked to “draw a visual web of factors affecting plant growth” in biology class or map out the plot, characters, themes, and settings of a novel or play they’re reading to visualize relationships between different elements of the story and deepen their comprehension of it.
Simple written responses to summarize new learning can also be made more interesting by varying the format, McTighe said. For example, ask students to compose a tweet in 280 characters or less to answer a question like “What is the big idea that you have learned about _____?” or even record a short audio podcast or video podcast explaining “key concepts from one or more lessons.”

4. Make Homework Voluntary

When elementary school teacher Jacqueline Worthley Fiorentino stopped assigning mandatory homework to her second-grade students and suggested voluntary activities instead, she found that something surprising happened: “They started doing more work at home.”
Some of the simple, voluntary activities she presented students with included encouraging at-home reading (without mandating how much time they should spend reading); sending home weekly spelling words and math facts that will be covered in class but that should also be mastered by the end of the week: “It will be up to each child to figure out the best way to learn to spell the words correctly or to master the math facts,” she said; and creating voluntary lesson extensions such as pointing students to outside resources—texts, videos or films, webpages, or even online or in-person exhibits—to “expand their knowledge on a topic covered in class.”
Anderson said that for older students, teachers can sometimes make whatever homework they assign a voluntary choice. “Do all students need to practice a skill? If not, you might keep homework invitational,” he said, adding that teachers can tell students, “If you think a little more practice tonight would help you solidify your learning, here are some examples you might try.”
On Facebook, Natisha Wilson, a K–12 gifted students coordinator for an Ohio school district, said that when students are working on a challenging question in class, she’ll give them the option to “take it home and figure it out” if they’re unable to complete it before the end of the period. Often students take her up on this, she said, because many of them “can’t stand not knowing the answer.”

5. Grade for Completion—or Don’t Grade at All 

Former teacher Rick Wormeli argued that work on homework assignments isn’t “evidence of final level of proficiency”; rather, it’s practice that provides teachers with “feedback and informs where we go next in instruction.”

Grading homework for completion—or not grading at all, Wormeli said—can help students focus on the real task at hand of consolidating understanding and self-monitoring their learning. “When early attempts at mastery are not used against them, and accountability comes in the form of actually learning content, adolescents flourish.”
High school science teacher John Scali agreed, confirming that grading for “completion and timeliness” rather than for “correctness” makes students “more likely to do the work, especially if it ties directly into what we are doing in class the next day” without worrying about being “100% correct.” On Instagram, middle school math teacher Traci Hawks noted that any assignments that are completed and show work—even if the answer is wrong—gets a 100 from her.
But Frommert said that even grading for completion can be time-consuming for teachers and fraught for students if they don’t have home environments that are supportive of homework or if they have jobs or other after-school activities.
Instead of traditional grading, she suggested alternatives to holding students accountable for homework, such as student presentations or even group discussions and debates as a way to check for understanding. For example, students can debate which method is best to solve a problem or discuss their prospective solutions in small groups. “Communicating their mathematical thinking deepens their understanding,” Frommert said.