From Homework to Preparing for Class Assignments

18 Aug 7043531491_ba629cfb75

I Hate Homework 

And, I bet you do as well.

What if we stopped using homework to name that part of a learning process or practice that we want students to engage (and notice I’m not using complete here) when they’re sat down to do the work of learning (and notice I’m not using to do the assignment) ahead of participating in (rather than coming to) a next class session?

What if we attend to what we know about where students actually are sat when they’re doing what we might call preparing for class assignments - because it’s probably not at home where they’re doing the work, and our students are probably not the only ones in whatever rooms where they’ve landed to do work.

What if we shape these informal, formative, generative, initial tasks as preparing for class assignments that form the base for class-based (face to face, online, in community) activities?  Could a small semantic shift undo the stultifying baggage, negative policing baggage attaching to that word homework?

Drawing on my experiences – and experiments – I still hate homework.  But in working to align semantics (moving from homework to preparing for class for naming the learning work) with actual course practices (in which students’ learning work is a central component of class session goals and design) I can say this: I look forward to making use of, reading and responding to Preparing for Class Assignments.  

As do my students.

I Love Learning Words

I love words, especially the words that shape meaning making when people gather together to share stories, to play music, to shape fun through comedy and sport, to make ways for emergent experiences and understandings through drama and literature. Learning new words as I engage with other learners is one benefit of teaching within alongside colleagues from diverse and interdisciplinary fields of study.

Even more, I love bringing new learning words to life as part of making meaning in dialogue with others – using our words to pick up on threads of agreement, to invite multiple perspectives for illumination, to welcome dissent as a integral factor in knowledge making, and to hash through misconceptions, gaps and errors in knowing as part of enacting social justice. 

In my professional context, one that welcomes wise semantic play as a part of development as a learner, and of practices in learning and teaching – I have been working to incorporate semantic shifts that reflect key conceptual shifts in my own teaching practices as these link to personal classroom research and peer reviewed literature on learning and teaching.

In my own teaching – and in much of the literature – I find that commonly used terms

  • Homework
  • Active Learning
  • Scaffolding

don’t actually align with espoused and researched ideas about the importance of creating/completing authentic tasks; of social, cultural, and biological underpinnings of learning; and about multiple components involved in constructing meaning.

To mark shifts in understanding and bring classroom semantics into alignment with actual practices, I describe the new practices in new language. I, therefore,

  • create Preparing for Class Assignments,
  • design Learning activities, and
  • consider ways to SequenceSupport, and Sustain that learning across the term – in and beyond the classroom.

One other reason these semantic shifts have been important – as I’ve interacted with first year writing students and future faculty graduate students across five years of testing out the new words: These new phrasing help students shift from practices they associate with “schooling” into the higher-level learning practices and mindsets they need to take on as adult, lifelong, lifewide learners.

On Shifting to Preparing for Class Assignments 

There was that moment a few years ago when I realized my observational data were telling me that students were largely completing “homework” at coffeeshops, in computer labs, at the table of a friend or family member, or in the hallway between work and class.  Not at home.  And in talking with those students, I learned that the work was being seen as being a task, an exercise, a lesson to be completed, one tick box to mark as part of “doing” course work.

I remembered being that student. I hated homework – until the last year of college.

In that last year of undergraduate school, I completed a new major and made the Dean’s List every term.  I was not suddenly “buckling down” or checking out of classes by “giving the teacher what he wanted.”  In something that was new for me, I was being asked to prepare for class.  Reading and writing and paired conversations that I completed ahead of class sessions became the base for in class sessions – sometimes group discussions, sometimes presenting materials other students had not been assigned, and as often providing the base for lectures my political science teachers prepared for that day. Those presentations built on what we had already read and made noted, and on earlier-in-the-week discussion- or presentation-based activities.

That last year of undergraduate school shaped me as a teacher – is, in fact, why I became a teacher and took on the masters degrees to phd school route.  I continued that spirit and tradition of creating “preparing for class” assignments that become launching points for discussions, for inclass problem solving activities with links to our dual classroom and beyond the classroom worlds, and for next presentations, readings and doings via larger assignments.

So, as a teacher of teachers – with student participants who were themselves learning about learning and learning ways of teaching – why did the assignments I created for my future faculty students still feel like homework to them? And, too often, as I read these short assignments the work seemed spiritless to me.

When we talked together in class – as part of group- and team-based work, in the mix of interactive presentations, and via individual conferences on fuller drafts of course assignments – my future faculty were certainly planning interesting, innovative and spot on courses that incorporated interesting “preparing for class” and in class activities.  Like me, they were still labeling this work homework – on syllabi for courses they were designing as well as in sessions they were conducting within the class.

Ah, that word homework or the phrase “Work Due” was all over our course syllabus.  My spoken words about preparing for class didn’t align with my own written words. A powerful message in that incongruity. And, in completing the “Work Due” students stayed on the safe side, generating homework responses for me rather than preparing for class work for the benefit of us all as learners. 

I began excising the incongruous references from my syllabus and in spoken and written remarks. With that shift, several anxieties were lifted:

1. Early in the term, students stopped wondering whether and when I was going to collect the work they had completed in preparing for class; instead, they came to see the many ways they were using that work in class to move ahead in their learning, and they came to annotate those documents directly to add new ideas, information before I ever collected anything.  And words I spoke – as I traveled among the small groups or included in mini-presentations between discussion interludes – signaled that I heard and saw the ways they were bringing this generative work into discussions, were drawing others out to build ideas, and were building insights from across several class sessions.  Lots of “feeding forward” in this constructivist learning practice.

2. As a teacher, I planned class sessions to build on what students prepared.  The presentations, formative assessments and low- to medium-stakes assignments, teacher feedback, peer activities and feedback, uses of technology – selecting appropriate options to build from their work.  That was, of course, true when my spoken words said “preparing for class work” while Moodle-published assignments still carried “homework” or “work due” reminders. But with my semantic shift, we were all clearer about the why of the assignments and less concerned about how each individual engaged those assignments.

3. The big shift during my year of intentionally banning homework as a phrase in anything I wrote or said not only continued to reduce student anxieties about what to prepare, how to prepare it and what to do if they couldn’t sometimes fully prepare for class.  This small gesture affirmed for more students that they were, indeed, jointly responsible for learning.  They “showed up” for and in class even more brightly than before.  They “showed up” for one another in connecting ideas, collaborating to name new insights, stealing (and attributing) ideas from one another.

4. Best of all, as the class of the recent experiment brought together future faculty learning about teaching and learning, the materials they designed more fully integrated the “preparing for class assignment” ethos into their plans for learning students would engage before class and in class.   Whether designing courses they would one day soon teach, or designing the team-taught two-hour section of our shared class, their assignments ranged from knowledge checks/quiz taking to drafting of position papers in response to core readings, and the assignment descriptions took into account that students might be working in alone or in the company of others – at coffeeshops, in hallways and labs, over kitchen tables and at shared computers.  

5.  I generally do collect what students have prepared for class – and more specifically, I collect the preparing for class work after student have done  something with or because of that preparatory material.  Whether the work is a bit of writing, a drawing, a chart, a quiz, a slide or a concept map, I require students to add at least one (no more than two) specific questions they want me to have in mind as I read and respond.  If the preparatory work links to a bigger, high-stakes course assignment, I return comments to individuals or teams; if the prep was meant to move us all along in the learning, my written response is a collective one directed to the entire class as an audience.  

For now, I’m going to continue on this pathway of banning the word homework from my vocabulary, and I’m going to keep talking with others about how and why this is a wise conceptual and practical move for the complex, mutually responsible, highly interactive learning necessary for our contemporary world.  (And, it’s time for that 2018 survey of then recent Teaching in Higher Education students, there will be questions about whether and how they have continued to think – and talk – about how they create and name their own preparing for class assignments.)

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