Giving Purposeful Homework Assignments

The word “homework” tends to evoke negative emotions for anyone associated with it– students, parents, and even teachers. Students don’t like it because it often feels like a waste of time and like “busy work”. It  takes time and energy when they would rather be working at a job, playing a sport, or doing something relaxing with their free time. Parents sometimes do not like it because it cuts into family time or it can be a source of conflict between them and their children, whom they feel compelled to gently or not-so-gently remind about their assignments.  Teachers get frustrated when students don’t understand the purpose of the assignment and either don’t take it seriously or don’t bother completing it which then can negatively impact their learning and their grades. These are, of course, only some of the reasons most people do not love homework and why, especially in recent years, districts are revisiting their homework policies. Some districts have very specific and strict homework policies and others leave it up to teacher discretion. 

Obviously there are a lot of views about homework- and this post is intended to be practical rather than philosophical– but, over the years, here are some things I keep in mind when when creating specific assignments and assigning homework.

Questions I Ask Myself while Creating an Assignment

There is not a one-size-fits-all approach to homework, but asking these questions is an important part of determining that the assignment is valuable, not just busy work.

  • Why is it valuable?
  • What is its purpose?
  • Does it focus solely on content?
  • Does it develop specific skills?
  • Does it require students to reflect on a topic that might have personal importance?
  • Does it show students how your subject has real world application?
  • Does it  help students develop study skills?
  • Does it allow you to connect with students on a personal level?
  • Does this introduce a new concept or reinforce a previous one?
  • Is it engaging? 
  • Is it reasonable in length, or will it take many hours to complete?
  • Are my expectations clear?
  • Are my directions clear?

How is Homework Used in your Class? 

If students believe that the work they do for homework doesn’t matter, they are less likely to do it. If they know, they see that you value it and will use it to start a class discussion, for example,  they are more likely to complete it. They know that it is not a quick check that seems unimportant. By referencing the homework in class, students see that you value the work and they are more likely to value the assignment. 

  • Do you explain to students what you are trying to accomplish with the assignment?
  • Do you award students credit based on completion? 
  • Do you grade it based on accuracy?
  • Do you go over it in class?
  • Do you have students turn it to to a designated physical space or on-line?
  • Do you discuss it?
  • Is it part of the class culture?
  • How do you show students that you value the assignment?
  • Do you use it in different ways throughout your class such as a Think-Pair-Share activity?
  • Do you use it as a way to have students interact with one another?
  • Do you give it every night just because you feel you should?
  • Do you assign a certain amount of homework in order  to keep students busy as a means to show how challenging the course is?

Homework Allows You to Connect with Students

There are some homework assignments that clearly allow you to connect with students  because of the nature of the assignment: write about something that is important to you,  what do you think the book teaches about human nature…However, one of the overlooked benefits  of the homework is the actual process of checking homework.

Even if your students have access to technology and can submit their homework with the click of a button, it is still valuable and important to interact with students either as you collect it or check it. Even though I do check homework personally, I also have them submit the assignment on-line so I can look at it more carefully when I have more time. 

  • Although it might not seem as efficient, the time it takes to check homework has many benefits.
    • It  gives you an opportunity to interact with every student in the class, even if it is very briefly. 
    • It’s an opportunity to ask how they are doing.
    • It’s an opportunity for students to interact with you one-on-one and, if there is something about which they need to talk to you, they might feel comfortable doing so when you check homework. 
    • It holds them more accountable. 
      • I think it can be tempting for students to miss a homework assignment because they know they will not have to acknowledge that they do not have it. Depending on how you use your technology, you might not realize someone has missed an assignment until you have a chance to look at their submissions, often during a prep period, that night, at home, or even over the weekend. 
      • When students have to actually face you and acknowledge that they don’t have their homework, they are more likely to complete at least some of it. The goal, of course, is to get them to complete the assignment; it is not intended to be a “gotcha” when they don’t have it. 
    • It allows you to notice patterns in a timely way.
      • By personally checking homework, it is easier to notice patterns of student behavior, especially for those who do not complete their homework on a regular basis. When you do notice these patterns, you are able to check in with those students, find out if there is something going on that is preventing them from completing the work:
        • Are you struggling with the material?
        • Is something going on that is interfering with your ability to complete the assignments?
        • How can I help you?

The Homework Pass: Everyone Needs a Break

With an increase in student anxiety over the last few years, I wanted to do something tangible to show students that I understand that they are stressed and to help in some small way. As a  result, I created The Homework Pass. It is a simple way  to give students a break– on those nights when they get home late from their soccer game or when their best friend is struggling and they need to spend time listening to them… or maybe they need to get to bed early after an especially long day….

  • Each quarter, I give all students one homework pass for them to use on a non-graded homework assignment. To clarify,  they cannot use it on a project or essay that they might have to complete for homework. It is something that is weighted as a homework assignment. 
  • Students are not given a grade for the missed homework; they are given an “excused” rather than a “0” for the assignment. 
  • The pass expires at the end of each quarter. Students cannot hold on to them and use them all in one quarter. 
  • They cannot give them to a friend. 
  • The first year I used them, I gave them a physical piece of paper and I signed them so they could not be duplicated. It was not terribly time consuming, but it was one more thing for me to do. Now,  I write “HP”(Homework Pass) in my physical grade book and enter “EX” electronically so I can easily keep track of who used theirs. They have to also make note where they electronically submit homework that they are using their Homework Pass.

Why I Like  Using the Homework Pass

  • It communicates to students that I care about their personal well-being, not just their academic standing.
  • It gives them a break when they need it. Each student’s needs are different. 
  • It encourages them to be responsible and  think about how to use the pass. I encourage them to save it for a night that they know they have a late game or play practice.
  • Many students don’t actually end up using them because they find the homework assignments have a purpose beyond simply a grade. They complete them because they help with something else- preparing for an essay, a project, a class discussion.  

The Bottom Line

The more meaningful and purposeful you can make a homework assignment, the greater chance that students will complete it. This is based on experience, not research. There will always be students who do not complete homework for reasons beyond our control. But, the more we can show students that we  value their time and effort by providing engaging, purposeful assignments, the better off they will be. 

I am sure I will have more posts on the topic of homework, but, with the start of a new year upon us, I wanted to focus on the practical part of homework.

Food For Thought:

  • How often do you give homework assignments?
  • Do you clearly  communicate to students the purpose of your homework assignments?
  • How do you handle/help students who rarely complete homework assignments?
  • Do you think creating some type of homework pass would work in your class?

Looking for ideas for homework assignments? Look on-line for resources and check out Teachers Pay Teachers(TPT) (which offers many great free resources and some you can purchase).

Here is the link to TPT:

Here is the link to some of my TPT materials:


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