Before the internet, it took work to avoid school work. If you didn’t want to read the assigned book for your homework, you had to buy a CliffsNotes book. You had to do the reading anyway if CliffsNotes didn’t cover the assigned text. If you had a report to write, you hand copied the material from an encyclopedia. That also meant a trip to the library if you didn’t own an encyclopedia.

It would be a good idea for teachers to take a look around on the internet for homework resources. On some websites you can post your homework assignment, pay a fee, and people will do it for you. Do you have to read a poem? You can find an analysis of the poem line by line. Do you need to read a long book? Look on the web for chapter summaries and commentaries. You can paraphrase these and turn them in.

During a writer’s workshop, grammar and spelling errors become teachable moments.

Teachers fight back with websites that check for plagiarism. But this leads to the escalation we have seen with weapons. One group of people has rocks. Their enemies develop arrows. They then create a catapult. The enemies invent the rifle, and onto today’s weapons of mass destruction. Students can beat the plagiarism websites by paying people to write their papers and even their dissertations.

We need to rethink how we are doing things and bring our assignments into the 21st century.

Why Do We Make Homework Assignments?

What is the point of writing a paper? For some, it is to prove that the student did a certain amount of work. But this is a poor reason to assign a term paper. A better reason is for students to make analyses and to express their ideas in written language. But if they are paying a Ph.D.-level adjunct professor who is ghost writing to make a living, then they are not learning to critically evaluate whatever they are studying.

Why do we have students read? Again, the poor answer is to create a false sense of academic rigor. The best answer is so that students can learn how to learn through reading. We want students to appreciate language and to imagine what else an author could have written. We want them to think about why the author made certain choices.

Homework for Today’s Students

Is it any wonder that students want to work the least amount? Their lives are full with after school activities. Grades can be high stakes for their futures. If there is a push to teach to the test, then school-based activities may not be engaging. Too often, school has become an economic proposition: I do the homework activities you set out and you pay me with a good grade.

Fortunately, there are ways to create effective assignments. Here are some ideas.

1. Flip Your Classroom

The idea behind the flipped classroom is that students watch the equivalent of a lecture and perhaps read some informational text prior to class. Using technology, you can support struggling readers by providing mp3 files of the text as well as the printed version. Class activities revolve around what used to be assigned as homework. They are the activities in which students have to apply the information they are learning.

When students do application activities in the classroom, you can be there to help them so they don’t get frustrated. You can provide them with the kind of support you want them to have. The “I do, we do, you do” Vygotsky-based approach in the classroom is a far better learning experience than the “you try and get frustrated” of traditional homework or the “you don’t do” of the internet.

2. Bring in Their Experiences

One way to bring their experiences in is to use the i-search paper instead of traditional term or research papers. Developed by Ken Macrorie, the i-search allows students to recount the story of their quest for knowledge.

In an i-search, students describe the different resources they used to answer a question they had. They might use the internet, but they can also be encouraged to seek out experts and interview them. I-search writing can be very sophisticated. Some articles in the New Yorker portray the author’s experiences in finding out about something. These personal narratives, interwoven with the writer’s findings, are compelling to read.

Another way to bring in students’ experiences and opinions is to provide them with a set of information. Then ask high-level questions (Bloom’s Taxonomy) that encourage engagement with ideas along with the application of those ideas to students’ own experiences. For example, students in a psychology class exploring theories about motivation can be asked to think of times that they were motivated and unmotivated. They can use the theories to analyze their own  lives which can lead them into insight about their own learning.

Give students opportunities to collect and analyze their own data. For instance, students in a teacher education program were asked to assess what a group of children know about something, teach them a lesson on it, and assess them afterwards. The assignment is called, “What Difference Does Instruction Make?” Support for this assignment includes a possible outline of the paper (not required to follow) with questions students could write about in each section. The vast majority of students are able to write strong papers as a result of this experience. It also helps them to reflect on their own teaching.

3. Use Reading and Writing Workshop

The traditional way students write papers is by themselves, as homework. For a strong writer, this is not a problem. Students who struggle, however, are likely to start Googling alternatives to writing their papers. The strugglers are the ones who need the most practice in analysis and writing.

We also tend to provide feedback on papers long after students feel the papers are finished. If a student spends a couple of evenings writing a paper, by the time that paper is printed out and handed in, the student feels the paper is finished. No matter how many red marks show up on the paper after the teacher gets it, the student is poorly motivated to address problems.

When teachers are part of the writing process, by having the writing happen during class time, they can intervene and students will welcome their help. Teachers can help students select a good approach to their papers. When students experience writer’s block, the teacher can help them get unstuck. During a writer’s workshop, grammar and spelling errors become teachable moments.

The same is true for reading. When students read during class time, they can get instant help when they need it and they are not distracted by their ubiquitous electronic devices.

Authentic Teaching and Learning

Somewhere along the way, with the help of standardized tests, it became acceptable to present students with meaningless tasks. Information “learned” from these tasks showed up on tests and then students promptly forgot. This is called the “bulimic” model of education: binge learning followed by regurgitation on tests.

When we bring students’ experiences and opinions into their work and we give them the support they need, they will truly learn. That learning process is powerful for both students and their teachers.



  1. I-search
  2. A Sophisticated Version of the I-search
  3. Reading Workshop
  4. Writing Workshop


Feature image courtesy of Flickr, Marco Nedermeijer.

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