How Does Homework Help Students Work Independently As Well As With A Team

Let's say today's agenda is learning about microbes.

We know it's exciting, but settle down.

Now, single out all your introverts and put them on one side of the room at individual desks to do a worksheet about different bacteria. Circle up the desks for your extroverts and have them fill out the worksheet together.

Easy as that, right?

Um. If that's what the distinction between individual work and group work were like, it would be a lot easier to set up—and a lot harder to get any benefits from.

Some classes may benefit from a larger emphasis on one of these tactics or the other, but we're guessing some sort of blend is going to be the best bet in most cases. Chances are your students will need some skills both working in a team and solving problems independently—whether that's now in fourth grade or a decade or two down the line in the professional world. So figuring out how and when to use each of these strategies can end up a great tool for your classroom.

Whether you think of it as collaborating with us as you read along or silently and solely reading a dead assemblage of words, power on along.

Group Work

One is the loneliest number…but we're still going to talk group work first.

Group work can be a good idea when you want to get your students to think harder and dig deeper, and when some variety in skill levels and ways of thinking about things can be a benefit to all. Say a big math problem with lots of different steps; or a scene in Ulysses that could be interpreted in three or 300 different ways; or you're doing a unit on Ancient Egypt and you need your students to combine their knowledge of history with an ability to analyze and critique other civilizations. Things like that (and a million others) can be great places to institute some group work.

Let's throw out some bullet points. Group work can help hone your students' skills in

  • listening to and respecting others' ideas;
  • thinking about one problem in a variety of ways;
  • getting to a deeper level understanding through having to explain a perspective and discuss it with folks with different perspectives;
  • dividing up tasks and delegating responsibilities;
  • sharing knowledge and abilities to get a better hold on a problem than they could individually;
  • holding group members accountable—and being held accountable back.

Along with some of those and a whole bunch of other pros listed on Carnegie Mellon's page on group work, there's the possibility of assigning bigger, harder problems to work on, and an added element of unpredictability that can make for greater learning possibilities overall.

Sure, whatever the project may be, it'll have to be "designed, supervised, and assessed in a way that promotes meaningful teamwork and deep collaboration," as the Carnegie Mellon site says (source) . And all that can make for a fair amount more work for the teacher. But if you establish the exact goals of the project in advance, and have a sense of how your students should pursue it in a team, the benefits are worth it.

Individual work isn't just for those introverts out there. Sure, it is great for them to get a chance to think things through on their own, which is a comfier way to process new info for many introverts (which you can read a lot more about in this entire article about the needs of introverts and extroverts).

Still, it can be just as helpful for those who prefer group work to learn how to cope with the prospect of sitting still, keeping that noisy mouth shut, and puzzling out some answers without giving in to any and every distraction that comes along.

Individual work can help students

Individual Work

Individual work isn't just for those introverts out there. Sure, it is great for them to get a chance to think things through on their own, which is a comfier way to process new info for many introverts (which you can read a lot more about in this entire article about the needs of introverts and extroverts).

Still, it can be just as helpful for those who prefer group work to learn how to cope with the prospect of sitting still, keeping that noisy mouth shut, and puzzling out some answers without giving in to any and every distraction that comes along.

Individual work can help students

Individual work isn't just for those introverts out there. Sure, it is great for them to get a chance to think things through on their own, which is a comfier way to process new info for many introverts (which you can read a lot more about in this entire article about the needs of introverts and extroverts).

Still, it can be just as helpful for those who prefer group work to learn how to cope with the prospect of sitting still, keeping that noisy mouth shut, and puzzling out some answers without giving in to any and every distraction that comes along.

Individual work can help students

  • gain independence to think things through on their own;
  • improve confidence in working through a problem, even when they don't feel certain about every step;
  • work at their own level, rather than having to adapt to suit their group members;
  • practice self-control—both in staying focused on the task at hand, and in having the willpower to avoid turning to a neighbor or asking the teacher for the answer;
  • get more comfortable taking actions on their own;
  • gain creativity and effective thinking processes that can apply to problem solving across a range of subjects and types of issues;

Plus, it can be easier for the teacher to assess an individual's work—at least, easier in a traditional sense, if you have an idea of the "norm" for the type of work you're looking for. Sure, it can be tough to assess an individual's skills and motivation all while being aware of inevitable comparisons with others (as this psychology article on group and individual performance describes). But be aware of those issues, and you'll be fine.

As for when to use it, individual work can be a good filler for a chunk of time when there's a set of problems or a big, hovering question that it would behoove everyone to ponder on their own. Plus, it can be a good way to re-focus or re-center a class, or get everyone on the same page (or at least, on their own personal parts of the same-ish page) before diving into a bigger project or discussion.

The Balance

In individual work, some students—especially those extroverts we talked about—may feel a bit isolated. For some kids, when the lonely monster bites, it bites hard. Plus, if some students finish an activity before the rest, you should be prepared with an add-on task or two.

And when students are doing individual work on a topic they might feel more comfortable tackling in a group or with you guiding the way, make sure you don't help too much—try to ask some questions that will start them off in the right direction and give them a sense of additional resources.

As for group work, every teacher knows the headache of a classroom that gets too loud or the fury of checking on groups only to find they're off task. It's always a gamble, but if you come up with very specific guidelines and a time frame for accomplishing some concrete tasks, that'll be a big help in keeping those groups focused.

Finally, when it comes to deciding whether to make a certain activity individual- or group-based, don't just think of the two tactics as diametric opposites. Maybe have some individual "think time" before setting them up in groups. This can help each student clarify the problem to himself or herself, which can lead to more successful collaboration once they're tackling the problem together. Not sure how to do it? Check out this video from the Teaching Channel about how to make it happen.

In most classes, it'll make sense to divide up your time between group work and individual work. Sure, and there are also those times when you'll need to talk for a while, or an all-class discussion will be in order. There are lots of iterations of individual-pair-group-teacher only-student only-everyone together, and so on, that you can use to fill your day. And for the most part, shaking it up keeps things interesting—and effective—for the students and for the teacher.

Claudia Vulliamy, Year 9 pupil

When I was younger, as soon I was old enough to hold a paintbrush, I used to do pictures every day. I used to lose myself in a sketch and explore different painting techniques. It's just what I did. I've recently come to realise that I now hardly ever paint unless I'm in an art lesson. Nor do I do much reading, baking or any of the other things I used to enjoy. There's just too much homework.

Studies show that there is little or no correlation between whether children and younger teens do homework (or how much they do) and a meaningful measure of achievement. In the words of one US education expert: "Most small children and early adolescents have not yet developed the self-reflection and self-monitoring skills to get the benefit of either homework or self study." Isn't it time we questioned why hours and hours of a young person's week is taken up by something few enjoy and which, it seems, doesn't even enhance their education?

Professor Susan Hallam, of the Institute of Education, University of London, investigated all studies on homework for the past 75 years and came to a conclusion that homework accounts for less than 4 per cent of the differences in teen students' scores. Professor Hallam found that while homework can enhance examination results (a tiny bit), its impact is relatively small compared with students' prior knowledge in a particular subject.

Professor Hallam also points out that homework can lead to family friction, especially when families are pressuring children to succeed. Children or teenagers can be badly mentally affected by extreme pressure put on them, which adults are sometimes unaware of and is counterproductive as well as horrible for the student.

If it seems that the idea of abolishing homework belongs in some trendy, hippie school, the head teacher of Tiffin School, one of the top grammar schools in the country, would disagree. He has reduced homework to a maximum of 40 minutes per night – and says he wishes he could get rid of it altogether. I wish my London comprehensive school would do the same.

Homework causes anxiety and stress, it leaves the student very little time to spend with family and other things (Tiffin students are encouraged to use their extra time to watch documentaries or do sport or music). It can sometimes make students actively less enthusiastic about learning because it is being forced upon them and it closes students' minds and timetables in such ways that make them less creative.

People say that young people should not take their youth for granted and should seize the advantages of a youthful mind while they have one. Homework limits a young person's ability to do this.

Children are more creative than adults. Many people dislike how the creativity of childhood fades away with age, so children's ideas and activities should be encouraged. Perhaps if they are, then adults in the future will be more open-minded and more likely to follow their own ideas and ambitions in life. Learning is not just about exam results.

Homework gives children with stable homes and plenty of support an unfair advantage. In school hours, pupils have the same opportunities and circumstances. But setting homework is asking a student to complete a task, whatever conditions they live in, whatever the attitude of their family and how much help they they can expect to get, or their economic situation. An alternative to setting homework would be setting the work to be done independently at school, where everyone is in the same environment. Homework can cause a child to work for extremely long time in a day, in addition to their time at school. A labour rights movement in 1833 caused a law to be passed that children aged 9 to 13 could not work more than eight hours a day. Of course, students work for education and not to be paid, but a student's school day with several pieces of homework can add up to at least eight hours of work.

It can be argued that homework increases a student's ability to work independently, but there is just as much of a chance that a student will complete a piece of work without help at school as there is at home.

"Teachers and schools should make a judgement about whether it's important in relation to the learning needs of particular groups of students," Professor Susan Hallam says.

Professor Dylan Wiliam, deputy director of the Institute of Education, says: "Getting pupils to do homework is an incredibly expensive and generally unproductive public relations exercise. Schools push homework because they think parents like it, but most schools don't plan homework well enough for it to be worth doing. This is not to say that homework cannot be good, just that most of it currently isn't."

The little proven positive impact homework has on someone's life is outweighed by the negative impact and has a lot less meaning in a student's education that many people may think. I would like to see a world where children and adolescents are happy and appreciate the precious period of youth. People say that youth is wasted on the young. I think young people are wasted on homework.

Kieran Larkin, principal of ARK Kings Academy, Birmingham

The argument about whether homework is worthwhile has raged since I was at school. It's true that homework given without a clear purpose can be confusing and sometimes demotivating for students. I remember one of my own children in Year 3 being given a piece of homework which was "write a story". His first reaction was to ask my wife and I what he should write about.

Of course, we wanted him to come up with something and despite several attempts to link it back to what he had been doing in class he (and we!) remained unsure whether that was what the teacher wanted. He duly spent a good chunk of a Sunday afternoon doing it and handed it in.

Being interested in whether he (or we!) had done it right we asked a few days later how it had been received. It turned out the teacher had not commented on it and it was never marked, so none of us were any the wiser and my son's faith in the utility of homework slipped down several notches.

That's not to say, however, that homework does not have a place or a purpose, but if it is given it needs to be done with purpose and teachers need to make clear to the students what that purpose is. This is never going to be a popular topic with students and so teachers need to be clear why it is issued and why it is important.

So what can homework achieve that can't be achieved in the classroom? First, it's important to create an independent work ethic. Success at and beyond school requires students to get used to problem solving and persevering with extended pieces of work without support from their teachers. There is a huge difference between solving an equation, doing a translation or writing or deconstructing a piece of prose in a lesson after you have just discussed it, and doing it alone in the library or your room a day or a week later using your own knowledge and skills.

Homework is a way to learn practical research skills: using the library, devising questionnaires or interviews and conducting online searches. (Not just accepting the first Google hit as a universal truth.) Whether students intend to study beyond school or not these are essential – and enriching – skills for later life.

Third, homework provides challenge. Having to solve a problem to bring to the next lesson enables students to demonstrate understanding and teachers to assess its depth or identify any gaps. It also provides time to practise. Homework provides time to embed the things that are useful to learn by rote, such as timestables, vocabulary, spelling, irregular verbs and handwriting.

Lastly, well thought-through homework provides uninterrupted time for a student to make sense of their own understanding at their own pace.

So what should schools and students do to make it worthwhile? It's not about the length of time spent on it. It's about using the time spent on it for a reason.

Ensure variety. If you want to maintain interest in your subject it needs to be engaging in the first place. Avoid homework that is "finishing off class work" – that rather implies it should have been better managed in the class by the teacher. The teacher should indicate the length, content and presentational style required – so that students know how it will be assessed. Collect homework in on time and use it as part of the lesson or as soon as possible, so that you value its completion and demonstrate its importance.

Schools should communicate a clear timetable to staff, students and parents and stick to it so students are not overly burdened on any particular day. Staff forgetting its homework is disruptive and a bad example to students. Issue homework planners and post them on the web so that parents can see them.

Ensure that the school has a consistent response to logging the completion of homework and any sanctions for not completing it. At ARK Kings Academy it is a part of the home-school agreement that students, parents and I, as principal, sign at the start of the year.

When setting homework, the teacher should create time in the lesson to record it and clarify what needs to be done. A hurriedly set assignment at the end of the lesson is more likely to be undone or done badly.

Lastly – always show that you value the work you are asking students to do. Collect it at the agreed time, mark it quickly and thoroughly. Use the work to provide feedback to the student and the class what has been done well. Shape the next lesson to plug gaps, address any misconceptions or extend the standard/ challenge of the work for students.

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