Homework: punishment or reward?

More than 400 students at Weston High School are participating in the Relay for Life, a fund-raiser for the American Cancer Society. Everyone is justifiably enthusiastic about this, since it’s a community effort supporting an excellent cause.

But that’s not actually what this post is about. This post is about the decision to reward each member of the team that raises the most money by giving them “free homework passes.”

What a bad idea! At least, if homework is what it should be, then it’s a truly bad idea. As I explained to a couple of my students, no matter how they perceive homework, it’s not a punishment. Eliminating it isn’t a reward. In fact, eliminating it is actually a punishment. For example, as I pointed out, suppose I tell you that you can skip an assignment without penalty, and then there’s a question on tomorrow’s quiz that’s based on something you would have learned if you had done that assignment. You do poorly on the quiz, so the so-called reward turns out not to have been a reward at all.

Homework isn’t busy work, at least not when I assign it. If a problem is on the homework, that’s because you’ll learn something important by doing it, or at least you’ll be doing some necessary practice. Of course there’s the rare student who can do well on tests and quizzes without doing homework, but “rare” is the operative word here — and even that rare student almost always gets B’s when he could be getting A’s. (I say “he” advisedly, since it’s always a boy who thinks he can get away with this.)

Anything that sends a message that homework is a punishment is sending the wrong message — or else there’s something very wrong with the homework. If I don’t have something important to assign, then I’m not going to assign anything at all. No one should give homework just for the sake of giving homework. No one should give homework just to fill in that blank space in the assignment list.

Categories: Teaching & Learning, Weston