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Posted at 12:50 PM ET, 10/ 6/2009

Homework Assignments--The Useful and The Ridiculous

By Valerie Strauss

The Answer Sheet asked a panel of students to talk about homework--what makes a good assignment and what makes a useless one. See their responses below.

The Sheet remembers numerous homework assignments in both the excellent and ridiculous categories.

One that elicits fond memories was given at Everglades Elementary School in Miami, when we were required to create our own book covers, complete with drawing on the cover and an original summary on the front and back flap. The good news was that we were allowed to trace artwork on the cover, as we were not being graded on artistic skill but rather on how well we understood the book and could explain it. I still have my book cover of “War of the Worlds” by H.G. Wells. A fine piece of work it was.

The worst assignment--the one that gave me the most trouble for no apparent reason--was given in 9th grade Geometry at West Miami Junior High School. We were required to make a mobile of geometric shapes. Having extremely little artistic skill or any understanding of geometry, I was rather inept at shaping construction paper into triangles and rectangles. My rhombus was pathetic. I earned a "C." I still don’t get that assignment but it counted as much as a test grade.

Teachers: Please explain how you design homework assignments. Parents: Tell us about the best/worst assignments your children--or you--received.


Gabrielle Bluestone
Junior, George Washington University
Attended Horace Mann School in New York

The best homework assignment I can remember was a project on music that corresponded with a civil rights class. Using different time periods (slavery corresponded with Robert Johnson, the civil rights movement with the song "A Change Is Gonna Come"), we analyzed current music for gospel and blues influences and wrote about how they developed from specific points in history. It was pretty much the only time I’ve seen an entire high school class excited about a project.
Lousy homework assignments are uninspired ones -- the ones that get assigned only to prove that the student completed the reading or opened the textbook.


Nikki Kaul
Junior, McLean High School
McLean, Va.

The most useless homework assignment I’ve ever had was where I had to write about the history of a cultural festival, and when the day came to turn in the assignment, the teacher didn’t even touch upon that subject. The teacher went straight into another subject that was completely irrelevant to what was in the curriculum and had nothing to do with what would be relevant to the final exam, the tests, quizzes, and midterm.

The best homework assignment I’ve ever had was for my math class, where the homework assignment covered literally everything that was on a huge test. I learned more than I had expected to because of all the critical thinking that the homework required.

What I feel makes a homework assignment good is if it is relevant, challenges the student doing it, and is not too time-consuming. A bad homework assignment is one that has absolutely no relevance to what is being taught or anything that is learned or part of the curriculum.

If it is meaningless AND time-consuming, then it is quite possibly the worst of the worst in terms of homework assignments.


Naveed Siddiqui
Senior, Eleanor Roosevelt High School
Greenbelt, Md.

The most useless homework is always those study questions that we get after we read a text in a class. The questions are always something along the lines of "What is the main idea of the passage?" I’m not going to be able to answer this type of question right away.

And even if I were able to, the answer would not stick with me unless I knew why it was the answer. I get the most out of these passages and essays by discussing them in class.

The best homework assignment I received was late last school year in English.

After a long year in which we all worked hard and definitely improved our reading and writing skills, my teacher simply told us to write a journal entry in which we tell her something. Anything (well, anything school appropriate).

I wrote about how my family moved from Pakistan to the United States when I was very young. This assignment gave me the opportunity to use my refined writing skills and also allowed me to reflect on my life.

A good homework assignment is one where you and the classmate sitting next to you do not necessarily have the same answer. It allows you to be creative in the way you put to use what you learn in class.

Bad homework assignments are those tedious, monotonous pieces of work that you get each time you finish a section of lessons in class. They are a series of repetitions that are supposed to polish your skills in a particular subject, but do not effectively do this.


Emily Gordon
8th grade, Westland Middle School
Bethesda, Md.

I think that the most useless homework assignment was last year when I got homework on a lesson that I learned a week earlier, and when I had learned something completely different that day.

The best homework assignment I ever had was when last year when I had to write a persuasive essay on the Japanese Internment [during World War II], and whether it was for America’s own good or not. It was fun. Even though I had to read various parts of the Constitution, and had to read many different articles and readings on people debating the same topic, it was still fun.


Hojung Lee
Senior, Mt. Hebron High School
Ellicott City, Md.

The best homework I had was not something that made me learn something unexpected.

Homework should be something expected that will have problems and challenging ideas that will hone the skills we acquired that day of the lesson or before and shouldn’t go further than that.

I generally like my Calculus homework because my teacher gives problems that we learned from a long time ago along with newly learned ones but never something we will learn or totally unexpected. Especially when it comes to math, many students give up tackling "difficult or unexpected" problems.


Sarah Scire
Senior, George Washington University
Attended Salem High School in New Hampshire

A great homework assignment from high school was given in a Comprehensive American Studies and Literature course taught by two completely opposite personalities (one had a fetish for legendarily difficult pop quizzes and the other enjoyed taking us on walks in the woods to ponder transcendentalism).

We were asked to illustrate a quote from Thoreau on a poster for the course and write a paper on the quote, and what it meant to us. The posters were displayed in the classroom and the papers shared with the class. The assignment was great because our work was appreciated and displayed and my classmates chose a variety of quotes, with even those picking the same one interpreting them in wildly different ways.

The worst homework assignment was all of the ones given in Statistics. The teacher assigned almost every problem of every chapter (making for horribly repetitive and time-consuming work). If we got through the lesson plan for the day, it would always be “okay, start your homework for chapters three, four and five!”

Feeling like you were doing work simply for the sake of doing work ... was the worst part of the assignment—and high school.


Emily Cahn
Junior, George Washington University
Attended Columbia High School in Maplewood, N.J.

I have two memorable homework assignments, both for good reasons.

When I was in 5th grade, we were assigned a project to come up with a plan to spend $1 million. "The Million Dollar Project," as it was called, was supposed to teach us the value of money. We had to spend every last cent of the million, however we could spend it any way we liked. The assignment was a fun and easy way to learn the value of money and to see what $1 million could really buy.

Last year, I took a class called U.S. Political Participation during the fall semester. Thus, the presidential election was taking place over the course of the semester. We were given a project to predict the final Electoral College result. We had to analyze polling data and research past voting records of each state. We then had to determine the main issue voters would base their decision off of, and look at that in historical context to see whether those issues lead to the election of a Democrat or Republican. It was also an engaging assignment that forced me to pay more attention to election coverage. 

Overall, assignments that allow me to be hands-on usually turn out to be my favorite. I am a believer in learning by doing, which is probably a large reason why I am so involved in the college newspaper at GW. Talking about journalism theory can only go so far, but actually getting my hands dirty by reporting has allowed me to learn on my own by trial and error. 

By Valerie Strauss  | October 6, 2009; 12:50 PM ET
Categories:  Homework  | Tags:  homework  
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Matthew Gill
Teacher, Lahaina Intermediate School
8th Grade US History Pre-Colonialization through Reconstruction

The kind of assignments that I give my students are "thought" assignments. Students are forced to reflect on our discussion/topic from that day, and then answer a question which requires them to think like a member of that era did.

An example, while studying the roots of Christianity (an important tool to understand the Founding Fathers), students had to write a letter to another Roman. The letter had to demonstrate their knowledge of the religion, the way its practitioners were treated pre-Constantine, and then choose a response based around three possible convictions that the Romans had (blame them for the end of the Pax Romana, view them neutrally, consider joining). This assignment gave me an idea of who understood the material we had covered, versus those who did not.

The kind of assignments I do NOT give, and loathe giving, are simply reading assignments with section review questions at the end. If I am to cover the same material, why should a student have to read it? I am able to battle boredom in my class because my students are being presented with new material every time. Were that not the case, my students could zone out and still legitimately pass based off of their reading comprehension.

This is not to say, of course, that I do not assign readings. This just reflects my disdain for the textbook approach to teaching history. History is vibrant and important, and should be taught as such.

Posted by: NattyDelite | October 6, 2009 10:15 PM | Report abuse

My child is in 4th grade and I find homework to be either constructive or busywork. It depends on the teacher.

I view homework as practice of what was taught in school. It shouldn't be something I should be introducing my child to (its OK if he didn't get what was done in class but I find work coming home that he never was exposed to).

Writing projects have become very creative - which is fine but the kids need to be able to work on them independently. If they are being asked to produce a board game, time line, story quilt, travel brochure or book jacket that needs to be taught at school. Preferably a sample should be made by the kids at school so they at least know what they are doing and can focus on the content when they work on their projects at home, independently.

Parents end up getting overly involved in projects not only because of the content but because they are inappropriate in their explanation.

Weekly homework like reading or practicing music that involves logs and signatures promotes unethical behavior. Some kids need this structure but how many parents lie on these? Do you really think a music teacher is going to believe your kid practiced 7 days for a half hour and still sounds awful (since they only spent about 5 minutes twice)?

It's all about keeping it real.

Also management of daily homework, weekly, bi-weekly and monthly assignments can be a bit overwhelming for elementary students. Parents having to play project manager and nagger to get work done also does kids a huge disservice.

Projects and homework shouldn't be discussions among parents. Parents should stay out of the backpack as much as possible. Unfortunately this is next to impossible.

I finally understand why education is failing our children overall - it's not that a longer school day is needed - if a kid doesn't have a parent who can put in the time and effort with the afterschool then they are out of luck.

After a month of school, I'm convinced that my child, who can read above grade level and is advanced in math, would fail 4th grade if I wasn't around to help him coordinate homework and project due dates. There's something really wrong with this picture. And it's the homework.

Posted by: fidiwitz | October 7, 2009 11:30 AM | Report abuse

I remember two teacher who gave ridiculous homework assignments. Our biology teacher got mad because only one student got an A on a test. (The teacher claimed he was the only one who studied; the class insisted he never announced any test and that student always got an A.) So for homework the rest of the week we had to copy out a chapter in longhand.

I also had a math teacher who worked a few problems on the board and assigned the even-numbered problems in the text. The next day he graded them, asked if there were any questions (there never were, since he always answered them with the exact explanation he had given the first time or sarcastically asked us where our minds were the day before), and then assigned the odd-numbered questions. The following day, he graded those problems and started the procedure over again with the next chapter. It never varied; I was once sick all week and went back to work with my homework ready to hand in. After all, since I didn't understand it in class, it hardly mattered that I was missing the lecture!

Years later, after I ducked all the math classes I could in college, a high-school classmate revealed her suspicion that he followed this routine because he didn't understand the work any better than we did. (To be fair, these were the years of the "new math," and I don't think anyone in the country understood the texts!)

Posted by: opinionatedreader | October 13, 2009 10:30 PM | Report abuse

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