Homework is typically the bane of students and the Achilles heel of teachers.
On the one hand, regular practice outside of the classroom can help students retain information and reinforce learning. On the other, it’s also difficult to motivate students to do the work without coercion or consequences.
While the debate over the efficacy of homework continues to rage on, one thing remains clear: there will always be students who seemingly refuse to submit their homework. So how in the WORLD do we get these kids to just DO IT?
If you’re struggling to get students to submit work on a regular basis, there may be a problem in your systems that, once fixed, can increase not only the likelihood of your students submitting but also increase their academic success. Here are four common mistakes that teachers make about submitting homework, and what you can do instead.
Mistake #1: Not understanding the real reason why students don’t submit homework
Before we delve into tactics, it’s important to understand WHY students won’t submit their work. We often chalk it up to laziness, forgetfulness, not paying attention in class or just poor time management. While these can definitely contribute to the problem, the issue often lies much deeper than that.
First, fear of failure or overall confusion plagues many of our students. They don’t understand the assignment or concept and lack the motivation or resources to get help. A lot of times, they don’t speak up in class and ask questions for these same reasons, so they’re less likely to practice something that they’re confused about.
Also, many of our students are perfectionists and won’t submit work if it’s “not right.” As illogical as it sounds, if they didn’t have time to complete the assignment, they’d rather take the zero and not submit rather than give you incomplete work. Or if it’s not up to their unreasonably high standards, they won’t turn it in.
Additionally, general overwhelm and mental health issues such as anxiety and depression definitely play a role for many of our students. Not all parents have been able to address these concerns in their children, and some may be inadvertently exacerbating the symptoms with their own high expectations. If a student simply can’t handle even looking let alone starting your assignment, you definitely won’t get any work from them.
Finally, students may just not want to do your assignment because they don’t see the point. As harsh as it sounds, students know when they’re given “busy work.” To them, meaningless packets with 100 of the same problem are not only demoralizing but also a waste of time. So some students may just choose to not do it at all or they may start and eventually give up.
Mistake #2: Not setting and maintaining expectations
At the beginning of the school year, we’re VERY good about training our students on what our work submission processes are. You may even have a syllabus with these expectations spelled out, assuming that our students and their parents read it.
Most of us have a routine set, which works for the majority of the kids. But there are always a few that seem to slip through the cracks due to reasons in the first mistake. Maybe they have an IEP and need more intentional organization. Maybe they fell asleep in class and didn’t hear you give the deadline. Or perhaps they were in the bathroom when you announced it. Either way, we can preach responsibility and accountability all we want, but if they’re just incapable of doing it on their own, we can decide to help them or let them fall and “learn their lesson.”
If we’re unwilling to consistently help these students that struggle with deadlines, then honestly, we have to share the blame. They’re still developing good habits, and what we try to reinforce only goes so far if it’s not reinforced at home. While it’s not our job to parent our students, we can still help with teaching and modeling what the expectations are and give grace when students stumble.
Basically, if it’s that important to you that they submit an assignment on time, then don’t assume that all of the students know what to do or how to meet those deadlines.
Mistake #3: Utilizing a one-size-fits-all approach to submission
As mentioned in the previous two mistakes, there are a lot of reasons why students aren’t submitting their homework. In terms of solving that problem in your class, you have two options: 1) Being frustrated but still letting them suffer the consequences, or 2) working with the students that struggle the most.
It may seem unfair to make special accommodations or arrangements for certain students, but that’s like saying it’s unfair that, at 5’1”, I need a stool to reach the top shelf while you may be able to easily stick your hand up there.
Does it REALLY matter if we both get what we need from that shelf?
Some students may need extra time or personal invitations to submit something. You might even have to modify the assignment for them just so that you have some form of work from which to assess. This can be annoying and time-consuming since you have so many other students to worry about.
But if it really bothers you that Jason doesn’t ever turn in his work, and asking or reminding him each time actually results in him turning in something, then ask yourself if it’s worth it.
If eight students regularly fail to turn in their homework, investigate what’s holding them up and what you can do to encourage them. Maybe they need an accountability partner. Perhaps you could show and remind them how to set a notification on their phone or device. You could encourage them to use a paper planner to stay more organized.
These definitely take more effort, and sometimes the lack of rewards makes it unsatisfying. But often, a student just doesn’t know how to advocate for themselves, and you being persistent can lay the foundation for them to be successful in other classes and in the future.
Mistake #4: Not involving parents and other adults
Along with the previous mistake, sometimes we forget that we can also deploy the troops, i.e., our students’ parents/guardians. While at times we feel at odds with some parents since they have such a negative perception of teachers and the education system in general, many are willing to do their part if we are explicit about how they can help.
It can be scary to send out notices to parents because they sometimes reply with an angry response or something completely unrelated. There have definitely been times when I wished that I hadn’t sent an email at all because I was inundated with responses.
But in the case of having students turn in their assignments on time, it just might be worth it. Students don’t necessarily talk to their parents about their work, and if they are experiencing one of the aforementioned reasons why they won’t do work, they’re certainly not going to divulge. So just a simple email with a calendar of deadlines or just a reminder of an upcoming due date would greatly increase the rate of homework submission.
For larger assignments, I’ve also explained what is due to parents so that they can help their student double-check that they completed everything. You’d be surprised how many parents want to sit down and help their student, but they don’t understand what’s expected. It does take a bit of time to do this, but with new tools like ChatGPT, you can craft these messages in a matter of seconds.
If you’re using an online grading system, they often have the capability for parents to see your grade book and online calendar. If you have this, then taking the time to train parents with a screencast video that you send out will also help them stay on top of their student’s progress.
What this means for your policies
It might be a bit of a philosophical shift to avoid these mistakes. After all, real change doesn’t happen instantly, especially if you want it to stick. During a time when we’re all trying to master work-life balance, it can seem preposterous to take on what seems like more work.
But what’s the cost – both to yourself and your students — if you DON’T do something different?
Left to their own devices, students will try to stay under your radar so that they don’t have to do any work, but we both know what the long-term consequences of that are. If they don’t turn in their homework or assignments in general, you can’t assess them, which means they can’t get feedback, which in turn means you have to hope that they’re gleaning SOMETHING from your lectures and class discussions. How will you know if they’re improving in your class if they won’t submit their work?
And you’ll continue to be frustrated about your low homework submission rate (if you weren’t frustrated, you wouldn’t have made it this far). Over time, that can leave a bad taste in your mouth and overall disdain for students that seem “lazy and useless.” Morphing into that kind of cynical teacher is not something anyone wants, so ask yourself — is it worth putting in the effort?
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