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Homework Practices that Support Students with Disabilities
Research Connections
Spring 2001

What Have We Learned About Homework and Students with Disabilities

Preferred Homework Adaptations

  • Provide additional one-on-one assistance to students.
  • Monitor students' homework more closely.
  • Allow alternative response formats (e.g., audiotaping rather than writing an assignment).
  • Adjust the length of the assignment.
  • Provide a peer tutor or assign the student to a study group.
  • Provide learning tools (e.g., calculators).
  • Adjust evaluation standards.
  • Give fewer assignments.

Tips For Assigning Homework

  • Make sure the students can complete the homework assignment.
  • Write the assignment on the chalkboard.
  • Explain the assignment clearly.
  • Remind students of due dates periodically.
  • Assign homework in small units.
  • Coordinate with other teachers to prevent homework overload.
  • Make sure students and parents have information regarding your policy on missed and late assignments, extra credit, and available adaptations. Establish a set routine at the beginning of the year.

"Ask students to indicate how long it took them to complete a homework assignment. The student who takes much longer than expected may not know how to do it, may have difficulties with attention, or may have to cope with distractions."

Tanis Bryan, Researcher

Today, partly as a result of educational reform, many students are receiving increased amounts of homework. For students with disabilities, homework may pose significant challenges. Some of these problems are related to a student's ability to maintain attention, sustain acceptable levels of motivation, demonstrate effective study skills, and manifest positive attitudes toward homework. Others are related to factors such as how homework is assigned and the quality of communication between home and school about homework.

For over a decade, OSEP has supported researchers in studying effective homework practices, and in return, researchers have produced findings to help students participate and progress in the general education curriculum. This section features the work of several researchers who are advancing our understanding of how practitioners and families can ensure that homework is effective.

Solving Homework Communication Problems

William Bursuck, researcher at Northern Illinois University, has been studying how practitioners and families can make homework a more successful experience for students with disabilities. One thing is clear-parent involvement is critical if homework is to be beneficial.

With his colleagues, Michael Epstein, Edward Polloway, Madhavi Jayanthi, and others, Bursuck has amassed a series of publications, many of which are outgrowths of OSEP-funded research projects, that provide insight into the perceptions of teachers, families, and students. "Teachers and parents of students with disabilities must communicate clearly and effectively with one another and with students about homework policies, required practices, mutual expectations, student performance on homework, homework completion difficulties, and other homework-related concerns," Bursuck points out. "Unfortunately, too often, communication is either unclear or not present." With his colleagues, Bursuck conducted a series of studies to identify problems parents and schools were experiencing in communicating about homework, as well as recommendations for ameliorating these problems. Focus group interviews with parents and both general and special education teachers revealed problems in the following areas: initiation of communication, timeliness of communication, frequency and consistency of communication, follow-through, and clarity and usefulness of the information.

Teachers encountered the following problems:

  • Insufficient time and opportunity to communicate.
  • Too many students on a given teacher's caseload.
  • Need for additional knowledge to facilitate communication (e.g., students' needs, whom to contact).
  • Other factors that hindered communication, such as lack of phones in teachers' classrooms.

Recommendations for improvement grew out of the discussions. "To test for validity, we checked out all of the recommendations with large survey samples," Bursuck reported. Teachers identified useful adaptations for students with disabilities [see sidebar]. They also suggested strategies for ensuring that homework was clear and appropriate [see sidebar for tips on assigning homework].

In addition, the surveys indicated that teachers preferred the following strategies to maintain effective communication:

  • Use technology to aid communication (e.g., use answering machines or e-mail, and establish homework hotlines).
  • Encourage students to keep assignment books.
  • Provide a list of suggestions on how parents might assist with homework. For example, ask parents to check with their children about homework daily.
  • Provide parents with frequent communication about homework.
  • Use written modes of communication (e.g., progress reports, notes, letters, forms).
  • Encourage the school administration to provide incentives for teachers to participate in face-to-face meetings (e.g., release time, compensation).
  • Suggest that the school district offer after school and/or peer tutoring sessions to give students extra help with homework.
  • Share information with other teachers regarding student strengths and needs and necessary accommodations.

If students, teachers, and parents do not find homework strategies palatable, they may not use them. "The ultimate impact of these homework practices on students may depend largely on how favorably teachers, parents, and the students themselves perceive them," Bursuck adds. "Our research underscores the need to check out practices with all stakeholders. Simply put, practices that are not acceptable will not be used."

Planner Increases Homework Completion and Communication

"Homework accounts for one-fifth of the time that successful students are engaged in academic tasks," Tanis Bryan, Arizona State University researcher, states. "Yet students complete homework in environments over which teachers have no control-which, given the fact that many students experience learning difficulties, creates a major dilemma." With OSEP support, Bryan and her colleague, fellow researcher Karen Sullivan-Burstein, began investigating how teachers, parents, and students might improve study skills, and ultimately, homework completion.

"Both general and special education teachers consistently reported that homework problems seemed to be exacerbated by deficient basic study skills," Sullivan-Burstein explains. "We found that many students, particularly students with disabilities, needed instruction in study and organizational skills." Among those organizational skills most basic to homework were:

  • Identifying a location for doing homework that was free of distractions.
  • Having materials available and organized.
  • Allocating enough time to complete activities and keeping on schedule.
  • Taking good notes.
  • Developing a sequential plan for completing multi-task assignments.
  • Checking assignments for accuracy and completion.
  • Knowing how to get help.
  • Turning in completed homework on time.

Bryan and Sullivan-Burstein found it effective for teachers to provide classroom instruction on the organizational skills and then talk with parents about how best to support the application of skills at home. [Note: For information on Bryan and Sullivan-Burstein's study skills curriculum program, contact Planning for Success at ksulli@asu.edu.]

Bryan and Sullivan-Burstein also found that students with disabilities often needed additional organizational support. One of the strategies the researchers found to be effective in increasing students' completion and return of homework was use of a planning calendar. "As adults, we use calendars and schedulers, lists, and other devices to self-monitor our activities," Bryan said. "Students can benefit from learning how to use these tools as well."

To help students with disabilities address the self-monitoring requirements of homework, Bryan and Sullivan-Burstein developed a planning calendar and taught students how to use it to keep track of homework assignments. Sullivan-Burstein added, "These planners evolved into a communication tool with parents. We included a place for parents to sign that their child's homework had been completed, and we also left a space where both the teacher and parent could write messages." In conjunction with the homework planner, students graphed their homework return and completion rates-another strategy that was linked to homework completion and improved performance on classroom assessments.

Both Bryan and Sullivan-Burstein believe that for any of these strategies to work, the homework assignment must be appropriate and meaningful. They concur that if the homework assignment is too hard, is perceived as busy work, or takes too long to complete, there is a risk of students tuning out and resisting it. And, they add, "Always reward homework completion!"

Increasing Homework Completion— Success Story

What do you do when students do not return their homework? Verl Curtiss, who teaches fourth grade in the Paradise Valley Unified School District, AZ, found that a variation of Bryan and Sullivan-Burstein's homework planner was the solution. "My classroom was one of the implementation sites for the research project, so I already knew the power of the homework planner," Curtiss asserts. "When I transferred to my new school where there was little parent involvement, I decided to see if the homework planner might increase family communication around homework and result in improved completion rates."

Curtiss had students develop their own homework calendars. Each page in the calendar reflected one week. There was a space for students to write their homework assignments and a column for parent-teacher notes. "The cover was a heavy card stock that children decorated," Curtiss describes. "Some students came up with homework tips that they added throughout the planner." Students were expected to take their homework planners home each day and return them the next day to class.

"I had to build a reward system for returning homework and the planners," Curtiss explains. On a self-monitoring chart in their planner students recorded their homework completion status each day. They would

  • Color the square for the day green if homework was completed and returned.
  • Color the square for the day red if homework was not done.
  • Color one-half of the square yellow and one-half of the square red if homework was late.

If students met the success criterion, they received a reward at the end of the week, such as 15 extra minutes of recess.

Curtiss stresses that it is important to monitor students, especially younger ones, to let them know that homework is valued and counts. "In the majority of cases, the weekly reward worked well; however, I had to increase the frequency of rewards for students with behavioral disabilities," Curtiss said. Students kept track of the points they earned in their planners. "The planners became important to parents and the student— became portfolios of the students' accomplishments."

Curtiss cautions that the success of the homework planner depends on reasonable homework assignments. "Never send any homework home that students cannot do. All homework must be an extension of what they have learned in class. And, make sure that if you need to modify a homework assignment, you do so before sending it home."

Cooperative Homework

Researcher Michael Rosenberg looked at the efficacy of blending cooperative learning teams with individualized homework assignments. With his colleague, Mary O'Melia, who is a principal at a residential treatment center, Rosenberg investigated the effects of homework in conjunction with cooperative learning on early adolescents with mild disabilities.

The researchers chose to follow Robert Slavin's Team Assisted Individualization cooperative learning model because of its built-in provisions for addressing individual needs. Building on this cooperative learning model, Rosenberg and O'Melia designed Cooperative Homework Teams (CHT). "CHT was crafted to maximize instructional time and the benefits of well-designed homework assignments," O'Melia described. CHT uses peer teams to grade and cooperatively make corrections to individualized homework assignments. Here's how CHT works:

  • Students are given a placement test to determine their specific basic skills deficiencies.
  • Results of the assessment are used to plan instructional lessons and relevant homework assignments.
  • Results of the assessment are used as a guide in assigning students to heterogeneous groups.
  • At the end of each lesson, students are given individualized assignments (estimated time of completion was approximately 15 minutes) based on their performance. Students are monitored during instruction to ensure that they demonstrate at least moderate acquisition of material.
  • The next day, CHT groups meet for 10 minutes. Students submit their individually completed homework assignments to the designated group checker (the role of checker changed daily). The papers are scored and the scores are given to the teacher, who records the scores.
  • Teammates assist each other with correcting the errors. At the end of the session, homework assignments are collected and given to the teacher.
  • Points are awarded to individuals based on the rate of completion and the percentage correct, regardless of the level of difficulty. Team scores are determined by averaging each member's daily score and using these individual scores to calculate a team mean.
  • Each week, awards in the form of certificates are presented to teams who meet or exceed the pre-selected criteria for success.

In earlier studies, Rosenberg had found that two elements— amount of homework completed and the accuracy of that homework— a positive effect on achievement. The current results indicated that CHT was effective in increasing both of these. Data also suggested that CHT is likely to be more effective with older students than younger ones who are just transitioning into the middle grades.

Making Homework Work At Home

According to University of Vermont researchers Martha Fitzgerald and Pam Kay, children with learning disabilities have more favorable attitudes regarding homework when assignments are made in the context of a strong support system of teachers, parents, and peers. And, favorable attitudes typically translate into completion and better learning.

In 1990, Fitzgerald and Kay responded to an OSEP request for proposals that asked, "Has the increased reliance on homework created a bridge between home and school or resulted in increased parent/child friction and the need for tutorial services?" To answer this question, Fitzgerald and Kay brought together school districts and families (some with children with disabilities) from five Vermont communities for focus group and individual interviews.

Several themes emerged. First, parents felt ill-equipped to help their children with homework. They cited lack of information about the curriculum and lack of information about the new curriculum reforms. "Parents were very concerned that this lack of information would hamper their efforts to help their children, who in many cases needed specialized assistance," Fitzgerald reports. "Parents also wanted to know and understand the classroom teacher's expectations and approach for homework. Many felt that these expectations needed to be made explicit from the get-go."

Another theme centered on parents' preference for homework that was tailored to the individual child and that respected child and family needs. Parents of children with disabilities recounted stories of how homework could be inappropriate. As one parent summarized, "What's the point in giving someone an assignment that they can't possibly do?" Overwhelmingly, parents preferred homework that involved concrete, authentic projects that were motivating for children. Finally, parents wanted a comprehensive, two-way communication system. "The daily demands of homework create the need for some parents to have a dependable, ongoing source of information about the details of class work and curriculum," Fitzgerald explained. "Parents said they would like more recognition of their role in homework, more feedback on the results, more opportunities for parent conferences, and more time to really talk at meetings."

Next: Views From the Field

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