Given that a typical language course would take place over 9 or 10 months, it can be difficult or even impossible to pack all of the necessary knowledge into your lessons. So homework becomes necessary, to reinforce the content of your classes. But how do you motivate students to do it? Many times, I have struggled to make my learners understand the purpose of home study. Consequently, the end of the year arrives and they find themselves ill-prepared and sometimes dissatisfied. Adults are especially difficult to motivate, having not been required to hand in anything resembling homework since their days at school. Even university students, who need to study at home in order to pass their degree, are often unwilling to dedicate anytime outside of the classroom.
At the end or near to the end of the course, I sometimes get presented with huge amounts of homework. Tomes of exercises, writings and exams that they noted down as homework during the year but never got around to. Finally, realising that they need to make the effort and do something at home, they lock themselves away for a week and do all of it at once. This presents a big problem for the student as well as for me. Usually, I am far too busy, in exam season, to properly evaluate all of it and give them detailed feedback. In addition, the exercises I set from the textbook are meant to be done soon after we learn the material because it serves as reinforcement. Doing it months later is like revision, and having never done the proper study, they will do worse than expected.
Here’s a quick run down of common homework related problems;
- Students are paying for a language course with you, and in some cases an expensive exam at the end. They might not see the purpose of also dedicating their free time to more work.
- Given the above, they may even be indignant that all of the material cannot be done in class.
- Having not done homework, in many cases, since high school, learners are not used to doing work at home and sometimes find it difficult to get back into the rhythm!
- If homework isn’t properly managed, students may forget or get frustrated with the time it takes for you to correct and hand it back.
- If you share a class with another teacher, they might be confused about who to give what.
- Cheating. Using a dictionary when they shouldn’t, looking up answers, copying from other learners, or even something as small as listening to an audio more than they should, can misrepresented their real level.
Right from the beginning
When I was starting a teacher, I didn’t want to spend a lot of time explaining course requirements, believing it better to begin with the material right away. So that they would feel they were learning right from the start. But it is essential to detail what is expected of them, so that you don’t run into problems later in the course. After the usual ‘group therapy’ style introductions are over, start on with the homework!
Explain the quantity of homework there is likely to be throughout, and what kind of things there will be. Short exercises, gap-fill, writing exercises, listening tasks, all of those kinds of things. I usually tell my students that they should be doing one to two hours of extra work a week, depending on the course, with slightly more towards the date of their exam.
Also, outline additional work they can do if they wish to. Things like websites they can use to practice different skills, or television programmes they can watch at home to reinforce their listening. Make sure to tailor any suggestions to the level you are teaching. I always tell mine that it’s obvious to me who does listening at home and who doesn’t, and it is!
Here’s some materials I sometimes use for this;
Make sure to keep a list of homework that you set and when it should be handed in. In some cases, you might be more keen to receive some pieces than others, let learners know which is a priority.
Proper record keeping is essential if you are to know which students are struggling with the amount or the subject matter. So make sure to have organised files and folders. I usually have two folders for homework, one for things I need to review and mark, and one for things that are ready to be given back.
Take the time to ask if anybody has any questions about the notes you made, and make sure to go over anything you feel the whole class has a problem with.
Some centres even have a ‘moodle’ type page so that students can ask questions or submit homework and find resources online. Students love technology!
Marking for Exam Candidates
A lot of the time, the homework you set will be small exercises and similar things. But sometimes, it might be longer pieces of writing or even mock exams. In these cases, and although it might be an arduous task, I always find it motivational for students to see real results and feedback on how to improve. By giving them a percentage score that would more or less match a real life exam, they see the fruits of their labour, so to speak. Equally, if they fall below average with their results, it can be the kick they need to ask for more help, study harder or get more serious.
I find this works particularly well in Spain, where I teach, as so much of the university generation is obsessed with getting good marks and feedback.
Despite the effectiveness of this, try not to go too far and demotivate students. If they have only just started the course, they might be disheartened to see a score of 20% on their practice work, even if it’s completely normal from a newcomer. It’s all about balance!
At the end of the course, when you can hopefully, and deservedly, put your feet up for a minute, consider the year as a whole.
- Did students respond to and appreciate the value of homework?
- Are there some tasks you thought worked well and some you didn’t?
- What type of exercises should you focus more on?
- Which should you focus on less?
- Did the homework they ultimately completed contribute positively towards their language learning goal?
Be honest with yourself, there is always room for improvement. Motivating students in any area is not an exact science and will largely depend on the individual. So good luck and happy marking!
Did you find this post helpful? Let me know in the comments!