The Power of Homework as a Formative Tool

Posted on Posted in Assessment, Feedback, General, Instruction, Results

If homework is to serve as formative data, then it needs to be instructionally sensitive for both student and teacher alike. Ideally, then, what happened with homework the night before should inform a classroom teacher’s instruction immediately the next day. Rather than simply correcting right/wrong answers and then collecting the homework papers to be recorded somewhere, teachers must consider meaningful and interactive ways to create engaging, learning conversations and generate quality, supportive information for the next lesson following the completion of homework.

Imagine, for example, that a teacher created varying options for homework like the following:

On tonight’s homework, there are 3 learning targets. You must answer a minimum of 3 questions per target area, but, 1) if you have tried the questions but are struggling, then don’t answer any more questions in that section – instead, write out your questions or misunderstandings regarding that target and come prepared to talk about what you don’t understand; 2) if you answered all of the questions in that target area but are unsure you have right answers, then self-assign and try a few more on your own to see if you can figure it out; or 3) if you are certain that you have mastered the question in that target area, then please write 2 or 3 test questions that you think I could use to assess that target. If your questions are good ones, they may show up on our next test.

Clearly, when the learners enter the room the next day there will be a variety of things happening in the homework assignment and simply marking right or wrong answers will not be helpful.

The teacher seeks to generate formative data for instructionally sensitive responses by using a variety of strategies. It might play out like this: “Alright, everyone, let’s take out last night’s homework and begin our learning for today.

  • TARGET 1 – Dots and Error Analysis:  Remember, Target 1 included questions 1 through 5. This was review for us as we’ve already done a lot of work with target 1. The correct answers are provided on the board. Put a dot next to any answer you have that is wrong. Now, get into small groups and analyze each other’s dots. See if you can identify the type of error that was made. Name the error and help your peers identify the strategies needed to fix that type of error. If you had any questions or concerns about this section, you can skip the error analysis work and meet with me by the back table so I can better understand your concerns.
  • TARGET 2 Four Corners:  Let’s move on to target 2. Target 2 included questions 6 – 12 and we haven’t done as much work with this target yet. Let’s take a look at question 10 because it’s a really good example of this target area. If you answered question 10 like this (answer revealed), please stand in the corner marked with books. If you answered like this (answer revealed), please stand in the corner by my desk. If you answered like this (answer revealed), please stand in the corner by the door. If you didn’t know the answer it’s okay because we’re still learning this target.  Please stand in the corner by the windows. Now, wherever you are standing, you must talk with your peers as to why you have that answer and if you are the corner that didn’t know the answer, I want you to discuss what was hard about that question. You can move to any new corner at any time, but if you move, you must be prepared to explain your decision. (Note: In this activity, the teacher has immediate visible data as to who understands and who does not. The teacher stands in the middle of the room to hear discussions, and identify misconceptions (2 of the corners) or misunderstandings/confusion (corner with no answers). After about 2 minutes, the teacher calls for a large group discussion to highlight the right answer and discuss the popular types of errors that can be made with the target area as well as the possible strategies needed to address the errors.)
  • Target 3 – Student Generated Responses:  Target 3 was questions 13 through 20. It was brand new yesterday and I anticipate there may have been a lot of questions or concerns. Did anyone have any questions or concerns about this target area? (Teacher notes all questions and concerns on the board.) Did anyone have any possible test questions that you generated last night that you might be willing to share right now? (Teacher asks a few of the learners to write a question on the board.) Great. Let’s use this question (points to option) to answer this concern (points to concern). Let’s work it out as a group. (All answers are discussed in lieu of what was not understood as a means to build deeper understanding.)

Okay, everyone, take a minute to reflect on your work last night by looking at all 3 target areas and note where you will need to be spending more time and practice as we continue our learning together.”


Even though reviewing homework in this manner continues the teaching process, some teachers might not feel they have the luxury of time to go to such depth.  if so, a few time saving options are offered below:

  • Entrance slips 1: Identify one to three questions that are similar to the homework problems (but not exactly the same) and have students fill them out immediately upon entering the classroom. They can even reference last night’s homework if they have it done. Once students have answers on their slip, they can partner with one to two others to compare answers (individuals can still change answers at this point), discuss how they arrived at the answers they have, and develop a rationale statement for why they think their answers are correct. Identify a few teams to share their answer to question 1 and get feedback and corrections from other teams in the room before giving the actual answer. Then move to questions 2 & 3 using the same process.
  • Entrance slips 2: Identify one question that captures the essence of last night’s homework and engage the learners in the activity called My Favorite No.


In the end, homework that is intended to provide learners with practice opportunities requires that learners engage in safe opportunities to discuss successes and mistakes and receive clear, specific feedback that will help them improve. If the homework is not graded and the conversations are aimed solely at supporting all learners in mastering the targets at hand, then the feedback practices are low risk and a true culture of learning can be built.  Such practices highlight formative assessment at its best because the teacher has activated the learners as resources to one another as well as instructional decision makers regarding their own learning needs. Homework can provide powerful formative data when it engages teachers and learners in deep discussion and becomes a tool for continuing the learning the next day.  As the experts so clearly state, formative assessment and quality teaching are two sides of the same coin!

One thought on “The Power of Homework as a Formative Tool

  1. Thank you for your thoughtful post. I really like the targeted activities you suggest and also realize that many teachers may not have the luxury of time. I’m left wondering how might you use technology to gather the feedback before students come to class? Maybe for target one, you would gather the data and address at a later date since it is a review. For target two, depending upon the data collected, you could take the time to have the 4 corner activity or you might see there may not be much need for the activity. Now, you would have more time to focus on target 3 which is probably where you would want/need to spend most of the time. We are always facing time issues… Thanks for sharing and making me think!

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