by John Spiri
Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology (Tokyo, Japan)
Keywords: homework, independent learning, journals, learner autonomy
Homework has become an institutionalized aspect of schooling for students from primary school through university. The reasons given to defend assigning, encouraging or forcing students to complete homework almost exclusively refer to academic achievement as opposed to encouraging student autonomy or increasing motivation. Moreover, few studies that seek to ascertain whether homework is effective or desirable ask students to comment or evaluate its place in education. The present study describes an independent learning system (ILS) assigned to students at a science & technology university in Japan. A key feature of the system was an independent learning journal, which each student kept to record her week to week efforts in studying English from various language learning websites provided by the instructor. The ILS is designed to offer students greater autonomy, introduce CALL (computer assisted language learning), and encourage lifelong learning. A survey given to students showed that both first- and second-year students expressed a preference or strong preference for ILS over traditional homework.
From an early age, children who attend schools in the developed world are burdened with a great deal of homework. Many reasons have been noted to justify giving students homework: to promote academic learning; to develop skills; to ease time restraints on the curriculum, etc. (Warton , 2001, p. 156). Writing about the situation in the U.K., Heath (2004) explains that there are political pressures as well, such as statements from the Department for Education and Employment (DfEE) that amount to pressure on schools. In a similar observation about the Australian education system, Forster (1999) writes, “teachers and administrators are coming under increasing pressure to meet a wide range of demands, all calling upon their time, energy and versatility.” Smith (2000) echoes these views, citing general international trends which strive to improve the lot of children by following statements made at the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. While well-intentioned, these result in more pressure being put on children to study harder (p. 317). Despite the ostensible political goodwill expressed towards children and their education, Smith notes the value of “adopting a critical perspective.” Thus, he asks, “Who’s got the power?” and “Who are the real beneficiaries of this new interest and investment in children?” (p. 318).
Not surprisingly, most of the research about the effectiveness of homework focuses on its purported educational benefits. Warton, focusing on one such benefit, notes, “Most research has emphasized the links between traditional achievement outcomes and time spent on homework,” (p. 157). Warton goes on to explain that Cooper (1989) found that the benefit of homework is negligible for elementary school children but increases with age: high school students showed a .25 correlation between homework and achievement. The results, however, have not been consistent. Even though one would expect that, from an achievement point of view, more time spent on homework would translate into higher achievement, such is not necessarily the case. Cooper, Lindsay, Nye, & Greathouse (1998) state that researchers’ assessments, “ranged from homework having positive effects, no effects, or complex effects to the suggestion that the research was too sparse or poorly conducted to allow trustworthy conclusions” (p. 71). Of course, the effectiveness of homework results would be expected to vary from age to age and from culture to culture. The above research was teacher-centered in the sense that it measured effectiveness by comparing test scores (made and thought useful by teachers) rather than student-centered evaluations in the form of affective surveys.
The scant research that has considered the viewpoints of students does not consistently put homework in a positive light. “There is little research evidence that convinces us that students recognize the purposes of homework that adults nominate” (Warton, 2001, p. 162). Moreover, research has largely failed to address affective issues related to homework. Cameron and Bartel (2009) note, “…all too often work assigned is ‘busy work’ – assigned to assuage parents’ demands or the rules of the school rather than to enrich and enliven learning” (p. 51). Smith (2000) notes, “The key issues revolve around questions of power and control… What part do children themselves play in defining their concerns and how they are addressed?” (p. 318). Others have noted that students “often see homework as a ‘necessary chore,’ something to which they accord low priority, and which they often do in front of the television” (Edwards quoted in Smith 2000, p. 320).
If the aim of homework is to lead students to greater autonomy and the ability to adopt appropriate study methods and time management abilities themselves—in other words, to help students become lifelong learners—then much less can be said about its effectiveness because research has not addressed these issues. In fact, given that homework is almost always decided and evaluated by the teacher, it is reasonable to predict that homework is just as likely to sour a student on their studies as to inspire them to learn for learning’s sake. This can be said for homework at every level, from grade school through university.
In one sense at least, homework is a means of extending control over students beyond the boundaries of the classroom. John Taylor Gatto (1992), three-time New York City Teacher of the Year Award winner (1989, 1990, and 1991) and one-time winner of the New York State Teacher of the Year Award (1991), takes an extremely critical view of homework: “It is absurd and anti-life to move from cell to cell at the sound of a gong for every day of your natural youth in an institution that allows you no privacy and even follows you into the sanctuary of your home demanding that you do its ‘homework’” (p. 24). While the right of teachers to demand homework goes largely unquestioned, alternatives or modifications in teacher directed homework can provide learners a greater deal of autonomy.
A re-conceptualization of homework
In the broadest sense, homework includes any time students spend on course-related study outside of scheduled class hours. Most often, this occurs when the teacher requires students to complete a specific assignment, which is subsequently utilized in class and/or corrected/commented on by the teacher. The term homework is more common for pre-tertiary education and assignments for tertiary education although essentially each have the same meaning. Since this paper will discuss a university context, the term assignments will be used.
Benson (2001) claims that autonomy—which he defines as “the capacity to take control over one’s own learning”—is “a legitimate and desirable goal of language education” (p. 2). Moreover, examining the teacher’s role, Voller (as cited in Benson, 2001) notes “an autonomous approach to learning requires a transfer of control to the learner” (p. 15). There are many ways educators can offer students greater choice and accomplish this fundamental aim of transferring greater control to learners. One such way is to re-conceptualize assignments as independent learning. While there are many similar applications at nontertiary levels—for example, educators could abandon homework or make it optional—the system described below is for university-level students. The dynamics of traditional homework do not change from grade school years through university: the teacher assigns and requires it, often with the implicit threat of failure (the assigned material appears on tests) or explicit threat of failure (not doing it reduces grades).
That being said, at the university level, assignments are utilized in various ways. Students taking major-related courses may need to study outside of class to meet not only course requirements but academic department requirements as well. For other courses, such as required English courses for science majors at a Japanese university (the case of this research), assignments might not be as essential. A colleague of the author of this research, for example, does not give assignments to students because “it’s not a genuine chance to learn. Students just copy. I just copied myself as a student.” Many part-time teachers in Japan are hesitant to give assignments because they don’t want to deal with the time-consuming task of correcting or commenting on them.
The system described below was utilized in first- and second-year required English communication courses for science majors at a university of technology in Japan. While English is not the students’ main area of study, many perceive it as necessary for their futures as researchers or scientists, and are thus relatively motivated to learn.
Despite an intention to treat students as autonomous learners, and to give them the chance to learn without compulsion, educational institutions and university departments require instructors to adhere to criteria which almost certainly involve compulsion. For example, a university professor in Canada who superseded grading requirements by offering all students A’s on the first day of class was fired as reported by The Globe and Mail (Anderson, 2009). In addition, students—and teachers—have only known systems of compulsion, so it is unlikely that one single course which offers students complete freedom at the university level would be beneficial or effective by any measure. Thus, a system that offers greater autonomy while still addressing the demands and requirements of academia might be preferable.
In this paper, the author is articulating an Independent Learning System (ILS), which
- involves more student-choice than traditional homework;
- is not required;
- is not utilized in class;
- is not corrected by the teacher;
- is self-assessed by students;
- and introduces easily accessible computer-assisted language learning websites (those not requiring sign ups and passwords) to promote lifelong learning.
Students communicate their efforts on ILS via a one-page Independent Learning Journal (ILJ) (see Appendix 2). On this they record what they do and how long it takes them to do it, along with comments which may describe the student’s feelings about the effectiveness and level of difficulty of that activity and their interest level. The ILJ serves as the running record that allows both learners and teacher to view the effort and the progress a learner makes. In addition, the time learners reflect on their learning has great value as explained by Lor (1998):“Reflection is, thus, regarded as a bridge connecting one’s experience and theoretical conceptualization and is assumed to enable learners to reflect on the relationship between the act of learning and the experience of learning so that they can encapsulate meaning within their learning experience” (p. 9).
Since it is not the focus of this paper but may be useful to understanding the role of the ILS, background information about the author’s evaluation system is described in Appendix 3.
The independent learning system (ILS) gives students a range of options to learn English. Students choose activities from a class website, in this case created by the instructor (see Appendix 1). The website contains original materials such as audio files, articles adapted for second language learners, short, understandable, and often subtitled youtube videos (some subtitled by the author) relevant to the chapter’s topic, quizzes created by ‘Hot Potatoes’ software, and links to pages related to class topics. In addition, external links provide students a range of other activities including short, understandable, and topic-relevant youtube videos, ELL reading pages, and fun quizzes. Thus, the needs and desires of various learning styles are covered, and students not interested in the course content still have plenty of learning options. The activities cover a range of levels as well.
In previous versions of the ILS students were given complete freedom to choose any activity they pleased. However, many wrote assignments done for other classes, or vaguely referred to activities (“listened to a song in English” or “watched a movie in English”) which may be of questionable value without effective preparation. For example, first and second year students at this Japanese university, who are mostly high beginner/low intermediate English level, were probably not effectively learning English while watching a movie, and may in fact have been mainly focusing on subtitles written in their native language. Furthermore, given the relatively large number of students per class (over 30), time constraints did not allow for training students in every possible language learning endeavor. In addition, students have a lifetime of opportunities to engage in any sort of study they want, including music and movies, so the principle of this class’s ILS is to introduce students to a substantial but limited number of high quality and easily accessible (not requiring sign up or passwords) English learning websites. Thus, for the system described in this paper, students were given a limited number of options. Non-CALL activities, such as reading graded readers and writing a report about them, would ideally be utilized as well due to the aversion some students feel for computers (see discussion below).
In addition to giving students a degree of freedom to choose activities or even not do the assignment at all, another advantage of the ILS is that class activities do not rely on having students complete the assignment. This is especially helpful for required courses where some students might be extremely motivated to learn English, while others have little or no motivation. When some students complete assignments consistently and thoroughly, while others do it quickly or not at all, a subsequent classroom activity will be compromised. Thus, the activities students do outside of class truly constitute a form of independent learning.
While the ILS grading system shares similarities with typical homework, four notable differences in regard to grades are that with ILS, students
- choose from a wide range of options;
- self-record and, in the case of the author’s evaluation system, use their ILJ to self evaluate;
- spend more time, which absolutely raises grades (whereas with typical homework students are forced to complete a particular assignment, and may spend a great deal of time but still not receive a high grade or perform well on the related exam);
- continue to access particular websites after the completion of the course.
The ILS is geared toward cultivating student autonomy by providing choices and transferring greater control to students by making them responsible for recordkeeping and, to an extent, their own evaluation. Furthermore, as described below, the ILS itself is assessed by asking students to complete affective surveys rather than subjecting them to exams to try to measure and compare student learning because its aim is to help students cultivate greater autonomy and become lifelong learners.
Thus, ILS motivates students to spend time utilizing CALL activities out of class while providing them with a great deal of autonomy.
Student impressions of the utilization of ILS
A total of 145 students — 28 first-year and 117 second-year — answered a midterm survey during the 6th week of the 15-week Spring Semester 2009. During the semester classes met once a week for 90 minutes.
The second-year student answers to ILS survey question “Do you prefer the ILS (choosing activities from the website, writing an ILS journal, etc.) or typical homework (teacher assigns activities which are then utilized in the class)?” are represented in Table 1 below:
Table 1: Actual number of second-year students who chose each of the responses
The first-year students’ answers to ILS survey question “Do you prefer the ILS (choosing activities from the website, writing an ILS journal, etc.) or typical homework (teacher assigns activities which are then utilized in the class)?” are represented in Table 2.
Table 2: Actual number of first year students who chose each of the responses
When 117 second-year students were asked “Did ILS motivate you to study English?” 86 answered “yes” and 20 answered “no.” When 28 first-year students were asked “Did ILS motivate you to study English?” 26 answered “yes” while 1 answered “no.”
In addition, 21 of the 117 second-year students (from four different classes, two technology related majors, and two agriculture related majors) who took the survey left a comment, most of which can be considered positive (see Appendix 4). Similarly, six of the 28 first-year students who took the survey left a comment. To view the ILS CALL website for second-year students, see http://globalstories.spiriatwork.net (see Appendix 1 for a screen shot).
Discussion of results
In previous years, students who were not keen on the ILS sometimes complained that the system was vague and they did not know what was expected of them. This can be seen, in part, as an indictment of the way they have been schooled since childhood, since they rarely if ever had options in regard to homework at schools in Japan. After all, being told what to do is simpler because the steps of thinking about and searching for relevant activities can be skipped. Such comments, however, were not found in the Spring Semester 2009 surveys, possibly because greater pains were taken to explain the ILS and remind students how to utilize it. Although not mentioned specifically, this complaint remains the best guess as to why a small minority of students still find the ILS undesirable. The number of first- and second-year students who strongly preferred traditional homework was just two, as opposed to 22 who strongly preferred ILS. Even more significant was the difference between those who either preferred or strongly preferred ILS (85 out of 145) compared with those who preferred or strongly preferred typical homework (7 out of 145).
The second largest group for second-year students (after those who ‘prefer ILS’) were those who felt “either (system) is fine”. One drawback that could have contributed to the ILS not receiving more positive responses is the fact it was exclusively offered online, as CALL activities. While the vast majority of students have their own computer with Internet connection at home and all have access to a computer room on campus, students in Japan sometimes complain that their ‘eyes get tired’ using the computer for long periods. Also, there were a few students who lacked Internet access in their rooms, meaning they had to go to the university computer lab to complete the homework. This can be considered an inconvenience due to the limitations on times the computer room would be available and the inability to bookmark sites and listen freely without headphones.
Although the number of first-year students who took the survey was smaller (28 compared to 117), first-year students seem to be even more enthusiastic about the ILS system. The possible reason for this, as conjectured by various members of the English faculty, was that they are more motivated to learn English, perhaps due to having just graduated high school where they study English comparatively intensively, or because they get jaded about English and/or study in general as they deal with large amounts of homework after their first year of university.
A strong majority stated that the ILS motivated them to study English—86 “yes” compared to 20 “no” for second-year students, and 26 “yes” compared to one “no” for first -year students. While the results are encouraging, no definitive statements can be made to compare the ILS system to traditional homework because it is not clear whether there is indeed a greater number that would feel motivated to study English with traditional homework. Still, the results are encouraging. Additionally, if students were given a range of non-CALL activities, for example reading and writing about graded readers, it can be predicted that student views would be even more positive about ILS.
A future study should employ a survey with more general questions about student attitudes toward homework and their preferences to, perhaps, not do homework at all in required English courses or other non-major courses. A second future study would be longitudinal, and check the extent to which students continue to utilize the ILS’s CALL activities after completing the course compared to students in a similar course given traditional homework. In addition, a third future study might try the ILS in a class where students can be assured it has no affect on grades at all, to see whether students still employ and enjoy it to the same or a similar extent.
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Lor, W. (1998). Studying first-year students’ experience of writing their reflection journals with the use of a web-based system. Retrieved May 7, 2009,http://sunzi1.lib.hku.hk/hkuto/index.jsp.
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Appendix 1. The author-created website for student independent learning
Appendix 2. A partially completed ILJ
Appendix 3. A description of the author’s overall evaluation system
Students in first and second year English Communication courses (both required) receive a base grade based on: student self-evaluation; a final research project/presentation grade; and an in-class grade (determined by teacher). Students in fact self-evaluate after every class when they are asked to grade their effort from S (superior) to D (failure) (the same grading range that the university employs), and write their “English speaking percent” (of all speaking time, the approximate percentage that was in English). Then, at the end of the final class, students write a self-evaluation grade (S to D) for the course considering their weekly self-evaluations, as well as their efforts to study outside class time via the ILS. Thus, the base grade is the average of this student self-evaluation, a final research project/presentation grade
(for which students only rarely receive a grade higher than “B”), and an in-class grade (again for which students only rarely receive a grade higher than “B”). This grade is then adjusted as follows:
|affect on final grade
|affect on final grade
|0-10 quality minutes
|gains a slight
|loses a slight advantage
|11-20 quality minutes
|gains 1/2 grade
|grade drops 1 level; ex.
“A” becomes a “B”
|21-30 quality minutes
|gains 1 grade
(ex. B to A)
|grade drops 2 levels; ex.
“A” becomes a “C”
|31-45 quality minutes
|gains 1.5 grade
|grade drops 3 levels; ex.
“A” becomes a “D”
|over 45 quality minutes
|gains 2 grade
(B to S)
The phrase “quality minutes” above is partly used to remind students to study with focus and diligence in their independent learning and not to just record time spent sitting at the computer (which may include extensive emailing and web surfing time); it also allows the teacher to not adjust up the grades of students who repeatedly scribble a sentence fragment such as “listened to English music” (not an acceptable activity as described below), and to further adjust up the grades of students who write extensive and thoughtful ILJ entries.
Selected first- and second-year student survey comments about ILS (those which don’t pertain to the ILS system are omitted)
- The ILS motivates me more than typical homework.
- The obligation of this homework (ILS) motivate me to study English and unless no homework I have I perhaps never study English so I need this.
- I think ILS is good because studying English becomes so fun!
- I think ILS is good.
- I want to take les time to do ILS or typical homework.
- I can learn English every time I want to do it. If I have a lot of time, I can do much and when I don’t have a lot of time, I can choose short learning program. It’s very good for me.
- I love Word Quest very much. Getting high score is fun.
- ILS is fun when I can find interesting websites.
- I think ILS is very good
- I enjoy youtube videos
- I want to do more quizs than to read or watch videos at ILS.
- listening of You tube is good.
- The ILS: I can study what I am interested in.
- typical homework: I can correct my answers with my friends.
- This ILS makes me study English more so it’s good.
- It’s very good. I can learn English effectively.
- I like read readings on the website.
- I think: ILS is good system.
- In that website there are many topic. So it’s a interesting.
About the Author
John Spiri has taught English for 12 years at universities in Japan, the last three at Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology. His research interests include CALL (computer assisted language learning), autonomy in education, and global issues in language education.