What’s “Busy Work,” and What’s Essential Learning Practice?
How can you make homework interesting and engaging without discouraging learners?
One of the greatest perennial problems facing online educators lies in keeping learners engaged with interesting and meaningful assignments. Learning is hard, and learners need homework to learn the skills necessary to master the course. Too little practice can leave a learner feeling like they got a lot of lectures without getting any real hands-on experience.
There’s a problem, though: sometimes practice can be tedious. Sometimes mastering a skill requires repetition in ways that feel dull or frustrating. While some teaching methods are better than others, it’s also unrealistic to expect every moment of learning to be perfectly exciting and engaging.
The question, therefore, is: how do you know when you’re overwhelming learners with unproductive “busy work,” and when are you asking them to put in the time and energy necessary for true mastery?
The answer may different for each learner, but taking the time to understand what “busy work” actually is—and what better alternatives might be—can help you avoid this trap and create better learning experiences.
What is “busy work” anyway?
Put simply, busy work is any assignment that takes up time, but provides little to no value. Examples might include assigning twenty practice problems when ten would have sufficed, having learners complete work that is below their skill level, or adding assignments that aren’t relevant to the course.
In other words, if you ever catch yourself on autopilot, assigning homework just for the sake of it, you’ve probably fallen into the busy work trap. It’s time to step back and look for a better way. Here’s where to start.
1. Review quizzes don’t have to be hard, but they should be relevant.
Learners are easily bored by homework assignments that are too far below a learner’s skill level. However, that doesn’t mean that assignments need to all be difficult. There’s value in a simple review quiz that lets learners check their understanding of the content they just covered, even if the questions aren’t hard or difficult.
The key is to keep the review questions focused on the material your learners just covered, and to only ask a few questions at a time. Your learners will hardly register knowledge check questions as “work,” but the review will help solidify lesson material so that they don’t forget it.
2. Vary the types of assignment, so that learners don’t burn out on repetitive tasks.
Overworking your learners, even on simple assignments, is the biggest downside of busy work. When learners are forced to over learn material, they hit a point of diminishing returns, where the amount of effort they’re putting into their learning isn’t resulted in extra learning gains.
However, mixing up the type of homework assignment can help learners engage with material in a different way, which can be a more productive form of learning. For instance, instead of giving learners a long, multiple choice test at the end of each lesson, ask a couple multiple choice questions, then ask a short answer question, then as the learner to find one example of what you just covered from an outside source.
3. Personalize assignments so that learners direct their energy toward the most productive tasks.
Your leaners will master material at different rates. Some will grasp some concepts very quickly while struggle with other modules, and that means they will need different support when it comes to assignments.
You can personalize homework by assigning different tasks to learners based on how they answer review questions. If a learner falls below a certain score on a module, you can send them extra review questions, or if they achieve a high enough score on another module, you can have them skip some of their homework.
4. Avoid over-assigning tasks by making them optional.
Finally, an easy way to keep learners from feeling frustrated by busy work is to only make a portion of it mandatory, and leave the rest as optional work for learners who want to cover more material.
It’s even possible to gamify these assignments. For instance, you could keep some of your review questions for daily mini quizzes, and offer points for learners who get the most answers right. Learners wouldn’t need to complete these exercises if they had other tasks to get done elsewhere, but if they wanted to put in the extra credit they could. Breaking up small assignments over several days could even keep them more engaged and motivated.
Busy work shouldn’t replace more effective teaching.
At the end of the day, so long as your focus is on effective teaching methods, you aren’t likely to assign your learners too many meaningless assignments. Busy work assignments tend to happen when educators lose their focus, or feel like they have to assign homework for the sake of homework. When you’re adjusting your assignments to your learners’ needs and keeping your eyes on what they need to succeed, your learners will find value in the work and will be less likely to burn out.