Cash in on Learning: Homework as Effective Practice Toward Self-Regulation

by Richard Cash, Ed.D., Free Spirit Publishing author of Advancing Differentiation: Thinking and Learning for the 21st Century

“Study without thought is vain; thought without study is dangerous.” –Confucius

Hardly a day goes by in school without someone bringing up the issue of homework. As a teacher, you constantly question: How much should we give to students? How much is too much/too little? What does it really do for students? Is it worth the extra time it takes to grade it all? And students are forever asking: Why do I have to do homework? What does it really do for me? How will I be able to fit it in with all my other activities?

Both opinion and research conflict on the impact of homework on student achievement. Overwhelmingly though, experts agree that appropriate and thoughtfully assigned homework has an overall positive effect on students. I’d like to offer ideas for how to use homework as a tool not only for enhancing and reinforcing classroom learning, but also to develop personal life skills—specifically self-regulation. Self-regulation is one of the most important benefits that homework can provide; it’s a key factor in a student’s success in school and beyond.

Identifying Homework Goals

Let’s first consider that homework is any task that you assign to students to be completed outside school hours. These tasks not only reinforce classroom learning, but also can help students discover and build their own personal learning strategies by engaging them in independent work; this is self-regulation.

Self-Regulation as a Homework Goal

Self-regulation means having self-efficacy skills that are productive toward attaining goals. These skills include goal setting, time management, managing one’s emotions and environment, maintaining focus, and persisting at difficult assignments. A higher-level skill is reflecting on one’s thoughts, emotions, behaviors, and environments to evaluate their effects on attaining goals. Students who are the most successful at developing self-regulation are able, from an early age, to synthesize three areas of psychological functioning that are essential to learning:cognitive (learning strategies), motivational (self-efficacy), and metacognitive (self-monitoring, reflection). I suggest that judiciously assigned homework is key to developing the critical habit of self-regulation in students. Teaching self-regulation through homework assignments can increase student achievement perhaps more than any other factor in education.

How Effective Homework Builds Self-Regulation Skills

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As educators, we strive to interest students in the curriculum and help them see how what we teach them prepares them for the world outside of school. We also want to teach our students to be curious, resourceful, and self-motivated so they continue to learn well beyond their school years.

Strategies to assist in reaching these goals include using homework assignments that are age-appropriate as well as challenging. Elements of effective homework vary at the elementary and secondary level. Homework at the elementary level should foster positive attitudes toward school and begin the journey toward self-regulation by:

  • making home/school connections with the curriculum
  • supporting parent involvement in school activities
  • reinforcing skills developed during the school day
  • encouraging students to develop their own strategies of time management and work completion

Homework at the secondary level should:

  • work toward improving classroom and test performance
  • relate curriculum content to students’ lives
  • reinforce and practice self-regulation skills developed during the school day

When students are engaged in quality homework practices, they are more likely to become self-motivated and put forth more effort, thus achieving higher grades. They build academic success skills by increasing personalized approaches to thinking and learning, problem-solving skills, and other learning strategies. Students also build self-regulation when they persevere through tasks without immediate rewards (i.e., delayed gratification).

In general, you can design and assign three types of homework assignments that provide opportunities for students to work toward self-regulation at the same time they are broadening their knowledge base.

  1. Practice homework is meant to practice, review, and reinforce the objectives taught during the school day. Students should be allowed to make mistakes as part of the learning process. However, students should be able to refer to corrections on-the-spot during the practice phase. This may be accomplished through either an answer key or online resource. The main focus of practice homework is to provide immediate reward for effort by allowing students to make and correct mistakes, which encourages them to develop independent learning skills.
  2. Preparation homework assists students in developing a knowledge base for upcoming lessons. This can include reading chapters before the next day’s class discussion, collecting information and resources related to a topic from outside sources, or participating in classroom discussion and activities. Preparation assignments intend to set foundational knowledge and connect new information with the familiar. Preparation homework is not graded toward a final achievement grade. It can be useful, however, in assessing student effort and development of responsibility, which is a foundation of self-regulation.
  3. Integration homework is frequently long-term continuing projects that parallel unit objectives and inform achievement toward academic goals. Students are required to apply skills learned during classwork and develop authentic products that have value to an authentic audience. These assignments should encourage opportunities for integrating problem solving, critical thinking, and creativity into the products. Integration assignments can be used to enrich units by having students investigate topics not covered during the classroom sessions. The grading of integration assignments is used to provide evidence of academic goal attainment, i.e., summative assessment.

Strategies to Build Self-Regulation Using Effective Homework Practices

Students learn self-regulation through a four-phase process:

Step 1) Observing a model

Step 2) Copying and doing

Step 3) Practicing and refining

Step 4) Independently applying

Students have the capacity to learn how to self-regulate when their learning is effectively modeled for them, they can emulate or practice the modeled learning with others, they can use the learning during independent practice to employ it automatically, and then can transfer the learning to other activities. Independent practice, in this case, is the practice of homework. It is essential that you directly teach and model the following self-regulation skills during class time and then reflect on those skills through the review of homework.

Self-regulation strategies are embedded within effective homework assignments:

  • setting goals
  • managing goals and time
  • engaging in self-reflection
  • relieving stress and frustration
  • knowing what to do and where to go when task is unclear
  • estimating amount of time necessary to complete work
  • setting task priorities
  • collaborating face-to-face and using technology
  • celebrating goal attainment

You can encourage self-regulation growth by designing engaging interactive homework activities that boost student self-efficacy and ensure success. These activities are neither too hard nor too easy—they are “just right.” They require the student to set a goal for completion, attract students’ attention to the activity, and provide a certain level of fun as well.

Study Skills: Strategies for Teachers

Model and directly teach students how to:

  • set up a conducive learning and study space
  • set priorities for what should be completed by when
  • manage their time
  • avoid distractions
  • manage unproductive emotions
  • identify and capitalize on effective behaviors for working independently
  • reward themselves when a goal is met

Other practices you can implement that build students’ self-regulation include:

  • setting clear goals and expectations for each homework assignment
  • discussing the homework assignment with students before and after completion
  • focusing on students’ strengths versus weaknesses
  • using a homework checklist or log that charts:
    • time started and completed
    • level of self-motivation
    • behaviors that are productive or unproductive>
    • distractions and how they were or were not avoided
    • rewards for work completion

Consistently providing immediate, meaningful feedback to students on their homework is the most effective strategy you can use for ensuring that homework is productive, builds self-regulation skills, and improves achievement. This can be difficult when multiple assignments are due, or if you have numerous classes. In these cases, limit the amount of homework that requires extensive review beyond checking for the correct answer. Keep in mind that homework that cannot be reviewed relatively quickly should not be assigned.

Study Skills: Strategies for Parents

Consider incorporating parent interaction within homework assignments when appropriate. Giving parents tips for helping their child with homework issues can be a valuable way to empower parents to address their child’s questions or struggles without interfering with the process of developing self-regulation skills independently.

Suggestions for parents on how to help their child complete homework include:

  • © Michaeljung | Dreamstime.comHave a regular time and place to do homework.
  • Set time parameters for doing homework.
  • Provide proper lighting.
  • Be prepared for questions and know where to find the answers or support.
  • Support or coach children when frustrated, but don’t do the work for them.
  • Celebrate successful completion of homework by praising effort and efficient use of study habits.
  • Limit extrinsic rewards or punishments; instead, develop intrinsic motivation.


There is a strong correlation between well-developed self-regulating strategies and self-efficacy. As teachers, we have an obligation to provide students with the tools they need to succeed in school and in life. When constructed well, with attention to the development of both academic skill and self-regulation, homework can be a powerful tool for developing true life-long learners.

Richard M. Cash, Ed.D., is an internationally known educational consultant and author of Advancing Differentiation: Thinking and Learning for the 21st Century. Dr. Cash has worked in all levels of education from a classroom teacher to district administrator and post-secondary instructor. Visit his website at

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About Richard M. Cash, Ed.D.

Writes the "Cash in on Learning" post series for Free Spirit Publishing.
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