I’ve met very few students who enjoy doing their homework. I’ve met even fewer students who want to do extra practice on top of their homework. However, for many students, that extra practice is much needed.
So, how can it be made as painless as possible, or even, dare I say it, fun?
The first resort of many parents and teachers is to buy a workbook full of practice exercises. While practice problems that closely mimic the test material certainly have their place, I’ve noticed that some students can become very anxious over the endless stream of “uninteresting” problems.
This anxiety often translates into a negative attitude towards all homework and practice, and it can become very difficult to keep students motivated to practice more.
With my students, I combat this negative cycle by catering extra work and practice activities to their interests. It’s surprisingly easy to do, and can help students feel a sense of ownership over their studies. Let’s look at some examples.
One of my students, while incredibly gifted, has trouble focusing on math problems that he deems “boring.” It’s quite a battle to get him to sit down and do his homework. Even though he’s capable of understanding the material with very little practice, he gets too worked up over his dislike of the subject and refuses to practice at all. And thus, his grades fall.
He’s an avid reader, and especially loves comic books like Captain Underpants.
To get him practicing math, I decided to write word problems involving the main characters from Captain Underpants, a pair of pranksters called George and Harold.
I wrote a story where George and Harold are raising money to fight their nemesis, and they decide to offer a “prank for sale” service to their classmates.
Here’s an excerpt from the worksheet:
George and Harold decide to hold a fundraiser to raise money for their new mecha machine to fight Melvin. They decide to have a “Prank for Sale” service, where classmates can pay to have George and Harold play pranks on their friends.
They decide to have 5 different kinds of pranks to sell:
- For $20, George and Harold will cover your parent’s car in Saran Wrap.
- For $10, George and Harold will cover your sibling’s door handles in Vaseline.
- For $5, George and Harold will spray silly string all over your friends when they’re walking to school.
- For $15, George and Harold will hide a speaker in your sibling’s bedroom, which will make animal sounds randomly at night.
- For $25, George and Harold will put red jello powder in all the faucets and showerheads of your house.
On Day 1, their sale was a huge success. 20 people bought Prank A, 10 people bought Prank B, 30 people bought Prank C, and 15 people bought Prank D. Nobody bought Prank E.
I worked with my student to arrange this data into a table, which we then converted to a bar graph. We then analyzed which pranks were the most popular, and calculated how much money was earned from each prank. We discussed which pranks were the most profitable, and how George and Harold could restructure their business to focus on their most successful services.
Instead of exhibiting his usual level of stress over doing math, my student enjoyed laughing at the silly pranks, and had fun thinking about how George and Harold could alter their business. We successfully covered the material that would be on his upcoming exam, and he enjoyed the extra practice instead of dreading it.
It was much more interesting for him than the standard bar graph activities on his homework, where he had to graph the different shirt colors in somebody’s closet.
I once had a student who needed extra help with writing. She was performing poorly on her school essays, and would experience incredible anxiety when faced with a writing assignment. The assignments were the usual 4th grade schoolwork type: research the Oregon Trail and write an essay. Write a book report on the assigned reading. Write a persuasive essay on the assigned topic.
She would freeze up, procrastinate, and ultimately end up with a very formulaic paper, which would then get a bad grade. This caused more stress, and she started to believe that she “just wasn’t good at writing.”
After talking with her, I realized that she had no trouble expressing herself verbally. She could especially talk forever about animals, and her horses in particular.
So, I asked her to write me a pen-pal style letter about her horses. In exchange, I wrote her a letter about my aquariums. Once the stress of researching an “uninteresting” topic was removed, her writing flowed freely.
Since she had to prepare for an upcoming presentation at school, we restructured our letters to be presentations on how to care for our respective pets. As this was an area she was familiar and comfortable with, she quickly got over her stage fright and was able to give an interesting and informative presentation.
After several pen-pal style letters, we gradually transitioned into researching topics that she was interested in. By practicing in a stress-free environment (I only used positive language, and complimented the things she did well instead of bringing attention to the areas that needed more work), her writing improved even further.
In just a few short weeks of practicing on topics she was comfortable with, her writing and presenting felt entirely natural, and her stress was nearly gone.
Not all students require personalized examples that are so involved. However, even those that don’t often want to express ownership over their studies in some ways. I’ve noticed that many kids will start to design practice problems on their own, or will want to alter the written questions on their homework.
For example, I’ve had students who really enjoyed coming up with the character names for word problems, and students who wanted to alter the numbers to make them ridiculous (John had 752 cupcakes in 5 minutes, what was the unit rate of cupcakes he consumed per minute?) I had another student who enjoyed altering the story in math word problems to be about her and her friends.
As long as there’s no harm in doing so (such as making a math problem impossible to solve), let them do it! It can help students be more invested in the problem when they take part in creating it.
Now, as I mentioned earlier, practice books have their place too. Especially right before an assignment or test is due, it’s essential that students are comfortable with the kind of material their teacher expects them to know, and that they don’t rely on customized problems. But for everyday practice, and especially for students with anxiety, it can be incredibly helpful to cater practice to your student’s interests.