Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Innovative Ideas for Using Cell Phones for Homework and Practice

Editor's note: This is part four in series of posts focused on the nine instructional strategies that are most likely to improve student achievement across all content areas from the book Classroom Instruction That Works by Robert Marzano, Debra Pickering, and Jane Pollock.

Homework and practice are instructional techniques that give students the opportunity to deepen their understanding and skills relative to content that has already been presented to them. Research cited in Classroom Instruction that Works, indicates some interesting findings including that the purpose of homework should be identified and articulated and if homework is assigned, it should be commented on. Of interest to parents is that there is research showing minimal or even negative effects of their involvement in homework. Further studies suggest findings about parental involvement could be a result of the type of involvement and that there are indeed conditions under which parental involvement enhances homework (Epstein, 2001; Epstein & Becker, 1982; Van Voorhis, 2003). They recommended interactive homework in which 1) Parents receive clear guidelines spelling out their role, 2) Teachers do not expect parents to act as experts regarding content or to attempt to teach the content, and 3) Parents ask questions that help students clarify and summarize what they have learned. Good and Brophy (2003) recommend that homework that for parent-child relations purposes assignments calling for students to show or explain their work to get their reactions are useful (Epstein, 2001; Epstein, Simon, & Salinas, 1997) and that it is effective to have students interview their parents to develop information about parental experiences or opinions relating to topics studied in social studies (Alleman & Brophy, 1998). Assignments like these result in students and their parents or other family members becoming more engaged in conversations that relate to the academic curriculum and thus extend the students' learning. Furthermore, because these are likely to be genuine conversations rather than more formally structured teaching/learning tasks, both parents and children are likely to experience them as enjoyable rather than threatening. (p. 395).

Here are some specific ways that homework and practice can be enriched with the use of cell phones.

  • Classroom Practice in Assigning Homework
    Research on homework indicates that it is useful if parents help students ensure they are on track and on task with doing their work. Additionally, assignments that clearly articulate the purpose and outcome of homework result in greater student achievement.
    • Subject: Any subject
    • Topic: Any topic
    • Cell Phone Tool: Swaggle
    • Lesson Overview: Parents and teachers can partner to ensure that students are doing homework more effectively using a group texting service such as Swaggle. Teachers can group text their students and parents daily or weekly with assignments including due date, assignment purpose, parental role and questions for students and clarifying and summarizing questions for parents to discuss with students. Parents can then set a daily alarm to alert them to check in with their child using a text. If the parent knows the purpose of the assignment and due date, if time allows, they can support the teacher in being an additional person to comment on the homework as well. This also serves the purpose of providing recognition for the students in doing their work.
    • How technology enriches the lesson:
      • Using a group texting feature like Swaggle enables a teacher to write one message and instantly connect with students or parents.
      • A group text, not only helps to strengthen the home/school connection, but unlike a note in the backpack, the message won't get lost. It is also a great way in general to keep parents in the loop, in the know, and to keep lines of communication open.
      • Having a parent set a daily reminder time to check in with their child provides students with a consistent check in to help ensure they are on track. Additionally, if the parent is still at work, doing this is less disruptive then making an actual call, but still holds the student accountable.

  • Classroom Practice in Practicing Skills - Charting Accuracy and Speed
    Research shows that skills should be learned to the level that students can perform them quickly and accurately and to facilitate skill development, students should be encouraged to keep track of their speed and accuracy.
    • Subject: Math
    • Topic: Multiplication tables
    • Cell Phone Tool: Poll Everywhere - Polling question
    • Lesson Overview: A fun way to use cell phones to chart the speed an accuracy of a class of students is to use Poll Everywhere. A school that promotes the use of personally owned technology might encourage a grade-wide competition of student speed and accuracy in multiplication tables. The way this would work is that at the beginning of the unit each teacher would encourage students to respond to a Poll Everywhere question about the speed and accuracy of completing their multiplication tables. Students would be asked to text in their speed and accuracy using a Poll Everywhere polling question. The caveat being that their parent/guardian would need to sign off on the students response. This serves the added benefit of the home/school connection and keeping families in the loop on their child's progress. At predetermined intervals classes would chart their speed and accuracy which could be shared on a school web page with privacy predetermined (i.e. just for school members, students, and families, or open to the public). The class that had the biggest overall gain (by percentage) could win an award such as a certificate, free time, pizza party or something of their choosing.
    • How technology enriches the lesson:
      • The use of Poll Everywhere to chart speed and accuracy of a class provides a quick, simple, easy, and visible (to selected audiences) way to instantly see progress.
      • Using Poll Everywhere to chart speed and accuracy provides motivation for a class as a whole to improve on their work. If they don't try hard to achieve, they'll let down their class. If they do try hard, they help their class.
      • The use of Poll Everywhere has the additional benefit of providing recognition for a classes hard work and growth over time.
Cell phones can provide great assistance with homework. Simply encouraging students to use their phones in conjunction with their homework will act as a motivator. Many of the age old frustrations with homework like getting stuck, not having any help (text the teacher, friend, expert-perhaps on ChaCha), forgetting to do it (put in your own reminder or get one from a parent or teacher), or not being home long enough to do it (do it anywhere you have your phone) are all remedied through the use of cell phone technologies. Students, parents, and educators all get frustrated when students get "stuck" on a problem in their homework and do not complete the assignment. With text messaging, help is few thumb strokes away. Setting up peer tutoring through text messaging is a great way to support all levels of students. Even teacher teams can divide up certain days and times and be available to answer homework questions through text messaging without a lot of extra time or effort. Some innovative educators even set up panels of experts in the community to be available to students during certain projects or for certain assignments. Partnering with local colleges or libraries can also provide additional text help available for students.

Cell phones provide an effective way to support students in doing their homework and tracking the speed and accuracy of the skills they are practicing. Stay tuned for future posts featuring other research-based strategies to engage students and increase student achievement.


  1. Hello! My name is Bliss Beasley and I am in the EDM 310 class at the University of South Alabama in Mobile, AL. We have each been assigned a specific teacher to follow for the next two weeks and to comment on their posts. I think that the mass text to the students and parents is an excellent idea. There are too many times that a note is sent home with the student that is supposed to go to the parent and the parent doesn't get it because the student lost it or it was accidentally thrown away with other trash in the backpack. Using something like Swaggle sounds like a great idea and is an easy was to reach students and parents and to send reminders. This is a great way to get students to focus on their homework and for parents to remember to ask about it. The other thing you mentioned, Poll Everywhere, is another great idea. This is a good plan when getting students to do something on a timely basis. Students will be able to have fun, but at the same time, compete with their fellow students to earn a prize.

  2. Bliss: Why not send notes home via email and forget about the cell phone?

    Again, cell phone apps are redundant upon closer examination and truly only serve the instant gratification "need," which I consider a behavioral flaw.

  3. @Bliss Beasley, I'm glad you like the ideas. Once you try them, please do come back and let us know how it went.

  4. @marksrightbrain, Bliss and other educators may choose to use a cell phone rather than email to reach their student's parents or guardians because 94% of households in America have cell phones whereas only 62% have internet access in their homes and of those 17% have dial up connections. Additionally, many of our students have parents with evening (or day) jobs where they do not have access to computers so the cell phone becomes a primary communication mechanism. Thus for educators teaching in middle class or wealthy communities your suggestion may work well, but for the rest of us, a cell phone is the most effective way for the rest of us to reach our student's families.

  5. IE: Please google the phrase "households with internet access" and you'll find a wide disparity of results anywhere from 62% to 81%.

    Google the phrase "households with cell phones" and you'll find no consensus figure, either.

    I'd like to see some data regarding how many cell phone users actually use or even KNOW how to use the text feature.

    A dial up connection should not discourage email access, so I don't understand the reason for citing that stat. I recall when that's all that was available and folks still emailed every day.

    I'm seeing through the motivation to push cell phone usage. Like everything else wrong with society, it's motivated purely by profit, not for altruistic or even pragmatic reasons.

    Attempting to profit off the backs of low income citizens is shameful and exploitative. I could think of more practical life sustaining services they could use instead. Sticking a cell phone in the hand of an at-risk citizen is not going to help them. To believe so is wishful thinking at its worst.

    I am also concerned with safety statistics concerning cell phone usage, a concern that I seem to be the only one sharing. But then, as a teacher, I have to wear my concerned parent hat as well.

    In fact, I nearly got into an accident recently with a supposed ADULT who was TEXTING while driving.

  6. @Marksrightbrain, I don’t care what device students use to engage in learning, I care that they have a choice to do so and are encouraged, not discouraged from using those they already own. Cell phones are undoubtedly the digital device that most have with them for anywhere/anytime access so I suggest starting with that, but if they have access to a laptop-great, a cell phone-terrific, an iPhone-fantastic. Many of these tools are platform agnostic and can simultaneously text and email. The platform isn’t my focus. The learning is.

    We’ve started hosting non-ban-zone days at my learning center where teachers and students partner to come up with fun and engaging ideas to learn. The teachers are excited. The kids are empowered and we are opening up opportunities for learning using the tools and styles that work well for our learners. There is no profit motivation in this. Our students and teachers use technology they own and I’ve seen it help them learn better. That is what motivates me.

  7. I think learning has always been and still can be effectively conducted without the intrusion of cell phones, which research has shown to be harmful via overexposure, not to mention the negative behavior it promotes in users (see my last post)

    As teachers, we are parents as well, and parents must act as protectors, not enablers.

    Too many teachers are simply giving in to whatever works for the short term, without carefully examining possible long term effects.