Take the Humdrum Out of Homework

Making workplace homework effective By Elliott Masie

Chief Learning Officer author, Elliot Masie's headshot.

Elliott Masie is CEO of The Masie Center, an international think tank focused on learning and workplace productivity, and chairman and CLO of The Masie Center’s Learning Consortium.
He can be reached at


tudents have come to expect and accept homework as an element of the learning process. But what about homework for learners in the workplace?

If we imagine homework as a reading assignment or a lesson, our learners generally will not respond well. A great example of this includes the pretraining readings that many organizations send out to participants in leadership development programs. If I am one of those participants, I will probably skim the articles on the plane ride to the leadership retreat.

Your colleagues are busy, distracted and often are not confident that the assigned readings are essential to their learnings. But homework for workplace learners can be effective if we design it in a creative, engaging and user experience-validated format.

There are many reasons to design great homework for our learners. It can build motivation, create context for the content and help personalize the learning experience. It also can trigger learner curiosity, facilitate learner interaction and support the transfer of new skills and information into workflow. But what does a great homework assignment look like?

One alternative homework model that can be quite effective is a short message service or social system question. Rather than requiring an in-depth learner survey as part of homework before a structured learning experience, consider sending each participant a short question to think about or answer. Some options might be, “What behavior most annoys you as a listener in a meeting?” “Which feature do you hope is easier to use in the new sales system?” Or, “What are three words you would use to describe our new product?”

These types of short questions give workers a targeted and easy way to reflect on the content focus of the learning program. Sometimes a single question will instantly raise the learner’s curiosity and engagement.

Another potential homework assignment is to ask your learners to observe a process in the workflow over the next day or week. Ask them to be anthropologists of how a procedure or action takes place — and have them bring it into their class, webinar or learning module. Here are a few examples:

Make homework assignments short, targeted and personal.

For a time-management course: Observe what times of day you are most awake, send the most emails and are most distracted.

For a safety program: Watch how your colleagues navigate the shop floor when a new rig is installed.

For a leadership program: What notes do you take in a meeting and how often do you refer to them after?

For a data analytics self-study program: Note how many times managers use the word “data” and see how it is contextualized.

For a public speaking program: Watch a random TED Talk and note how the speaker is similar to or different from you.

Watching and observing is a powerful way to trigger the interest of workers. Don’t give them a form or input page; instead, ask them to observe and comment. You will be amazed at how engaged they become when making such observations face-to-face or online.

Finally, consider trying a “suggested conversations” homework assignment. Give each learner a single card (print or digital) with a conversation you hope they have with one, two or more people. Make it a targeted and engaging conversation that is easy to start with a colleague in the workplace or elsewhere:

  • Talk about how you learn differently today than when you were in grade school.
  • Ask colleagues about their most difficult-to-please customers.
  • Speak with co-workers about their fears or hopes for AI in the future.

Conversations yield “cognitive rehearsal” to support learners exploring the context or story side of a new skill or information set.

You can expand homework for workplace learners using other nontraditional suggestions, assignments or even competitions. Maybe you have learners watch a 15-minute clip from a famous movie and consider its message as it relates to your new topic.

I suggest making homework assignments short, targeted and personal — and not to grade or evaluate the answers or responses. Entice your learners to extend their learning.