5 rules to make homework worth their time (and yours)

Too often, homework is a waste of time for all involved. So here, Mark Enser gives his view on what worthwhile homework looks like

Homework

I was first aware of the problematic nature of homework half way through my very first parents’ evening. It was the one concern that parents had wanted to discuss, which would be fine... but unfortunately, half the concerns were that the class got too much homework and the other half that they didn’t get enough. 

Little did I know then that I would repeat this experience every year, as do most other teachers. 

So: are we getting homework wrong?


Quick read: How ‘spaced practice’ boosts pupil recall

Quick listen: Robert and Elizabeth Bjork on memory

Want to know more? 5 things every teacher needs to know about research


There are certainly many potential problems with homework. 

I have taught in schools with strict homework timetables that all teachers needed to abide by and whose compliance was doggedly checked up on. This led to scrabbling around at the end of the lesson to think of something to set for homework as it suddenly dawned on you that it needed to be set on that day. 

This would have been less of a problem if there weren’t also rigid criteria that the homework task had to fulfil; criteria that changed depending on which member of the leadership team was currently in charge of the policy.

Is homework worthwhile?

Usually, completing classwork was forbidden for reasons that were never made clear. Often, there was meant to be independent research attached. Sometimes, parental engagement in the task was encouraged; other times, it was discouraged. 

I remember one term we were told that tasks should be open-ended to allow independence and then next term (following parental complaints that more diligent students were up all night trying to complete a task with no clear end) we were told they should be strictly time-limited. 

For a long time, we had to ensure that tasks were differentiated either by learning style or to reflect pupil interests.

Project-based learning

For a while, there was a vogue for term-long projects, usually divided into smaller weekly tasks. These culminated in the pupils producing something such as a model castle, scientific experiment or, on one memorable occasion, model volcanoes, which – following the popularity of Great British Bake Off – were all made out of cake. 

This left me with 90 cake volcanoes in my room waiting for marking. I’m not sure the pupils learned much from the experience – in fact, all we learned was which pupils had access to the most resources; be that financial, time or parental involvement. 

Given that homework has the potential to create so many problems for parents, pupils, teachers and leaders, why do we bother? 

Why homework works

The simplest reason is that, at least in secondary schools, it works. According to the Education Endowment Foundation, homework in secondary schools can lead to an additional 5 months of progress over a year (compared with no homework being set) although they are clear that “beneath this average there is a wide variation in potential impact, suggesting that how homework is set is likely to be very important”. 

So how can we set homework that makes a difference and avoids some of the problems of the past? 

Here are a few reminders I have for myself.

1. Asking pupils to finish off work is fine

In fact, it might be an excellent idea. If I have spent time making sure that pupils understand what they have been taught, have modelled what to do and have checked they can get started, there is then very little for me to do. If there is a piece of extended writing to do that is going to take 15 minutes it may as well be done at home, thereby giving us an extra 15 minutes in class to do things where I can have an impact.

2. Be wary of “find X facts about” homework

This was once an old favourite of mine when something, anything, needed to be set to fulfil a homework timetable. It seemed like a good idea, developing those research skills, giving some independence etc. but best case scenario I’d receive 30 identical print-offs of the first page that a Google search threw up about the topic and worst case, it wouldn’t even be the right page. There are only so many times I could sigh and say “London, England is different to London, Canada”.

3. Be wary of independent projects generally.

There is a reason we put a teacher in a class with the pupils and don’t just ask them to research things for themselves. They benefit from a lot of guidance. Kirschner, Sweller and Clark’s paper Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work makes the case that novices (pupils) will struggle to learn without a lot of prior knowledge on a topic.

4. Use the time for retrieval

Instead of using homework time for something new, use it for something old. Increasingly, I use homework as an opportunity for pupils to go back over things that I have already taught them and to refresh their memory of them in light of what they now know. This might involve answering a few short recall questions or a longer question that links together what they are studying now with something they learnt in the past.

5. Use it for intervention

In the past, we were asked to differentiate homework tasks according to perceived learning styles or student interests. Now, I sometimes differentiate them by need. The EEF homework toolkit mentioned above states that “There is some evidence that homework is most effective when used as a short and focused intervention ... with some exceptional studies showing up to eight additional months' positive impact on attainment.” I often start the lesson with a short knowledge quiz. It is very easy to turn each question into a follow-up homework task that they need to complete if they get that question wrong. 

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