Are you setting the right kind of homework?

Revision and retrieval practice are the most beneficial approaches, writes Dr Wendy Edwards, yet that’s often not what's given

Dr Wendy Edwards

Why teachers should replace school homework with retrieval practice

When researching my doctorate on the question: “What is the point of homework and should schools set it?” I asked students and teachers in six schools what kind of homework they felt was most effective and which was most commonly set. 

The majority of both groups of students and teachers agreed that revision was the most effective type of homework.

But the students responded that finishing off classwork was the most common, and that the subject that gave this type of homework more than any other was English.

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School documents and policies do not give "finishing off" as a reason for setting homework. 

It raises questions. Why isn't there enough time in class for this work?  Is it a timetabling issue and not enough time is given to that subject, or is it that the curriculum is not suitable for those students?   

Is the appropriate exam board specification being used for those students? Is it a staffing issue?

Strengthening understanding 

Homework is sometimes set to reinforce the work carried out in school, as it can strengthen understanding of what has been learned and it can help the student to develop the skills and confidence to learn on their own. 

One homework task that would support this would be researching either what has been covered in class or in preparation for future work, but teachers must ensure that it is the type of research all pupils are able to access and not just relying on the internet. 

But if the student hasn’t understood the work in class, they may not understand it at home and could be reinforcing misunderstood work. 

Some schools set homework to encourage families and their children to work together.

Some families understandably feel there is little they can do to help with learning at home, but there are many ways in which they can support their children and take a positive interest in homework and classwork: giving encouragement and advice; checking presentation, handwriting and spelling; testing what has been set to be learned; listening to them reading what they have written; asking them to explain what they have been studying.  

Questions schools should ask themselves

Why are we setting homework? Is it to cover those reasons given above or is it to satisfy their public image of the school? Is homework being set in order to benefit schools and students? 

And is the school setting the right type of homework for all students to have equal access and equal opportunities?

In order to address this, homework could include watching a TV programme or listening to the radio; reading from books, magazines and newspapers; collecting items or information from home for use in a lesson.

This type of homework may alleviate the tension and stress caused by homework in some households. It would also support the workload of teachers as homework could be set that does not require marking. 

A teacher could explain what will be happening next lesson and that students could prepare themselves for that lesson.

If managed properly, homework can be a powerful tool and resource in the education of the student, but if not managed properly, it can cloud the education experience in ways which could last a lifetime.

Dr Wendy Edwards is a retired university lecturer in teacher education. She tweets @wendyedwards1

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