Four steps to setting worthwhile homework

Setting homework might seem like a hassle, says this geography teacher, but he has some tips to make it worth the effort

Michael Chiles

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Bring up the topic of "homework" with any group of teachers and you can bet that the same feeling will dominate the discussion: it’s more hassle than it’s worth.

With assignments ranging from “build a miniature shantytown” to “create a Facebook page for your favourite character in the novel”, homework tasks can become so distanced from the learning in the classroom that teachers, parents and students often lose sight of its purpose.

How can teachers use homework more effectively? Evidence-based research has shown that students who regularly complete homework tend to make greater academic progress than those who don’t – but that the way in which homework is set is likely to be very important in determining the potential impact on learning.

So how can you make sure that the homework you set is worthwhile? One of the key characteristics that underpins effective homework is clarity of purpose; this will give students a clear understanding of how the assignment is linked to their learning in lessons. This means that homework shouldn’t be about acquiring new knowledge, but about revisiting the learning that students have already been exposed to in class.

To help, here is my step-by-step guide to setting homework that is meaningful, manageable and motivational – and will contribute towards improving students’ learning journeys.

Tips for setting homework

1. Practise retrieval

Create opportunities for students to practise retrieving information that has been learned in previous lessons by setting a homework task of creating a set of revision cards. Once students have made these cards, they can be used as a learning resource in lessons and at home. This will help to reinforce the purpose of the original homework and its use for future learning.

2. Create topical links

Share current news articles with students that support the application of knowledge from the week’s lessons. Get students to read articles and produce a summary for homework. In future lessons, provide opportunities for students to refer back to the articles and to identify wider synoptic links to other topics that you have previously studied.

3. Use online tools

Try online learning platforms that use low-stake questioning to help students recall and apply knowledge. Seneca Learning is just one example of a platform that you can use for free. Often these platforms will automatically record student participation and generate a scoreboard, which can be a useful competitive element for students who would normally be reluctant to participate in homework.

4. Embed spaced practice

Develop students’ ability to condense their learning from the week by creating "knowledge sketches" that use both images and words to illustrate concepts and processes, encouraging dual coding. Create opportunities for students to refer back to the knowledge sketches over time, embedding spaced practice.

Michael Chiles is head of geography at Ormiston Bolingbroke Academy and a senior examiner. He tweets @m_chiles 

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