We want more work say pupils

Self-motivation is the key to making homework popular, writes Joan Mowat

Voluntary homework - and homework which is corrected by pupils themselves! This probably sounds too good to be true, but that is precisely what is happening in the music department at Woodfarm High School, East Renfrewshire. A voluntary homework scheme in the listening element of the Standard grade course has been introduced to the S3 and S4 classes and is proving to be highly successful.

We introduced homework and opted for a voluntary approach, basically for two reasons. First, because the quality of pupils' course work in the listening element was not being reflected in final grades and, second, because of a discussion at a principal teachers' meeting on the topic of homework.

The discussion could, I am sure, have been replicated in staff rooms throughout the land - everyone knows the frustrations of chasing up homework which has not been completed. It seemed to polarise over the use (or misuse) of homework diaries and I came away feeling that somehow I had missed the point and we were not really addressing the issues.

On reflection, I realised that the crucial element which had been missing had been motivation - pupils should undertake homework because they have come to realise its worth and value. If this is not understood, no amount of fine-tuning of the system or checking up on homework diaries will make any worthwhile impact.

To many frustrated teachers and parents, this probably sounds like pie in the sky. Yes, the high-achieving pupils from supportive homes will undertake homework, but how do we reach those pupils for whom homework is just an imposition?

The first step, we decided, was to let them choose whether to participate, which work to undertake, the level of difficulty and the pace at which they would undertake it. This was a risky strategy - they could just decide not to bother.

The next step was to consider how to make this attractive to pupils. Extrinsic factors (such as the presentation of certificates) could help to motivate pupils initially, but if pupils did not find completing the work satisfying or see the value of the end product in terms of improved learning and confidence, the initiative would soon fizzle out.

Materials had to be of high quality in terms of presentation and content. They also had to be self-supporting - all of the information required to complete the tasks had to be within the assignments. The involvement of parents was crucial, so guidance would need to be included for them. A simple way also had to be found of maintaining individual records of progress.

The assistant head with responsibility for staff development was highly supportive, giving me funding and time to produce the materials. The end product was a series of 32 graded listening assignments, each of which was backed up by taped material, advice to parents and pupils, pupil and class record cards and guidance to pupils for marking their own work. These assignments have been placed in the library and in the music department and pupils have access to them when required. certificates were produced to acknowledge the achievement of pupils undertaking the assignments.

The assignments were introduced to parents and pupils at an informal recital evening held for parents of certificate pupils. Initially, response was variable, with some pupils completing several assignments and others either not participating at all or tackling them in a rather haphazard fashion. We introduced target-setting as a way of encouraging pupils to participate and were delighted that all pupils in the S3 class (26 in total) chose to participate in the scheme and successfully met the targets.

Demand for the assignments has been so great that we have had to create another full set of materials. What has been particularly rewarding is that pupils of all abilities and musical backgrounds have demonstrated equal enthusiasm. One of the first pupils to complete 20 assignments was a foundation pupil and one further pupil has now completed all 32 assignments.

In the words of an S4 pupil: "listening assignments were very helpful and were a successful task. However, problems were caused as many of the assignments were out of the library due to popular demand, so it would be helpful to future users if there was more than one copy of each".

What more could be said - "We would like to invite you to participate in voluntary assessment"? Well, yes - and they've joined up.

Joan Mowat is principal teacher of music at Woodfarm High School, East Renfrewshire

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