Reflecting On … Homework: Getting it Wrong

Whether or not homework benefits students’ learning has always been slightly less certain than strong advocates or detractors would have us believe.  The research on the impact of homework has always been less clear than would ideally be the case for making teaching decisions.  On balance, it seems that for older students, homework does support good educational outcomes.  However this does not make it true for every child.

Cowan and Hallam (1999)’s ‘Model of Homework’ although now slightly dated, beautifully shows the myriad of factors that can affect the outcome of setting homework.  As well as the task itself and how it is presented, there is the culture, consistency and expectations of the school community.  Beyond this, the student’s own characteristics such as motivation and self-belief can greatly affect their engagement with the task.  Furthermore there are many factors in their home such as support, resources and the distractions of the environment that can make the outcome less than positive.

Considering the following possibility:  a student is faced with a homework task in a subject they do not enjoy.  The task is a complicated and challenging one, of the sort relished by high-attaining student.  But this student does not know where to get started.  The task relies on remembering key information from the lesson, which they have not recalled.  It requires completing some further research, but they have little idea what to type into Google to generate useful information.  They half-heartedly try coping some material from Wikipedia, but know that they got told off for this previously and have no idea how to turn the material into the “own words”.  At home, there is little support.  Perhaps no-one else can understand the task, or their carers are busy with long shifts or younger siblings.  Anxiety builds but they are too nervous to go and explain to the teacher that they weren’t listening well enough in the lesson and now don’t know what to do for the homework.  On the morning it is due, they sleep little and wake up feeling terrible.  They’re tired, have a headache and are unusually listless.  It is a tremendous relief when their carer agrees to phone the school and confirm that they will not be in that day, as they are too sick.

Sadly this is not a far-fetched example, but a recurring reality for some student, a problem that grows as they advance through their schooling and the pressure grows more intense.  However it is increasingly clear that there are a number of factors that are in the school’s control which can make this outcome more likely, and reduce possible positive impacts of homework.  These include:


Tasks without a clear learning purpose:

When I started teaching, I barely thought about homework at all.  There was a whole school timetable so I had to set homework on a particular lesson each fortnight.  Whilst I put a lot of time and thought into planning my lessons, homework was always an afterthought, some basic research for the next lesson or a fairly meaningless summary task “Write a letter from King Henry II explaining why he was sorry for killing Becket.” Some children would duly turn up with beautifully tea-stained pieces of paper for me to display and praise whilst others would spend a breaktime with me painfully scrawling out a couple of lines that basically involved rewriting the title and scrawling “King Henry” at the bottom.  There was little purpose, little sophisticated learning and a lot of detentions.  It was not good.  One key issue was that the tasks lacked purpose and were set hurriedly and with little thought. Instead of being able to set tasks when they were meaningful to the learning, I was constrained by a strict timetable and so the pressure to set something was greater than the pressure to ensure that the work was of a high quality.


Complicated Open-Ended Tasks:

When I became the subject lead, I was able to take control of the timetable and my mission became to make homework more meaningful.  The stream of detentions I was picking up from teachers in a very small department (2.5 fte), nearly all for homework, convinced me that weekly or fortnightly homeworks were unmanageable.  There was literally no way to chase down the last missed homework before the next was missed and so sanctions were piling up for some students.  I adjusted the approach to more substantive project-based work. This had a number of advantages, not least in that it gave 6 weeks to chase down and extract work from those who had not submitted anything.  It also meant that there was no regular scramble to invent a “task” but that we could use a series of projects that were carefully designed to be meaningful.  However the most disadvantaged students struggled most.  Completing the tasks successfully involved working on the project slowly and steadily over 6 weeks to conduct research and complete the final piece.  I never looked into the matter too closely, but I strongly doubt that more than 10% of students did anything like this.  Instead the experience at home was 5 weeks of nothing and then a frantic weekend of hours’ of work pulling together a project as quickly as possible.  At parents’ evening we would discuss better strategies and offer support sessions and more guidance about breaking the projects down.  But these would only work for those who approached the task in a certain way; and not one I have ever mastered myself.

The difficulty with open-ended homework tasks was that, whilst they could be both challenging and meaningful, they required a lot of skills and characteristics that most students were still developing. They needed effective study habits, including the ability to plan ahead and self-regulate. They required a level of time management that many adults find difficult.  They demanded a wide range of resources both to research and produce, to which not all students had easy access.  The most successful probably received considerably support from home either in preparing the project, understanding the criteria or even just in the forms of prompts and encouragement to do some work before the deadline loomed.


Flipped Learning:

In another attempt to make homework more meaningful I have also dabbled with “flipped learning”.  This approach never really became core to my practice because the problems seemed so insurmountable from early on.  In principle the idea seemed sensible: by having student pre-read or pre-prepare for my lessons as they do for some A-level and university seminars, they would come in with knowledge and information I could shape more efficiently than ever.  Their learning would advance dramatically and they would get the absolute maximum out of lesson times.  Assuming, of course, that my exposition could easily be replaced with an alternative resource.  And that my questioning, and continuous AfL to assess when students were ready to move on was unnecessary in teaching new material.  And that all students would complete the work to the same desired point of understanding so that I could pick up the lesson at exactly the right point.

In reality, of course, the disadvantaged students were those least likely and least able to complete the work or to secure support when they tried.  They therefore turned up to the lesson with an even greater gap between their starting point and that of their peers, plus a teacher who was more than a little irate at the problems created by them not doing the work set.

In each of these approaches good intent was thwarted by the complicated reality of the many, many factors that shape students’ response to homework.  From trying these different approaches and by continuing to return to the research, I have slowly come to a formulaic but effective approach to homework.  Key things that make homework effective are:

  • Small regular tasks
  • Rehearsal of content and practice of skills
  • A strong culture of purposeful work
  • Differentiated tasks and especially careful consideration of the needs of students with SEND
  • Clear models and support with the work

I shall explore these in  Part 2 of this blog:  Reflecting on … Homework: Getting it Right.

In the meanwhile, here are some questions that help me reflect on whether a task is likely to go wrong before I set it:

  • Is the purpose of this task inherently clear or does it need further explanation from me?
  • What additional barriers will disadvantaged students face in completing this work at home? How have I acted to overcome these?
  • When students have forgotten what I just explained, how will they know what they are supposed to do for this piece of work and what the end product should look like?
  • What will the learning consequences be if the student does not complete the homework and how will we make up the deficit?
  • How will students who have been absent from the lesson complete this work, or what should they do instead?

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