In the first part of this blog “Reflecting on Homework: Getting it Wrong” (https://jmsreflect.blog/2019/12/01/reflecting-on-homework-getting-it-wrong/) I identified some key strategies I have tried over the years which have not worked to support most students. These include: tasks set to an arbitrary timetable rather than to meet learning needs, complicated open-ended tasks and flipped learning.
Considering the amount of work that can go into setting, chasing and marking homework this is a considerable waste of effort on my part and the students’! However, with greater understanding of the research and insight into how students learn at home, I have been able to focus on improving the quality and impact of my homework. In our team we now focus on the following things to help make homework effective:
- Rehearsal of content: One of the most useful things students can do at home is revisit core content and commit it to long-term memory. This reduces cognitive load in the classroom when applying material to new skills and contexts. Giving students small, manageable amounts of content to learn, tasks that involve revisiting content (such as writing up the lesson in 5 bullet points) and regular quizzes can support their learning throughout the course. We often set small multiple-choice quizzes as homework. Using a site such as Show My Homework allows you to reuse quizzes regularly to ensure students are revisiting material throughout the course. Short deadlines (a few days to a week) are ideal here, as they allow the student to review the work whilst it is still clear in their mind. Giving them several attempts at the quiz allows them to try again if they have struggled and achieve success, rather than feel that they have “failed”.
- Practice of Skills: Rehearsing specific skills and exam techniques can take a lot of time, and students can usefully do this at home. However it is vital that they are clear on what they are aiming for so that they really are practicing valuable skills, not just practising “getting it wrong”! Just because it is homework it is important not to forget the “I DO – WE DO – YOU DO” model. Students at home need to work independently (“YOU DO”) and so before this they need skills clearly modelled, before working with the teacher in some practice examples in class. Uploading the classroom resources and models to a shared drive which student can access from home gives them a first port of call for support, before they get stuck and need me.
- Differentiated Tasks: At John Mason we do not use a “must/should/could” or “all/most/some” model. Rather all students aim to achieve the same lesson objective, with different levels of structured support to help them achieve it. The same philosophy can apply to homework with careful consideration of the extra support some students will need. Partial solutions are a powerful tool to help students who are not yet ready to complete unstructured tasks independently. I have not gone down the route of juggling different “homework groups” with different tasks set: instead I normally offer extension and support resources and use metacognitive strategies to reflect with students on making the right choice for them. Most students want to do well and aim high and those who are not ready to operate without support, for whatever reason, can be encouraged towards it over time, rather than in a single task where they are making the decision on their own. Some students may take a “lazy” choice at times, but we can discuss that later and in private – in the meanwhile, they are still doing some meaningful work.
- Small regular tasks: there is no magic quantity of homework that best supports students’ learning but research suggests that if students are doing more than 60-90 minutes a night it starts to have diminishing returns. In order to support students with committing content to memory, we have moved away from extended termly projects to small, regular tasks that see them revising and revisiting material on a regular cycle. As we have seen that the vast majority of students tend to “save up” big projects and do them in one burst of effort we now break more complicated projects into smaller steps to allow us to monitor students’ progress and guide them throughout the project.
Of course, not every student completes their homework. Unfortunately, home and life circumstances mean that this remains a regular pattern for a small number of students, and an occasional issue for a larger number. Some, especially early on in a course, but even in year 11, end up selecting the least useful approaches – putting the work off, completing it an unhelpful amount of time after the lesson, rushing it or even having to do it in detention.
However, the move away from flipped learning and big “high stakes” projects means that this does not create a situation in which students’ learning in class is damaged. They can still access the lessons and be warmly welcomed without feeling that they are in “trouble” or that the poor decision about homework has fundamentally damaged either our relationship or their learning. However the number of students making these choices is lower than it has ever been in my teaching experience. With a clear sense of purpose, manageable tasks, accessible support and consistent follow-up most students understand the value of working at home.
As previously, these are the questions I reflect upon when planning a homework task:
- 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?
For more on homework, try:
EEF Toolkit, (2016), ‘Homework (Secondary)’ https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/pdf/generate/?u=https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/pdf/toolkit/?id=155&t=Teaching%20and%20Learning%20Toolkit&e=155&s=