If homework is ‘a blind act of faith’…
If completing homework is different to completing classwork…
If research suggests is has minimal impact on student learning…
Is it worth the hassle?
‘A blind act of faith.’
Tom Bennett eloquently described homework recently as a blind act of faith. Think about that for a moment. It’s probably true. Homework is set and the moment it is teachers are making assumptions that students have the following:
- time & space at home to complete the work.
- the necessary resources (i.e. computer / internet access, pens, pencils, e.t.c.).
- the background knowledge to understand and attempt the task.
- somebody to help.
- see the value and have the motivation / desire to attempt the task.
The response to these assumptions will vary from student to student and for some students the responses will vary at different points during the school year. With this in mind it’s hard to anticipate what return on learning teachers and students will get. It’s for these reasons (listed above) that homework tends to be very different to work carried out in class, as teachers can provide / support students to complete tasks. It’s also for these reasons that a gap can open up between students who have these conditions in places and those that don’t.
Homework also has an impact on family time. This is something outside of the schools control. It’s also time that cannot be refunded. If homework is not scheduled by the school across the curriculum it can lead to huge amounts being set all at once followed periods or little or no homework. How does this help student learning and wellbeing?
Tom mentions a couple of bits of research in his post regarding the effectiveness of homework on learning and although some studies suggest a positive impact, it appears to be variable at best. With this in mind why do schools put some much effort into setting / marking homework if there’s little return on student learning? The question to ask is: under what conditions is homework useful, effective, yields some return on student learning?
Quality of homework?
This is something I have fallen foul of early in my teaching career, setting weird and wonderful homework tasks with little regard for student learning. Tom Bennett perfectly sums up the dangers of losing sight of the purpose of homework here:
Writing a poem about how you felt about litter was one of my favourites, but there were countless other examples. Writing a letter from Jesus about what it was like to be on the cross. Making “wanted” posters for Mr Hyde for English teachers. Colouring in the Great Fire of London for history. Writing scripts for roleplays about Greek medicine. Building volcanoes out of paper mache for geography. I mean, come on. These kind of activities indicate a purposelessness that we need to say goodbye to for ever in teaching. Set meaningful homework, or not at all. It’s their time you’re wasting.
Discovery homework and tasks that don’t relate directly to student learning are of questionable relevance. Part of the problem here could relate back to a schools homework policy that puts pressure on teachers to set regular homework to meet a frequency target rather than when it’s needed to aid learning. Also, is there an agreed standard for homework or are teachers left to their own devices to set whatever they like under the broad umbrella of ‘homework’? Would less teacher autonomy here actually benefit student learning and decrease teacher workload?
A possible solution?
I’m not against homework and set it regularly, but with it being a blind act of faith what can schools do to improve its return on student learning?
- Practice. Use homework time for students to practice (quizzing, reading, writing, maths) rather than extensively challenge them (especially when teachers are unable to guarantee conditions / resources for home learning). The information we have from great organisations such as the Learning Scientists suggests that regular retrieval practice (just one example) is really useful for establishing learning and transferring information into long term memory.
- Routine. Schools could create a homework timetable so that students, teachers & parents are absolutely clear about when homework will be set and when it will be due. I have seen this work well in schools where teachers set homework every week on the same day and have a routine for collecting homework so that it becomes part of the next lesson, which has resulted in very high completion rates from students. Other schools have adopted similar approaches but have applied this across the whole school:
- Reducing teacher workload. Quizzing is a great method for retrieval practice and there are plenty of systems available such as Show My Homework, Socrates (free), Edmodo (free) that allow teachers to create (and share with colleagues) self marking quizzes. These can be spaced out (and re-used) over weeks and months to aid learning. I’ve used Show My Homework in my department. We collaboratively planned 2 quizzes each per term (takes about 10 minutes to create one) and share them with each other. Show My Homework automatically marks and tracks homework completion / scores for us which enables us to focus on address the gaps in lessons.
- Homework clubs. How can schools support students who struggle with the time, space and resources to complete homework at home? A simple solution is by offering homework clubs that enable students to access the necessary resources to complete homework.
Is homework worth the hassle? If the quality of homework yields a good return on student learning and it doesn’t create unmanageable workload for teachers, then yes it probably is. Creating a culture where students value deliberate practice is likely to develop good habits that will enable students to be successful.