It’s been highly publicised in the media over many years and more so recently, fueling an ongoing hot topic of discussion in education surrounding homework. Reading articles such as Long homework hours , Homework ‘damages’ primary age pupils and particularly Most homework is ‘pointless‘ all seem to suggest on the face of it, homework is an unnecessary component of our education system. Taking these headlines on face value, especially if you are a parent, student or not involved with education could provide you with a skewed view. However, if we dig deeper into the fundamental basics of pedagogy which underpin teaching and learning, we start to appreciate the superficial nature of these generalised statements. If we take our understanding of pedagogy and look into published research undertaken into homework, we can begin to answer the question; does homework really make a difference to student progress and outcomes?
I’ve long been a fan of John Hattie’s research, especially his extensive exploration around the effectiveness of homework. As a secondary school leader, naturally I am particularly interested in Hattie’s study around secondary level education. He argues there is no evidence to determine if homework aids the development of ‘soft skills’ such as time management, organisation etc… and in fact his findings indicate the highest effects in secondary education are associated with repetition and routine of subject content. Evidence he provides also suggests that homework set in a task format has a higher affect on problem solving skills developing ‘deep learning’. Furthermore, open-ended, unstructured tasks and excessively complex homework tasks have a lower effect overall. So, it comes as no surprise that homework set frequently in short bursts which is closely monitored by the teacher has more impact upon student progress over time.
So what does all this mean?
This research is based upon a measured scientific approach in order to quantify the information gathered. However and as we all know, students are individuals and a generalised approach based solely upon research isn’t entirely inclusive and therefore will not meet the diverse needs of all students, no different to the principle of differentiation in the classroom. Focusing on secondary level education, frequent feedback from teachers on shorter homework tasks has a larger impact upon progress, open-ended projects require time and have a lower effect on overall progress. We also need to consider parental/carer input, or perhaps for some a lack of it. I believe in education we still need to work closer with parents on what homework actually looks like and establish the role of parents/carers within that.
What do the students say?
I often meet with students from across all year groups to discuss all aspects of their learning. Without this open and frank discussion I would feel slightly detached from what matters most within teaching and learning in our school – student voice and quality first teaching. I have just completed my recent round of discussions with randomly selected students by year group and the focus was on homework. I asked all students the following questions, below each one is a brief summary of their responses, the number in brackets refers to the year group:
What types of homework do you enjoy/find the most useful?
- Research and projects linked to lesson content (7,8,9)
- Project based creative thinking tasks (9)
- Past papers and knowledge based tests (10,11)
What homework do you find boring/not useful?
- Worksheets (7,8,9,10,11)
- Online tests that are always the same format (repetitive), giving instant feedback scores but it’s not helpful (9,10,11)
- Repetition of the same thing/content (7,8,9,10,11)
In general do you feel that your homework helps your academic progress?
- Yes, but not if it’s set and needed the next day, we need longer to do it (7,8)
- Yes if it’s relevant but not just set for the sake of it (9,10)
- Volume of it does cause a problem, it takes over our lives (9,10,11)
- Yes if it’s in short chunks with feedback (10,11)
I have omitted two subject specific questions out of respect for Faculties. So what does this tell us? Well, I appreciate its anecdotal and a snap shot from 60 students in a population of over 1200, however, these responses were unanimous. Interestingly and in contrast to Hattie’s research, our students have put forward an opposing point of view. Perhaps perception is a factor at play here, so is feasible to suggest that in the context of homework, enjoyment in learning doesn’t directly correlate with progress? or maybe as Hattie suggests; the highest effects of homework in secondary education are associated with repetition and routine of subject content, so it could be implied that enjoyment in undertaking homework doesn’t matter and that it serves it’s purpose as a mechanism of extending learning. But let’s not forget innovative approaches to delivering those fundamental basics of pedagogy, as educators it’s our responsibility to rethink homework, make it count and most certainly make it enjoyable.
Rigour, consistency and accountability
As discussed, consistency and frequent teacher feedback is key to ensuring that homework is effective in securing progress for all students. With a clear focus on homework from OFSTED: “Teachers use well-judged teaching strategies, including setting appropriate homework that, together with clearly directed and timely support and intervention, match pupils’ needs accurately” we have to guard against schools driving homework to ‘death’ whereby teachers feel they have to set homework for the sake of it to satisfy accountability measures and/or internal monitoring systems. There is also teacher workload to consider and that fallacy where all homework has to be marked in-depth, I discuss marking and workload in a previous blog: ‘Marking-Effective, Developmental & Time Saving‘ Homework should be viewed as an interrelated strand of learning and sometimes I feel its label divides it from this and forces teachers to set irrelvant homework tasks. So ask yourself the question: should homework be viewed differently from school based learning? and when you are next planning homework, consider the following:
- Is it pre-learning for new subject content?
- Is it reinforcement of learning to link a series of lesson together?
- Is it repetitive content to improve memory recall?
And consider how you will feedback to students:
- How will you assess this, or does it need to be assessed?
- How will you feed back to students?
- How will you measure progress? (You can read more about progress here)
Let’s be realistic about this, as teachers we are constantly striving to achieve a work life balance and not burn out, so on a human level we do have to be mindful of our students, they also have heavy workloads and lives outside of school. However, homework, when structured, differentiated and monitored correctly is integral to Teaching and Learning and therefore progress which students make overall.