Guest Blog: How can homework help to close the gap?
If you could give pupils an additional 5 months of education without delaying their progression through the system, would you do it(1)?
If you could put something in place that strongly predicted pupil attainment and progress at GCSE, would you do it(2)?
This is the type of impact that regular homework completion can have on pupil achievement(1,2,3).
Indeed, homework is an opportunity for pupils to practise their learning away from the direct support of teachers. If part of a whole school culture, homework can be essential to the learning process, with the potential to build schemas and strengthen connections within long-term memory.
However, Dylan Wiliam says that ‘most homework teachers set is crap’(4).
The key, of course, is in the word ‘set’. There are several factors to consider and issues to avoid, some of which can be alleviated if homework is designed well(5).
When effective homework is set, several positive effects are achievable in older pupils.
Evidence suggests homework is most effective when:
it is set regularly, in little chunks(3)
it takes about 5-10 hours per week for pupils at KS3 and slightly longer for pupils at KS4 (minimum 15 hours per week)1
it is an integral part of learning and not an add-on1
tasks aim to embed, improve, extend, and apply learning(6)
it incorporates transfer of learning so pupils apply ideas to unfamiliar contexts(3)
feedback on completion is timely and specific(1, 3)
it is valued by both pupils and teachers(3,6)
The above points can be categorised into three aspects of effective homework: how homework is set, the style of homework, and what happens once it is completed.
How homework is set
Effective homework is set at regular intervals. It can be set on the same day each week and pupils submit work on the same day the following week. This is a powerful way of embedding homework completion into classroom and independent routine but also eases anxiety for those pupils who are not very organised.
Some research suggests that for homework to have the most impact, younger pupils at the Secondary level should work for 1-2 hours per school day while older pupils work for a bit longer(1).
A streamlined approach across the whole school, usually written into policy, is needed to ensure pupils are not overrun with homework but also that sufficient homework is being set.
Too little and homework can have little to no impact.
Too much and pupils may either not bother completing the work or, more likely, complete only half of the work.
Indeed, the latter was true of work submitted remotely as some pupils would submit a short paragraph suggesting they had spent an hour on it. In some cases, this may very well have been true as pupils struggled to use the right resources to assist them in homework completion.
This is why it is important for all necessary resources to be made apparent and available to pupils throughout the period of independent learning. This could include booklets, textbooks, links to reliable websites, or notes in exercise books. Modelling the use of resources prior to homework being set provides pupils with the chance of achieving success.
One of the (many) lessons from remote learning is how useful it is to centralise tasks and resources so all pupils can access work. This can be continued for setting homework, together with any relevant resources, submission date, and how long pupils are expected to spend on each task. The main advantage is if pupils (and parents) can expect to have homework set on the same platform each time, even if the actual task is paper-based, they can see exactly what is required of them, especially if they missed the lesson when it was set.
Style of homework
At the Durrington Research School, effective homework has the following Active Ingredients: the key principles of embed, apply, improve and extend; retrieval practice; spaced practice; tier 2 and 3 vocabulary instruction; metacognition and self-efficacy; and feedback(7). These ingredients were clearly determined with cognitive science and self-regulation in mind.
The actual homework task may look different for different subjects but the guiding principles need to be similar across the school.
Homework needs to have a point. Homework will not be effective if it is provided as a tick-box exercise so ‘homework is set every week’, or is not linked to the learning in the classroom.
Careful thought and discussions within departments are required to design effective homework. This will ensure consistency so pupils are gaining the same benefit no matter who is setting the homework.
This is not to say that homework needs to be exactly the same for each class but if designed with core principles in mind, they could have the same impact.
One of the important aspects of effective homework is encouraging transfer of concepts to unfamiliar contexts(3). This must follow careful modelling in the classroom or it is in danger of being too challenging for pupils to work on independently. There is a fine line between extending pupils and setting homework that sits firmly out of reach. Pupils must be given every chance of success in order to motivate and encourage them to complete homework well and often.
Pupils need to be motivated to spend the right amount of time on a piece of work. It must be made apparent to pupils that they can reap benefits if they attend to their homework. This in turn increases motivation leading to more success leading to further motivation(8).
Setting quizzes that assess work set for homework can prove to pupils that when they work hard and attend to their homework, they can achieve success in their learning.
However, without timely and specific feedback, homework can quickly lose meaning to a pupil. From their point of view, if they spend a considerable amount of time working on a task for the teacher to not provide any feedback can be very demotivating. For homework to be successful across a school, pupils and teachers need to buy-in to the process and impact it can have.
Workload should also be taken into account. It is impractical to suggest that teachers should read through and provide comment on every piece of homework.
There are ways to reap the benefits of great homework, provide good feedback and use the information gathered from homework to inform future teaching, all whilst ensuring teachers don’t experience burn-out.
Carousel Learning, Seneca Learning, Educake, and Google/Microsoft Forms are some great platforms that can be used to set homework, analyse responses, and provide whole class or individual feedback. Most of these platforms allow you to scan if pupils have completed the work, gauge the quality of responses, and identify misconceptions, persistent errors, or pupils who are clearly not putting in enough effort.
For paper-based homework, self- or peer-assessment of responses could be employed in class with Cold Call or Show Call to check completion and quality of certain answers. A sweep of exercise books could also be done at particular points to check if corrections are being made.
These strategies have one thing in common- it shows our pupils that we care about their homework, because we know how much it can help them succeed in their learning.
Does homework work for everyone?
Evidence does suggest homework is more effective for pupils at Secondary than at Primary1,3. However, even within the Secondary level, suggestions have been made that pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds are further disadvantaged through homework. There is evidence to suggest that this is far from the truth and that homework, if designed to a high quality, can help to close the achievement gap(9).
It is also important to note that lower-attaining pupils need to spend longer on pieces of homework to gain the same benefit as pupils who are higher-attaining(3).
This may be partly due to lower-attaining pupils employing little or no metacognitive strategies when presented with a challenge(10). To avoid pupils giving up on homework easily:
provide all necessary resources to ensure successful completion and high quality of responses
model similar styles of homework tasks so pupils are armed with the knowledge of how to tackle work independently
supply pupils with information on how long each task should take
routinely discuss aspects of great homework submissions through Show Call
provide checklists of key features that should be included in certain tasks(11)
For some pupils, conditions at home can negatively impact any attempt at independent learning. In these cases, additional support, in the form of homework clubs, can signal to pupils that homework is important for all and provide them with the time and space needed to be successful(6).
On the other hand, for those pupils who persistently do not buy-in to the benefits of homework and either continue to submit homework of a sub-optimal quality, or not at all, sanctions should be put in place(6). This can be coupled with discussions involving the pupil and their parents, to relay the importance of homework.
Sanctions are a necessary aspect of building good habits in pupils. Indeed, when there are few or no consequences for non-completion of homework, pupils are less likely to complete it in the future or put in sufficient effort. These poor habits can then potentially lead to lower achievement(9). Letting pupils off for not completing work means we are letting them down and lowering their chances of success.
Homework does need careful thought from teachers and sufficient effort from pupils to be effective. The key to fixing homework is that all teachers and all pupils buy-in to the benefit of homework, support for pupils is available, and feedback is provided in a timely manner. This can only be achieved if the whole school works in cohesion, guided by principles promoting self-regulation and rooted in cognitive science.
Homework is hugely important in helping our pupils succeed in the short-term but can also be necessary to train our pupils for success in later life.
If pupils can complete independent work successfully, reaping the many benefits of homework, this may suggest they are also good at self-regulating their environment and behaviours to minimise distractions and seek out appropriate resources when presented with a challenge.
Schools can build great habits through effective homework that help foster confidence in our pupils, motivate them to succeed further, and provide powerful learning experiences, whilst also potentially lowering the achievement gap(9).
This can only serve to better prepare our pupils for life beyond their GCSEs. This preparation for a successful future is, after all, the very essence of education.
EEF (2018) Complete Teaching and Learning Toolkit. Available at: https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/public/files/Toolkit/complete/EEF-Teaching-Learning-Toolkit-October-2018.pdf (Accessed: 11th April 2021)
Sylva et al. (2014). Students’ educational and developmental outcomes at age 16. Effective Pre-school, Primary and Secondary Education (EPPSE 3-16) Project. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/351499/RB354_-_Students__educational_and_developmental_outcomes_at_age_16_Brief.pdf (accessed on: 11th April 2021)
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Mccrea, P. (2020). Motivated Teaching: leveraging the science of learning to boost attention and effort in the classroom. CreateSpace Independent
Bempechat, J. (2018). The Case for (Quality) Homework: Why it improves learning, and how parents can help. Education Next. 19 (1). Available at: https://www.educationnext.org/case-for-quality-homework-improves-learning-how-parents-can-help/ (Accessed on: 12th April 2021)
EEF. (2020). Metacognition and self-regulated learning. Available at: https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/tools/guidance-reports/metacognition-and-self-regulated-learning/ (Accessed: 11th April 2021)
Castelino, J. (2021). Encouraging Self-Regulated Learning Through Effective Homework. Research Schools Network. Available at: https://researchschool.org.uk/news/encouraging-self-regulated-learning-through-effective-homework (Accessed on: 11th April 2021)