“Most homework teachers set is crap.” Dylan Wiliam, ResearchEd 2014.
The subject of homework inspires strong opinions. Teachers, parents and students themselves all have a view on the matter and those views are often diametrically opposed. Dylan Wiliam, back in 2014, shared a very strong opinion that didn’t exactly condemn the evidence and action related to homework to the dustbin, but he poked a gaping hole into our every assumption about homework and its impact.
At Huntington School, we battled with the issues and surveyed the best available evidence, from the EEF Toolkit (Secondary and Primary – note the crucial differences here: homework is much more effective with older children), to specific recent studies on homework (this one via Dan Willingham). The IEE ‘Best Evidence in Brief‘ newsletter has done a great job of collating homework research HERE. Certainly, knowing the evidence base can help our decision-making, though it is of course a little more complicated than that.
SO WHAT DOES THE EVIDENCE SAY?
Homework (or home learning, or “extended learning” as we relabelled it at Huntington) is seemingly most effective when it involves practice or rehearsal of subject matter already taught. Students should not typically be exposed to new material for their home learning, unless they are judged more expert learners. Complex, open ended homework is often completed least effectively; whereas, short, frequent homework, closely monitored by teachers is more likely to have more impact. This could include summarising notes; using graphic organisers to recast classroom materials; guided research; exam question practise; guided revision etc.
Home learning is proven to be more effective with older students than their younger counterparts. This is typically because they are more able to self-regulate their learning and they have more background knowledge to draw upon. For similar reasons, high ability students typically benefit more from home learning than low ability students.
Teacher scaffolding is essential to guide effective home learning. Parental involvement is desirable, but it should not be essential, otherwise the nature of the task is likely too complex for successful completion.
WHAT MAKES HOME LEARNING EFFECTIVE?
Cathy Vatterott (2010) identified five fundamental characteristics of good homework: purpose, efficiency, ownership, competence, and aesthetic appeal.
- Purpose: all homework assignments are meaningful & students must also understand the purpose of the assignment and why it is important in the context of their academic experience (Xu, 2011).
- Efficiency: homework should not take an inordinate amount of time and should require some hard thinking.
- Ownership: students who feel connected to the content and assignment learn more and are more motivated. Providing students with choice in their assignments is one way to create ownership.
- Competence: students should feel competent in completing homework. In order to achieve this, it’s beneficial to abandon the one-size-fits-all model. Homework that students can’t do without help is not good homework.
- Inspiring: A well-considered & clearly designed resource and task impacts positively upon student motivation.
We should pose ourselves some tricky questions:
- Has the purpose of the homework been made clear to students?
- Are the students in possession of all the resources required to undertake the task independently?
- What are the existing beliefs about home learning (students & teachers) that we need to recognise/challenge?
- How can we best leverage parental support for home learning that is effectively communicated?
- How do you plan to provide specific and timely feedback to students on their home learning?
Maybe Wiliam is right and that regardless of the evidence, too much of the homework we set is just crap! The challenge is certainly a healthy one given the cost in terms of time for all involved. We should expect that every teacher and school leader understands the nuanced evidence that attends homework, with the differences that relate to individuals, groups and students of very different ages and stages of development. We will still be left with tricky decisions and no little disagreement, but we will be better off having tackled the issue properly.
If you want to read more about the evidence that attends homework, then try the following:
- Professor Sue Hallam, from the Institute of Education, has written an excellent summary of homework, entitled ‘Homework: Its Uses and Abuses‘.
- The Time magazine article is a handy and accessible summary of the debate, entitled: ‘Homework: Is It Any Good for Kids‘.
- This ASCD educational leadership article is not the most recent recently, but it is very good and clear: ‘If Only They’d Do Their Work’.