Homework – much ado about nothing?

This post acts as an introduction to the webpage betterteaching.ie/homework and is also the first link on that page.

Why will this post help to make me be a better teacher in my classroom?

  1. Much of the research on the effectiveness of homework – particularly homework which is set without deliberate thought – found it to be of little if any use.
  2. Setting homework can actually be counterproductive; not only does the student not gain from spending time on it in the evening, it can also take up valuable class time to correct – time which could be better spent on other activities.
  3. If you do decide to set homework make sure you can justify it both to yourself and to your students. I try to avoid completely giving ‘busy’ homework to Junior Cert students. At Leaving Cert level I usually ask Physics students to look over questions based on the day’s lesson (if it’s a theory class) and mark the questions which would cause them difficulty. We then focus on these in the following class. For Applied Maths I when we questions in class I will set them similar-type questions to do for homework because the practice reinforces their learning the skills required to solve those particular problems.

clavin homework

After spending most of the day in school, children are typically given additional assignments to be completed at home.  This is a rather curious fact when you stop to think about it, but not as curious as the fact that few people ever stop to think about it.
Alfie Kohn
Rethinking Homework

Marking is the punishment you get for not getting the learning right when the students were in front of you.

Teacher: Where is your homework?
Student: I lost it fighting this kid who said you weren’t the best teacher in school!

School Policy
Does your school have a policy on homework? If so it probably suggests how much time each student should spend on homework each night (differentiated by year).
There is one slight problem with this however: there is little in the way of credible research to back this up.
Not only that; the link between homework and learning is itself tenuous at best.
The problem is not (just) the policy. The problem certainly isn’t the students. The problem is the teachers and the  homework we set.

What we do know is that work which is given thoughtlessly (“do all the odd-numbered questions from 1 to 19”) is of little real value, despite the potential frustration and heart-ache it can cause at home for student and parent alike.

There is an argument to be made for homework acting as a means of recanting the day’s work. In this context it is better referred to as ’daily practice’, which is what it is, rather than ‘homework’, which has such negative connotations.
This can h
owever be counterproductive if students ‘practice’ a procedure incorrectly over and over again. The teacher then has to work twice as hard to correct the incorrect learning in the classroom the next day. But when the practice occurs in class the teacher can correct and re-teach on the spot.

Do we give homework ‘just because’ it’s expected or ‘just because’ we need to keep the little terrors busy or ‘just because’?
In particular you should avoid the ‘busy homework’ syndrome (“all the odd-numbered questions” mentioned above). Another common example in Science class is getting students to write up a report of the experiment which they carried out that day in class. But what function does this serve? If they do need to have a record of their work then why not issue them with a booklet with all the drudgery already filled in (the ‘Procedure’) and gaps left for the diagram and results. This then allows time for answering higher order questions based on the experiment, but why set these for homework – why not use them as the perfect raw material for group work which leads to developing oral presentation skills?


Busy Homework
In a nutshell, ‘busy homework’ is work that doesn’t necessitate the student thinking about what they’re doing to any great degree. Are they just taking the relevant information from the textbook and transcribing it into their copies to serve as an answer, in contrast to actively engaging with the material to the extent that it is developing a stronger and deeper understanding of the concepts?

And don’t get sucked into thinking that project-work (particularly posters) make ideal homework. Where is the learning if the poster is created with material copied from the internet or the textbook (see the Calvin and Hobbes cartoon above)?

Marking Homework
What’s the point in taking up a copy just to write in a comment which the student is in all likelihood only going to glance at? Now if you insist on the student acting on your comments then that’s different – now we’re in the realm of quality feedback. But then you need to follow that up by checking if they have learned from the process. I don’t believe many teachers (myself included) are in this bracket, but I do accept it’s something we should be heading towards. But it’s not intrinsically linked to homework.

Differentiation
If you feel you must give homework, it should be differentiated for that student. In practice this very rarely happens.

Comprehension
For many students their language skills may not be up to the challenge of understanding the homework and it may be that they are not in a position to ask anybody at home for help. So what could be sorted out instantly in class now becomes a potential source of frustration and even embarrassment.
It has been said that homework can batter a struggling child with negativity, challenging his self-confidence instead of nurturing it.

On the other hand if a student’s grades are good and he or she is able to display independent learning then what extra benefit are they gaining by doing homework in the first place?

The heartache of homework
Unless you have kids of your own you can probably never appreciate the life-experiences that your students are missing out on by having to stay indoors and do the homework you set them. Sometimes they just need time to enjoy life for its own sake. Can you still justify setting them homework? This is not to suggest that you shouldn’t set any, but if you are setting it you should at least be able to justify it on this basis.


What are the benefits of a ‘no-homework’ policy?

  • No need to check the homework at the beginning of class.
  • No need to correct the homework.
  • No need to listen to all the excuses.
  • No need to decide which excuses are valid and which aren’t (“it’s in my locker – I can show it to you later”).
  • No need to chastise those who didn’t do the homework (and don’t have a valid excuse).
  • No need to be in a confrontational situation as a result of not accepting the excuse.
  • No need to rebuild the relationship between yourself and the students you just chastised.
  • No need to set lunchtime detention for those who didn’t do the homework.
  • No need to give up your lunchtime to supervise this detention.
  • No need to keep records of homework not done.
  • If you decide that the work will instead be carried out in class then you know the work is the student’s own.
  • You (and the students) have an extra 10 minutes of class time

Use your newly-created time wisely
See that extra 10 minutes you created through no homework? – use it to get feedback on what the students learned in that class (what John Hattie refers to as ‘know thy impact’). What you thought was a brilliant lesson may turn out to have been nothing of the sort. Not likely you think? Fine, but how can you be sure? Focusing on your teaching is actually not all that important; the emphasis should instead be on the students’ learning. What did they learn? What didn’t they learn? What difficulties did they encounter? What would they like or need to revisit next class?

Communication
Why not ask students for their own opinion about the homework they receive?
How useful do they believe it to be?
Are some types more beneficial than others?
Will they buy into the deal that for there to be no homework, the students must be prepared to work more efficiently during class time?

So what does effective homework look like?
The student should clearly see the reason for needing to do the homework.
It needs to be work that requires the student to focus – if they can do it without engaging with the material (or while watching television) then it is of very low value.
If it is for revision purposes then spaced repetition is important (if devoting two hours in the week to revise Physics, it’s better to do a half hour each night for four nights rather than one night of two hours – and each night make sure to recap the previous work). So also is interleaving (if you are devoting an hour to Physics on one night then better to break up (interleave) the work by studying other subjects in between. The key here is ‘forcing’ the brain to retrieve information previously stored in its memory bank. The more times it has to retrieve this information the more securely it will be stored in the long term memory.

Of course if you really want to succeed as a teacher then aim to inspire the students during the day to such an extent that they choose to follow up on the material themselves at home. If this happens then you know you’ve really struck gold in the lesson.Homework2

And whatever you do, don’t do this

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