Making homework work

A CPD research project

This project was completed as part of a focus on developing leadership skills, with a practical challenge to take a lead on a particular issue within the Faculty

What was the issue?

The biggest problem I found with homework was the poor completion rate. This led to classroom teachers having to follow up with detentions, so that in the end, homework ended up creating more work for the staff and less benefit for the students.  

Most students I spoke to didn’t see the value in the homework set and some felt it was pointless. This created an apathy towards homework in the students, especially boys. Who, in my experience, are often less inclined to complete homework.  Teachers that I spoke with stated that setting homework was often laborious and had become a box-ticking exercise that had lost its purposefulness. 

I also felt that inconsistency in practice between teachers, even within Faculties, led to inconsistent homework setting. In my own teaching I would have periods where I set lots of home work and other periods when I didn’t. This would also vary between year groups.  With year 11 often being my priority. Furthermore, although I was setting plenty of homework, I often forgot to collect it in or did so later than intended. This created further inconsistencies, confusing the students and adding to the apathy towards homework for some.

My proposition

In summary, I felt R.E. needed a common approach to homework so that the experience of homework in the faculty was identical for all classes. This would be clearer for students to follow and would address many of the issues mentioned above.

Why is homework important?

The great debate over the value of homework has raged on for over a century. Over 130 studies have been conducted and published, and the findings vary. Some studies have found it academically beneficial others claim it to be a waste of time.

A recent and comprehensive meta-analysis was performed by Dr. Harris Cooper at Duke University in 2006. As Dr. Cooper notes, ‘everyone has opinions, but opinions are not facts’. So, Dr. Cooper and his colleagues set out to analyse and synthesize the data collected in recent studies and evaluate the outcomes in an attempt to determine if homework is indeed beneficial for students, and if so how much is appropriate. He has published his work and authored a book entitled ‘The Battle over Homework: Common Ground for Administrators, Teachers, and Parents.’

His findings in a nutshell were:

  • In moderation, homework tends to improve test scores.
  • Teachers should avoid extremes when assigning homework.
  • Instructors (teachers) should have the latitude to do what is best for their students in the given situation.

To sum up the general consensus over homework appears to be:

  • It must be meaningful, accessible and of a reasonable length and amount
  • Homework with timely individual feedback from the teacher is the most effective – and most likely to get the best effort from students.
  • Homework is an important way for parents to see how their children are doing and is largely supported by most parents.

What is the school policy? – Are we meeting it as a Faculty?

Below is our school homework policy (and my comments about how it was working in the Faculty):

The minimum expectation of the teacher is:

• Homework will be set regularly in all subjects (this was happening but it was inconsistent between classes).

• Each class will receive at least two homeworks each term in each subject (this was being met).

• Additional homework tasks are set as appropriate (this was being set, particularly using revision).

• A record will be kept of all homework that have been set on show my homework (this was being done but no other record of the homework was being kept other than on ‘Show My homework’ (an online package for setting and recording homework).

• A record will be kept of homework which has been completed on ‘Show my homework’ (this was not being fully met as completion records were inconsistent).

• Homework is structured so that it is accessible and challenging to students of all abilities (this was being met but often homework lacked challenge).

• Homework will be explained to students, with the learning and assessment expectations made clear (this was being met).

• Homework will be assessed and quality feedback will be given (homework was not always assessed and feedback for homework lacked detail).

• Students will be acknowledged for completion of quality homework (this was being done).

• The consequences of non-completion of homework will be made clear (this was being done).

What was my solution?

To introduce a termly ‘Takeaway homework’, as previously used by the English Faculty. This allowed for more assessed task as they contain lots of questions in an exam style format. These also gave student more time to complete the tasks as they were set one per term. They were easier to access as they are allowed students to choose from a variety of tasks ranging from easy to hard. As it required only one collection of homework per term it meant that it was easier to record and mark. This allowed time for better quality of feedback. Students could choose the tasks they wanted to completed but must do some of the more difficult tasks. It was also easier to set detentions/catch-up sessions for, as only one set of detentions for non-completion needed to be set per term.

What did I do? How did I lead on it and embed it?

The Takeaway homework format is twelve tasks of varying difficulty. Each task is ranked by how difficult it is. So will be either ‘extra mild’, ‘medium’, ‘hot’ and ‘extra hot’.   Some are creative, some assessed (in the form of exam questions) and some are extended written tasks. Students can pick any 4/5 tasks (depending on the length of the term) but must choose at least one ‘Extra hot’ (hard) task.

Firstly, I wrote the takeaway homework sheets. They did not take long and I created one for each of the twelve topics covered in years 7-8 and term 1 of Y9.  I then introduced it at a faculty meeting. I set out my expectations and reasons for using ‘Takeaway homeworks’. I then printed 150 physical copies and published an electronic copy on ‘Show my Homework’; so it could be accessed by all students. I then checked with members of the RE faculty that it had been completed and got feedback on the completion rates.

All teachers asked reported an increase in homework completion and positive feedback from the students.

Was it effective?

This strategy has been very successful. I used two classes to measure improvement – 8a and 8b. 8a in particular, had a weaker homework record. For the final homework task before the implementation of the ‘Takeaway homework’, only 62% of students returned their homework on time. For 8b this figure was 79%. The main group that did not complete homework in these classes were boys, and in particular disadvantaged boys. Of the 48% of students in 8a who did not complete the final homework task, all but one were boys and three quarters of those were disadvantaged.

Immediately, homework completion for both groups rose. In both classes only three students did not complete it on time. That’s 3 of 58 students (all disadvantaged boys!). The quality of the work varied. Some students made tremendous effort, while some had clearly completed the tasks at the last minute.  Of the three students that did not complete by the deadline. I gave them another day to complete or face the consequence of having to do it in a lunch time detention.  Two of the three students completed it and the final one completed it during a lunch time detention.

Why was it effective?

I believe the key to the success was due to various factors. Firstly, because of the time frame. As the period for completing the homework was longer, I was able to remind students and even allow small amounts of time at the end of lessons for students to make a start on different tasks.

It was easy to set and can be issued electronically and paper format. This meant all students could access it. It also gave the student greater ownership and an element of choice. This is helpful when persuading the more reluctant to complete something in their own time.

It is differentiated by outcome and task. Students can choose tasks and if they find them hard they have the time to ask the teacher or the choice if choosing another homework.

It includes exam style questions. This is purposeful and helps improve the students’ assessment and technique. It allows opportunity to give purposeful feedback. My homework marking is based mostly around marking these assessed questions. The creative task usually get comments rather than feedback. This is a better use of time and more beneficial to the students.

This had now become the standard model for setting Key Stage 3 R.E. homework. So far this term several students have already completed their homework with three week left until the deadline. As a faculty, we are considering rolling it out in a modified format to Key Stage 4.   

At the start of every term I now publish the ‘Takeaway homework’ online for students to access and will also print a small number of hard copies for students that struggle to access the internet at home.

Overall, I feel it has improved the homework in R.E. dramatically.

Further Reading:

‘The Battle over Homework: Common Ground for Administrators, Teachers, and Parents.’ by Harris M. Cooper, Corwin Press

How important is homework to student success? by Laurie Smith, on Oct 2016:

Featured image: ‘girl’ by nastya_gepp on Pixabay. Licensed under Creative Commons CC0

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