Making Homework Count

A CPD/Action Research Project by Siobhan O’Connor (Mathematics)

Context

The topic of homework always sparks debate. I have always found that students who complete homework were more successful than those who don’t but had done little reading and research to back up my beliefs. There are many who argue that homework has no effect. This is not entirely true; there has been extensive research on the effect sizes of homework and while this is close to zero at primary level there is positive impact at secondary school level. According to Hattie, the effect size could be as high as 0.64.

In my new role as head of maths this year, I spoke to members of the team who cited that homework was rarely completed to a high standard by many students. They all felt that this was a barrier to pupils’ achievement in exams and that a focus on homework was needed across the faculty.

I carried out a questionnaire with a group of students to gather some feedback on their perceptions of homework. Although many of the students believed that completing homework would be beneficial to their progress, they felt that some of the homework set did not help them to improve. They felt that some tasks were a waste of time and resented spending time on these. They more readily accepted homework that would help them to  improve their maths skills, memorise facts and help them do better in assessments. 

Many pupils admitted to rushing or copying homework as they had not spent time on it at home during the evening. Students sometimes found it difficult to complete the work at home citing a noisy environment or distractions (phones/gaming) as the main barriers. Some homework tasks were very short and others too long. Homework booklets were used in some maths lessons but these would sometimes get lost.

Application and Impact

Having read other pieces of research, I became further convinced that we needed a consistent approach to homework across the faculty. I had used an online maths homework platform (Hegarty Maths) in a previous school and decided that this would be a good fit for us. I focused most of the action research on my Year 10 groups of which I had two – one higher and one foundation. Throughout the year, it became clear that there were a few aspects in particular which I needed to consider further when forming and refining the new homework and feedback policy. 

Types of homework and their impact

Setting homework weekly has some obvious benefits but I wanted to give some consideration to the tasks and why I might choose specific tasks. I have trialled different approaches with different classes but experienced more success when setting personalised tasks. Luckily, Hegarty Maths has enabled me to do this more readily than having to prepare various levels of homework sheets. As the year progressed I came to know individual students strengths and weaknesses better. This enabled me to set homework tasks based on students’ areas for development. I explained this to my class, sometimes speaking to students on an individual basis so that they would understand the rationale for setting different tasks. The level of motivation seemed to increase with this approach.

Optimal length of homework

Research shows that short homework tasks often have more positive impact than longer tasks but that the time should increase incrementally with age. KS4 students should spend about an hour on homework per night, although this is across all subjects. I found that setting shorter homework tasks to begin with was more successful. There was increased engagement and this also gave me an opportunity to offer praise and encouragement which motivated some students. It also enabled me to quickly work through homework at lunchtime with students who didn’t complete it. As students became more accustomed to completing short homework tasks routinely, I gradually increased the time but allowed a week in total for completion. I advise students who are struggling with a particular task to complete what they can, then ask for help or advice before completing the rest another day.

Incorporating homework into revision (or vice versa)

Students often see the validity of homework when it directly relates to something that they are doing in lessons, particularly if it helps them to prepare for an assessment. I have experimented with delaying assessements for a week or two following completion of teaching a unit of work. This was partially determined by the fact that I wanted to avoid artificially positve assessement scores but also that I wanted to foster an improved revision culture. This was difficult at the start of the year and some students found that they scored poorly in assessments; they had completed little or no revision and we had been covering different content in lessons. This was disheartening at first, for students and me but I knew I had to persist. The positive impact of this was not visible until much later in the year but has resulted in improved student responsibility for, and organisation of their own learning

Parental involvement and disadvantaged students

I considered to what extent we should involve parents in their child’s homework. Parents’ own experience of school and of maths, in particular, can shape the child’s attitudes to homework. Some parents understand the tasks involved and are at ease helping their child and checking that homework is completed. Others may have had a poor educational experience themselves or may struggle to understand the work involved. Sometimes they may want to help but feel disempowered.

Do some students have an advantage over others when it comes to homework? Does this mean the gap between disadvantaged students and others could be further exacerbated by homework? I became aware quickly that many of the disadvantaged students were less likely to complete good quality homework but that a variety of reasons lay behind this.

Some were more likely to complete homework in school than in the home environment. I set up times where they could do this and get help if needed. In situations where students were not completing homework, I have always found the language we use to be crucial in getting students and their parents on board. Words such as ‘detention’ and ‘punishment’ are more likely to further disengage students. I found that being factual but supportive with parents and students is more likely to achieve positive results. My conversations with parents around missing homework go along the lines of ‘X is falling behind. Part of the reason for this is that they are not completing homework. I would like to support them in catching up with this. We run a homework support session on……, which would help X. Is this something that you would like me to consider for X?’

Conclusion and Future Development

Homework is most certainly worthwjhile but only if it has impact. I plan to discuss my findings further with the team this year and refine our Homework and Feedback policy. The idea of weaving revision and homwork together is one that has optimum benefit. Revision as homework is perceived by students and parents as purposeful homework but how should this be structured?

In maths in Years 9 and 10, we have been trialling a system where we give students a Personalised Learning Checklist (PLC) during a unit of work. The PLC lists the topic to be examined and has links to videos and short tasks. I am encouraging colleagues to delay assessments for a couple of weeks after completing a unit of work to encourage students to revise properly. This also supports better retrieval in the longer term.  

In Year 11, students are given a question by question breakdown on their mock exam. We are keen to use this as a basis for individual homework in the lead up to mock exams. This should enable us to continue to develop student responsibility further while we mentor students through conversations about which tasks they prioritise and how they can better revise. We have also introduced a new Scheme of Work in KS3. The assesments we are planning to use will enable us to track skill areas for individual students and explore using homework as part of intervention.

Background Reading

‘Homework: its uses and abuses’, Professor Susan Hallam, Institute of Education, University of London

‘Homework: what does the Hattie research actually say?, by Tom Sherrington (@Teacherhead)

Featured image: Image by Wokandapix from Pixabay

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