Homework To be or not to be? Is that the question? - Mr T beattie

Helen Silvester in her article 'homework: is it worth the hassle', writes, "Increasingly, there’s a divide between those who support the need for homework and those who suggest the time would be better spent with family and developing relationships." The jury seems to be out...just how effective is homework?

John Hattie has a great deal of excellent research on homework in his book 'Visible learning'.

Many have taken the above book apart and often the synopsis and cry seems to be that 'homework makes no difference'. Many use Hattie's research as a justification to not set homework, but I'm not sure if that justification works in the secondary setting. John Hattie himself says “Homework in primary school has an effect of around zero. In high school it’s larger. (…) Which is why we need to get it right. Not why we need to get rid of it." So maybe the question we need to reflect on is not 'should we be setting homework' but 'what does it mean to get homework right?'

Tom Sherrington in his insight and analysis on 'Visible Learning' writes, "Hattie is at pains to point out that there will be great variations across the different studies that simply average out to the effect size on his barometers. Again, in truth, each study really needs to be looked at in detail. What kind of homework? What measure of attainment? What type of students? And so on... so many variables that aggregating them together is more or less made meaningless? Well, I’d say so."

It would seem that we can't have a one size fits all answer to the homework conundrum.


So in a bid to start answering what seems to be the right question 'what does it mean to get homework right?', lets have a look at the research...

The EEF (Education of Endowment Foundation) considers homework as having a positive impact on progress regarding secondary school attainment. They also point out that there is a high degree of variation regarding the potential impact of homework, with a key factor being how the homework is set. The evidence points to homework being most effective when:

  • It is used as a short and focused intervention (e.g. in the form of a project or specific target connected with a particular element of learning).
  • It is more routinely set (e.g. learning vocabulary or completing problem sheets in mathematics every day).
  • It was an integral part of learning, rather than an add-on.
  • Students are provided with high quality feedback on their work.
Each of the points above allude to one thing. The person most responsible for the success of the homework is not the pupil but the teacher.

A further debate within Scottish secondary schools will be the difference found in setting homework within the BGE versus homework for pupils in the senior phase. My intentions and expected outcomes are different when setting homework depending on the stage - Of course some things can cut across all ages and stages of secondary school - homework allows for the growth of time management skills, improves independent learning and promotes family engagement. However, in the BGE, homework has the ability to be about the bigger picture, creating a framework which will allow students the opportunity to not just consolidate new learning, but be creative, exploring the topic they have been learning about inside the classroom in their own context outside the classroom.

I would love to hear about what you think makes for great homework with your S1-S3 classes, send me an e-mail with some of your tips on tasks or pieces of work that have been successful in raising attainment and increasing enjoyment within your curricular area.

In the senior phase, I find that homework definitely steps away from the big picture. The focus narrows. For my classes the majority of homework will mirror exam assessments in some shape or form. It is consolidation and practise. I set homework like this because of experience rather than research, but to me it's clear that in the senior phase there is a definite goal for our students (that final exam), so why should we be aiming to miss? That being said, whenever the course content has been covered and before the final exam comes around I will set some homework that helps pupils revisit key knowledge and understanding, but other than that, for me homework with pupils in the senior phase is about practise, practise and more practise.

There is no doubt that exam style questions and responses are an integral part of learning. The time consuming part however isn't the work the pupil completes at home. The time consuming part for the teacher and also the bit that the success of the task hinges on is the marking, the high quality feedback and the opportunity to reflect that is given back to the pupil.

I would love to find out some more best practice regarding how you give feedback to pupils. Have you embedded any processes that considers both your limited time in the marking process and the pupils limited time in class? Any great ideas, please send me an email or come and see me.

My journey last week took me to our Home Economics department and an insightful conversation with Mrs Mitchell. The conversation we had was regarding effective feedback on homework and she filled me in on a technique she finds useful to promote reflection and improvement among her pupils. I'll let her tell the story...

The red box task is a very useful tool to provide pupils with feedback from their work rather than simply awarding them a mark. I have used this with my senior pupils when looking at exam technique but I feel like this could be used by any year group with a written activity.

Basically I would issue the pupils with a past paper question and instead of giving them a mark I would tell them how to improve their answer in the written feedback.

I would then draw a red box after my feedback at the bottom of the lined paper (or in a jotter if that's what you use with your classes) and set aside 10 – 15 minutes during class, after I have returned the homework for - “the red box task”, where the pupil will reflect on the feedback and use the red box to improve the homework. Improvements are led by the feedback and it could be to repeat a process, add to the response, develop the skill being used etc. This is an important part of the homework task as if the pupils do not get time to reflect and try and improve on their technique then what is the point?

This allows pupils to focus on improving their answers rather than focus on the mark they have been given. The pupils I did this with last year quickly stopped asking me “how many marks is this worth?” and began asking “is this okay?” “how can I make this better?”.

A big thank you to Mrs Mitchell for taking the time to share, I thought this example was great. It is a fail-safe way that you can be certain the comments and feedback you are giving to the pupil are being acted upon. It is so often the case, that if you take the time to put written feedback on a homework these comments are overlooked in search of the mark or grade.

Having high volumes of written homework can be very time consuming regarding feedback. Make sure and have a look at my Teaching Technique Tuesday on feedback - I have been using the whole class feedback sheet exemplified here with my seniors again this term and it has been a great resource.

As always, if there are any comments or questions, please drop me an e-mail at ddtbeattie520@glow.sch.uk or come up and see me in Room 4101.


Created with images by khamkhor - "student difficult read" • Tra Nguyen - "Physics teacher"

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