Homework is rubbish

by Adam Boxer, co-founder of Carousel

At a school I know — it’s not my own — heads of department get sent a fortnightly report which tallies the number of homeworks set by teachers across the school. I’m not sure much was ever done with the report, it was just one of those things that happened and people paid lip service to in line management meetings and the like, but ultimately had no effect. A strategy like this quite obviously has no positive impact and large potential for harm; no teacher likes to feel spied on by a bean-counting senior leader with an NPQH whole-school project to tick off.

As well as the dodgy general cultural messages involved, part of the problem here is the lack of a defined success criteria and answering the question: “how would you measure success of the strategy of sending out this report?”

Well…how would you? More homeworks are being set? What if the homeworks are rubbish? What if they are being set but not completed? What if a teacher sets only one homework but it lasts a long time? What if the homework is so voluminous it is making childrens’ lives miserable? What if the bulk of the homework is being done by the parents? Drawing a link from “amount of homework” to “student learning” is simply not plausible.

The reason I say all this is that there will be senior leaders reading this blog saying “yes well obviously sending a report like that is daft and it doesn’t happen at my school” but my point isn’t that the report is daft — your school might indeed not have this daftness — my point is that we have thrown into relief a central concern that probably does exist in your school: how does the homework your teachers set relate to student learning?

As a frontline teacher, setting homework has been one of the absolute banes of my existence, and that’s even within the context of trying to set effective homeworks that most definitely should have an impact on student learning. Below are a few of the “chalkface” perennial issues that I have experienced both in homeworks that I have set and in ones that I have seen set:

1. It doesn’t get done. This can occur for a wide range of reasons:

a. Students give up: if a student in class gets stuck, in general you can pick this up and help them out there and then or at least tell them to move onto the next question. When students work independently and get stuck, they tend to just stop there.

b. Students prefer Xbox: so do I, to be fair.

c. Students physically can’t do it: they might not have the device needed, steady access to the internet, a calm environment for working etc.

d. The teacher mentioned it in class, but forgot to put it in the students’ books, or on the online portal or whatever (“oh but sir I checked my planner and it wasn’t in there”).

2. It gets done, but to a poor quality. This can also occur for a wide range of reasons:

a. Instructions weren’t clear and students just flat out do the wrong thing.

b. Students are terrible at judging quality, and without you hovering might genuinely think that a particular piece of work is good when actually it isn’t.

c. As with 1c, some students will make a stab at the work but lack the resources to do a better job (this is a classic problem with projects and the like).

3. It gets done but is almost completely unrelated to learning.

a. Example 1: students who make a model cell out of plasticine or pizza are going to spend a lot of time not learning the names and functions of cell organelles off by heart.

b. Example 2: students find a way to “hack” the homework like the old copy à paste à rearrange words routine.

c. Example 3: telling students to “revise for your test on the cells unit” is setting them up to spend lots of time doing things that don’t help them learn (making posters, reading their notes, highlighting everything in their book…)

4. It is tokenistic and set according to arbitrary homework schedules which force teachers to shove a homework on the end of something when everybody knows it’s a gigantic waste of time and nobody will ever check that it is done

5. Consequences for poor completion are an absolute flipping nightmare. Why?

a. Often students who don’t care enough about a 15 minute homework also don’t care enough about a 15 minute detention.

b. School processes are often not robust enough to escalate patterns of behaviour like the above.

c. Who has time to deal with the six or seven kids from a class who have legitimate reasons to not have done the homework?

d. Setting a detention for a student who outright hasn’t done the homework is easy, but what about the student who has done the first two questions and “didn’t understand” the rest?

Because of all the above, SLT-originating reports notwithstanding, homework setting and chasing up will vary massively across a school. Responsible teachers end up feeling like the odd one out. This compounds the problem and causes a culture of apathy and organisational lethargy to set in around homework.

Obviously, there is a certain class of education-discourse-consumer who will be reading this and nodding their heads saying “ah yes, well, it’s all about how you set the homework of course.” I’ve written before about why I think such sagaciousnesses are in fact not that that sage, but in a nutshell: if you aren’t going to tell someone how to set it so that it works, then you aren’t really helping. And if, once you have shown someone how to set do it, it turns out that your how is pretty difficult to implement, you also aren’t helping.

This, of course, is a blog on the Carousel website and, well, it’s going to talk about Carousel. We built Carousel because we wanted to help teachers with the issues listed above. If you have a way to tackle the homework obstacles without Carousel then honestly I’m happy for you and you can stop reading now. But if you don’t, and there’s a chance that Carousel might help you, then please do read on.

This year, my homeworks are almost exclusively set through Carousel. I make a question bank or nab one from the community, upload it in seconds and from there it takes about two minutes a pop to make a quiz homework for my students. Carousel can’t fix all of the problems I brought above, but it can go further towards it than anything else I’ve tried. So, why does it work?

1. Routines: I set each class two or three quizzes each week. By the time we are a couple of weeks in they know what to do, meaning they are less likely to fail to follow instructions or give up after a couple of attempts. Students can’t say “oh it wasn’t in my planner” if they get one every single week — the routine removes many such points of failure.

2. Quality control: I was pleasantly surprised to find that thanks to the layout and format when marking a quiz, it only actually takes a few minutes to go through an entire class’s responses, and it’s easy to spot cases where students have done a poor job that they think is good. You raise this in class and you slowly edge your students to getting better at monitoring the quality of their output.

3. Device agnostic: Carousel works just as well on a phone as it does on a laptop or tablet, removing technology-related obstacles.

4. Answers are provided: bearing in mind students have the flashcards with the answers on, if they find they are struggling with the quiz, they can just go back and revise the cards, then retake it.

5. Consequence for non-completion: I can see who has done the work and who hasn’t at a time of my convenience, which makes it easier for me to follow up as I don’t necessarily need to deal with it in class. In the coming months there will be a full, detailed markbook within Carousel which will allow you to track this over time as well.

6. Ease: it takes literally a couple of minutes to set a quiz, increasing the chances that I (and my team) will actually do it.

7. Accountability: I can see all students’ responses clearly and easily and can see which students aren’t giving it their all. I have a number of routes to deal with that, but the key is getting that information first.

8. It actually helps: I’ve seen over the last term that as students take Carousel more and more seriously, their responses on Carousel improve, but so do their responses in class and their general feeling of accomplishment.

So there you have it. We aren’t perfect yet, but we’ve managed to turn homework into an enterprise bedevilled with problems into a simple tool that will make your life easier and improve your students’ learning over time. What’s not to love?

Create your Carousel account at https://app.carousel-learning.com and sign up to our newsletter to receive regular updates and notifications of new blogs at www.carousel-learning.com.

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Carousel Learning

Carousel is a retrieval practice and online quizzing tool that helps students to embed knowledge in their long-term memory.