The four planks of an effective homework policy
We’ve spent a lot of time thinking about homework at Carousel. We’ve researched it extensively, both in terms of the literature and in terms of teacher experience. We summarised the former here, and the picture is mostly positive. When it comes to teacher experience, the picture is a bit less rosy, and from our many conversations we have learnt the following:
● Lots of teachers set homework
● Lots of teachers don’t think that homework in general is helpful to students
● Lots of teachers don’t think the homework they themselves set is helpful to students
There is, therefore, a tension at play. On the one hand, research indicates that homework is helpful. On the other hand, teachers tell us it isn’t.
This is obviously going to be one of those “homework isn’t good or bad, it’s about how you implement it” things, so in this post we are going to explore the things we have learnt about what makes an effective homework policy. Over time, we’ve come to the opinion that there are four overarching concepts that need to be considered when setting homework. We call these the “four planks” of an effective homework policy, and below we’ve outlined each one, why it’s important, and how you can take it into account when planning homework.
Emma has been given a homework assignment, the details of which are written on an online platform. She’s about to sit down and do her homework, but her older brother needs the laptop to attend a work meeting.
Declan has been given the same homework and sits down to do it in his room. There are ten questions, and Declan completes number 1, but finds number 2 very difficult so doesn’t start it and moves on to number 3. He doesn’t get that one either so he gives up and stops working.
If multiple lockdowns taught us anything, it’s that students have wildly different home contexts. Some students have their own phone, tablet, laptop and quiet place to study. Other students have one device in the household, restricted data usage and no quiet place to call their own. Setting homework which does not take that into account means the student simply cannot access the work. Access therefore refers to whether or not the student can get onto the homework to complete it.
Access isn’t just about physical access, it is also about the difficulty involved. If students are finding the work challenging, they are more likely to give up on it than if that work was done in class. All too often, students will say “I didn’t do questions 3–17 as I didn’t understand it,” when on inspection it turns out they couldn’t do question 3 and just gave up on the rest.
One final aspect of access concerns routines. Homeworks which are set frequently and follow a similar format and routine are less liable to go wrong. The more you chop and change, the more likely it becomes that a student will tell you they didn’t understand the work, or they thought they had to do something else, or they weren’t sure how you wanted it submitted or whatever. Though not foolproof, following a simple routine can certainly mitigate this problem and work in your favour.
2. Purposeful thinking
Danny’s homework involves researching the effects of an extreme weather event. He finds a good article that he likes on National Geographic, and takes paragraphs from it and changes the order of some of the words around. He pastes the paragraphs into PowerPoint and spends ten minutes or so first choosing a background style for the slides and then making sure there is a different animation for every paragraph.
It should go without saying that homeworks should be targeted towards the content that has been learnt in lessons. All too often though, homeworks direct students to think about things other than the content. For example, students building a model cell or castle will be thinking more about modelling and cardboard than they will be about cell membranes or portcullises. Students who are asked to make a Facebook page for Mary Shelley will be thinking more about how to repackage their class notes as funny emoji-laden comments than about whether Shelley is critiquing or following the conventions of Romantic literature.
Some homeworks also rely on gamification, often resulting in students thinking about winning the game rather than the content. Furthermore, many homeworks can be completed with very little cognitive effort (e.g. by clicking on various options till you get it right), again lowering the chances of your homework being successful.
So though it should go without saying that “homework should make students have to think hard about the curriculum content”, it doesn’t, and teachers should make a conscious effort to target the thinking to the curriculum.
There’s also an aspect of this plank that involves modelling “what good looks like.” Students don’t always really know the standard you are expecting of them in terms of their homework and how they should be completing or submitting it. Making explicit what you want to see (and what you don’t want to see) again increases the chances that students will complete it in the way you had intended.
Sam has some French homework due in later today, which he hasn’t done. He’s pretty sure it won’t get checked but just in case he does half of it on the bus. In class, the teacher comes round to check the work and Sam opens his book to show the work that he has done. The teacher nods, says “well done” and moves on.
How often do students “get away” with doing no homework? In the busy bedlam of a typical lesson, students who have skipped the homework or done it to a very low standard can often escape consequence simply by trusting that nobody will notice. Many teachers and schools will have clear escalatory systems for dealing with such instances, but many won’t, and even in the ones that do, experience tells us that a great many students will slip through the net.
A good homework policy therefore needs to be able to easily pick up students who have not completed the work. It then needs to feed into the general classroom culture of accountability and school-wide policies.
Olivia always does her homework, but she does it as quickly as possible, and always on the night before it is due. Though her classwork is normally of a good standard, her homework is normally messy, short, and low on quality. She is often praised for her answers in class and the neatness of her book, so doesn’t see a reason to invest much effort into her homework. If her teachers are happy with her, why does she need to do anything differently?
Students tend not to understand the value of the homework they do, and assume it is just a part of day-to-day school life. Teachers set it because it’s a policy, and students do it because they have to. As such, the only incentive to do it is either the natural inclination to do what we are supposed to do, or the deterrent effects of a consequence like a detention. Rare is the student who truly appreciates the learning value of their homework and is grateful that it has been set.
It is therefore imperative that we explain to students why we set certain homeworks. The easiest way to do this is to follow the advice of the Education Endowment Foundation:
Homework that is linked to classroom work tends to be more effective. In particular, studies that included feedback on homework had higher impacts on learning.
Telling students that doing homework is important is one thing, but showing them is quite another. The more you can feed the work students do at home into the work they do in class the better, and the more they will mutually reinforce each other. Students who can see that the work they do at home makes them better in class will grow not just in their knowledge, but also in their confidence and surety that homework really helps.
This kind of integration makes a difference in some of the other categories as well. For example, if a student is showing poor performance in class, you can use that as evidence that they aren’t doing their homework properly and therefore as a lever to hold them to account and improve their performance. Their classwork becomes an indicator of their homework and vice versa: praising students’ classwork explicitly as a function of their homework (e.g. “fantastic answer, I can tell you are doing your homework properly”) vastly heightens the students’ sense of the value of their homework.
We therefore have four planks of effective homework policies:
2. Purposeful thinking
When setting homeworks or writing policies, leaders could use the questions below as a guide:
Through which physical medium will students be completing the work?
If they are using electronic devices, how doI ensure they all have access to one?
If they need logins, how do I make sure that they are written down and stored somewhere safely?
Are homeworks regular and routinised, or are they haphazard and varied?
How will we check that the homework is of the right difficulty level?
Are homeworks meaningful?
Are homeworks tied to the curriculum?
Is it possible to complete the homework and see no accompanying gain in curriculum understanding?
Does my homework feature games and gimmicks that may engage students but won’t have them execute any thinking?
In what ways will teachers show students “what good looks like”?
Is it easy for teachers to identify which students have not completed homework?
Are there clear systems and procedures to pick up students who are not completing the homework?
How will teachers communicate the value of homework to students?
How does the homework integrate with the classwork?
These are the four planks that have helped to direct our development and construction of Carousel. We’ve taken advice and guidance from our amazing community of teachers, and worked hard to make sure we can provide good answers to all of these questions:
What Carousel does for Access:
● Device agnostic (works on any device)
● Limited data required
● No passwords/logins
● Highly customisable quizzes to adjust difficulty
What Carousel does for Purposeful Thinking:
● No games or gimmicks
● Quizzes are directly based on curriculum content
What Carousel does for Accountability:
● Very easy to spot which students haven’t done their Carousel work
● Layout makes it obvious which students have cheated
● Ease of marking (and other data collection methods like using a ‘Do Now’) highlights students who are completing to a low standard
● Easy to check outside the classroom so you can build accountability on your terms
What Carousel does for Value:
● Performance on Carousel quizzes should improve performance in class
Whether you are a Carousel user or not, it’s crucial that you get homework right. By taking into account your homework’s access, targeted thinking, accountability and value, you should be moving closer to homework being an effective learning experience.
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