Homework: ‘What the?!’ Some tips

Posted on Posted in teaching and learning

I expect like many parents across the land, I’ve just finished ensuring that my 7 year old son has completed his homework for the weekend.  Not that homework every stops, as well as me boring him to death about geography, our stella conversations about space and our heartwarming and awe inspiring chats about the news, he reads every day (currently Mr Gum recommended by top primary teacher friend Leah) and goes over his timetables.  But, as a parent, teacher and school leader, homework is a pain in the behind. It seems we either give too much or too little. The work is too challenging or too easy. It’s never marked or recorded. As a leader, many parental complaints are about homework (mainly the lack of) and, as a teacher I need to ensure that homework is set (both to comply with school policy but also because I believe that homework is an important part of learning), it feeds into the learning and is manageable to mark and for students. The latter point is especially important for young people growing up in the bonkers high steaks world (GCSEs starting in early May so we can fit them all in anyone?).

Anyhow, here are some practical tips and principles that I find useful for homework:

Ensure that it’s linked into the Schemes of Work.

Ad hoc homework just doesn’t work. It just leaves students confused and teachers forget what worked and what didn’t. Thinking about homework in advance helps and, although I accept the argument from colleagues that like to set homework that matches where the students are, but I’ve always found that confusing and a set of standard tasks helps me.  In the past I have flirted, and even advocated, long term projects but I’ve recently rejected these, mainly because as a parent I see them as a pain in the arse and lacking any academic rigour.

Ensure that it’s communicated clearly to parents and students alike.

Personally, Ive always given homework out during the opening salvo of a lesson and used the school’s system to communicate to parents. In the past, I’ve also tried setting a range of activities. I love the elegant simplicity of ‘read every day, practice the time tables and spellings.’  This can work in secondary school also. I regularly set spelling and case-study tests for homework. Now, what appears below may not be relevant to the secondary classroom but, form experience, there is a narrow range of areas where students need practice: spelling of key terms, answering and decoding exam questions, describing from maps, graphs and photographs and recalling case study knowledge. Using a blog or online platform, these are easy (if time consuming) to set up to begin with, but makes it very clear what the student has to do. I also tend to set ‘watch the news’ as homework in geography then follow this up with a discussion about the links between the news and our learning.

 

Having a clear system also works. For example, Year 11 can always expect a past paper each week and a surprise test now and again (often last thing on a Friday).

Linking homework to the learning

I’m not a fan of fads nor terms such as ‘flipped learning’ but, getting students to do things before the lesson is often common sense. For example:

  • Year 8 are currently recording the weather variables for three weeks. This information will be collated and processed (averages etc) and used in class to compare their findings with the climate expected for Brighton.
  • Year 7 are asked to find out where their stuff comes from. We then use this information to create a class map and then explore the relationship between them as consumers, their stuff and the world.
  • After working with Bison Class (Year 6) I decided not to spend any class time to the basic erosion, transportation and deposition processes of rivers and get Year 10 to use SAMLearning and other sources to teach themselves before being tested (low stakes) in the classroom and applying this knowledge. This has freed up time in class for the more complex relationships and concepts instead of basic knowledge. In other words, increasing my expectations.

I see homework as a chance to practice knowledge application, prepare for learning activities and increase confidence. By taking this approach, it’s also very easy to keep track of homework. Students start the year not doing homework, and then the majority of students yen complete homework as they know it’ll be used and referred to; isn’t tokenistic and that I will follow up any student who hasn’t completed it.

Differentiated your approach

Honestly. Why set computer based homework when you know that a student doesn’t have access to a computer at home? Most students have supportive parents and it’s the responsibility of young people and their parents to sort homework out, however not every child enjoys that. For example, my mother is loving but I wasn’t encouraged to complete homework and I was too busy out every night and evening at the Air Training Corps anyway. Homework should be used to challenge and extend some students whilst others will need help. For example, our school has a SEND / PP homework club that provides food, staff to help and a means to get home.

Of course, some students need to be encouraged through sanctions, but communicating positively with home will help. Don’t set different homework for each student, just treat them as humans instead of robots and have a conversation.

Use homework for feedforward

There’s nothing wrong with using homework as an opportunity for a student to redo work or practice classwork that they haven;t yet grasped. I’ll take a spin around the classroom to gauge individual work and then tell them that I expect the work redone at home. This frees up classroom time. It doesn’t create more marking, but then that’s another post all together!

 

In summary, homework done right can add value to a classroom teacher’s toolkit. What are your top tips for setting great homework?

 

Homework image credit via Flickr and a Creative Commons Licence.

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