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What is the point of homework?

Over the last couple of years, homework has become a very politicised issue. There has been a groundswell of discontent around homework and the negative impact it is perceived to have.

The newspaper headlines above give a flavour of some of this negative press: homework puts too much pressure on students and can contribute to anxiety; at the same time we are told students don’t bother to complete homework because they don’t value it; we are also told that parents dislike homework because it can intrude on precious family time or relationships can suffer when parents are trying to insist their children do their homework. Finally, we are told that teachers see homework as another burden on top of everything else they have to do and don’t feel they have the time to mark homework. Although these headlines are in themselves quite sensational, there is a grain of truth in these claims and I’m sure that as teachers, or parents, many of these claims have, on occasion, struck a chord with us.

Also, when I heard on return to school in September that another Headteacher, of a school in Colchester, had decided to abolish all homework I really started to question why we do homework at all and whether these claims above prove that homework has no place in current teaching and learning? It was from this starting point that I decided to go beyond the sensational headlines and look at what current educational research tells us about homework. There is no doubt that there is divided opinion in the research world about homework. You can find studies that find little value in homework and studies that feel it does have an impact. For me, looking at where the research has come from is key.

To begin with The Education Endowment Foundation Toolkit measures the impact of a range of school strategies on disadvantaged pupils. Although the EEF is focused on this particular group of students, as we know, strategies that work well for disadvantaged groups are often the strategies that can work well for ALL students. It looks at the cost effectiveness of each strategy and also the number of months impact it can have on their learning. As you can see, Homework is third on this list (behind feedback and meta-cognition and self-regulation), and according to the research of the EEF can accelerate pupil progress by 5 months or more. All of these strategies can help pupils make more rapid progress at KS3 and could play a part in pupils moving from good to outstanding progress at KS4.

Professor Susan Hallam at the Institute of Education, University College London undertook a research project alongside Oxford Brookes University involving 3,000 schools exploring the impact of homework. I have pulled out some of the findings I found most interesting below:

‘The evidence suggests that at secondary level homework has a role to play in promoting academic achievement.’ Susan Hallam, Institute of Education, University of London

Pupils who do a couple of hours of homework a night secure better results in examinations.

Pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, who engage in some homework, do make more progress than their peers who don’t.

There is some evidence that low ability pupils who do regular homework can achieve higher grades than more able pupils who do no homework at all (Susan Hallam).

A Sutton Trust report into homework found that, although there is evidence that homework can have an impact on learning, beneath this average there is a wide variation in potential impact, suggesting that how homework is set is likely to be very important. Chiming with this, Susan Hallam also agreed:

‘Homework, which is perceived as tedious, boring and pointless, will have a demotivating effect. If teachers, pupils and parents are committed to homework, tasks are interesting and teachers provide appropriate explanations, encouragement and feedback there are more likely to be positive effects on learning outcomes.’ Susan Hallam, Institute of Education

So, what does research tell us that effective homework looks like? Below is a list of key principles I have found across these studies:

  • Students understand the purpose of homework and can see that it will have a real impact on their learning

  • It is linked to learning (it flows from or into learning)

  • It has been scaffolded and modelled effectively by the teacher so students know what they need to do and how to do it

  • Students get specific and timely feedback on their homework (this doesn’t mean that every piece of homework needs to be marked if there isn’t a real need for this, but it could mean that the homework is used in some way for the learning in the lesson)

  • It is only set when it will be of value (the research strongly suggests that homework set for homework’s sake has little value – although some excellent studies around research for the less able suggest routine in homework setting and task is key to helping secure more progress)

  • It is differentiated to meet the needs of the student (a one-size-fits-all approach can lead to some students feeling demoralied by homework that is too hard or some not feeling challenged by homework)

  • It gives the teacher information that helps their planning (student homework can be another vital piece of information to help us assess student progress)

At my own school, I recognise that there is a job to do in changing the hearts and minds of both students and teachers about homework. However, rooting our discussions in the research findings above it a good place to start. Wish me luck!

Catherine Davis

Assistant Headteacher

Saffron Walden County High School, CTSN R&D

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