Craig 'n' Dave


What is effective homework?

Homework should help students progress their learning, otherwise there is little point to it. Don't set work simply because the school has a homework policy. There is an “if it was good enough for me, it’s good enough for them” attitude, especially among parents. There is a belief that homework “must be good for them”, even though there is little evidence to prove it.

In John Hattie’s research, he claims the effect size of homework is only 0.29. In other words, it makes little difference. He claims that too much emphasis is placed on it. 5-10 minutes of practicing what was taught that day at school has the same effect as 1-2 hours does. However, that is not the full story, and homework in secondary schools when used appropriately can have an effect size of 0.64 - making a difference of a whole grade.

The highest effects in secondary are associated with rote learning, practice or rehearsal of subject matter; more task-orientated homework has higher effect than deep learning and problem solving. Overall, the more complex, open-ended and unstructured tasks have the lowest effect. Short, frequent homework closely monitored by teachers has more impact. The effect is greater for higher ability students than lower ability students, higher for older rather than younger students. Finally, the evidence is that teacher involvement in homework is key to its success.

Taking all this in to account, we believe that homework should not require any additional support from parents because it is unreasonable to expect a parent with little knowledge of the subject to help. Homework should not be more difficult for lower ability students, it should be meaningful, worthwhile and it should be short. We think children should actually have a childhood too!

When reflecting on our own lessons, we identified that pace in a lesson could be accelerated if you knew the baseline knowledge that students had. Homework could be used to consolidate, but perhaps more usefully it could be used to teach the content of a course instead. After all, there is no point consolidating something that was not well understood to begin with. Perhaps the lessons are the best place to uncover misconceptions and challenge what students know rather than imparting knowledge.

On reflection we decided that the best homework would be:

  • short;
  • require no support;
  • not be dependent on ability;
  • be the same for all students;
  • prepare students for a lesson;
  • give students an opportunity to prepare questions they have for a lesson;
  • something students were happy to do.

That is why we think that watching a 4-12 minute video about a topic ahead of the lesson is the very best homework. However, we discovered that many students were still not retaining the knowledge with this approach. They would watch the video but not really take it in. Maybe they were even skipping some of it in a rush to get to the end. Therefore, we tweaked the approach and ask students to write notes on the video in an exercise book that they bring to the lesson. This doubles as a notebook in lessons they can use for starter activities too. We don’t mark this homework, it is for the students to prepare themselves for the activities in the lesson. From time to time we ask to see their books and note how many videos they have notes for (start a new one on each page to make this easier), and visually assess the quality of the notes they have taken. However, it is very easy to see the homework students have done when they use their books in the lesson to support themselves in completing activities. Use this time to take a quick snapshot of their effort and timely interventions as you move around the classroom.

To make it easier for GCSE students who have little experience of independent note taking, each video has an icon indicating that the student should pause the video and copy down what is on the screen. This ensures they have captured exactly what they need, is low pressure, low stakes but highly effective. We recommend the Cornell method of note taking. Students are then prepared for lessons and begin to learn how you take notes by deciding and recording what is important.

Twelve minutes is about as much as students can handle with this approach, and to be fair if you can’t explain a concept within twelve minutes then you have probably over-complicated it.

Of course students can rewind and watch the video again as many times as they like and this is great for revision too. It’s ideal for supporting absent students as they no longer need to miss out on the content of the lesson.

Not all students will watch the video. This is partly about expectations and it is partly about habits. Once students realise you are serious about this “homework”, and you set it regularly, they soon get in the habit of doing it because not only do they not look silly in class answering what will be simple questions everyone else knows the answer to, but it is easy and easily achievable. In the worst case, students can always watch the video in the lesson if they really must, but at least you are not at the front of the class explaining the content, or going through it with them. You can target your support where it can be most effective in the lesson and not with the student who didn’t do the work.

Students do end up getting homework nearly every lesson, but it works and there are times during a course where you are not delivering theory and there is some down time. If you struggle with this way of working initially don’t be surprised. Build habits with students and have high expectations. Students will soon follow. The flipped classroom method fails not because of students, but because of teachers! If you don't believe it can work then it won't work. Remember some students didn't do their homework before. The flipped classroom doesn't magically solve this problem, but it does enable you to deliver more engaging independent lessons.

Using Smart Revise for homework too

Hattie et al propose that rote learning, practice and rehearsal of subject matter has a much higher impact than open-ended, complex, problem solving tasks for homework making Smart Revise a perfect solution for homework too.

Set students a given number of quiz questions to complete for homework and monitor their progress using the analytics reports. It won’t have a negative impact on your lessons if students are unable to complete their homework, but frequent use of Smart Revise has proven to increase knowledge retention and attainment. There is no preparation and planning for the teacher when using Smart Revise because the questions are never-ending and automatically personalised for each student.

Answering multiple choice questions is an easy task, so students are much more likely to meet your expectations. A perfect solution.

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