Stop marking homework now

Editor’s notes: October 5th marks the annual event of World Teachers’ Day, a day to celebrate and appreciate the incredible efforts of the influential educators in our lives. To mark this occasion, our very own English Specialist, Alex Randle, offers her advice as she reflects on her time as a teacher and discusses her insightful research into improving homework strategies and student engagement with tasks outside of the classroom.

Homework – the questions are endless, even for teachers! How much is too much? Should it be completed entirely independently? What task design is most effective for meaningful teaching and learning? When will it get marked?

As we wade our way through the Autumn term, homework expectations are set and subsequent scraps of paper and freshly-named exercise books start to flood in. Homework can be a heinous task, for both student and teacher, and is the cause of much conflict in many homes across the country. In fact, many would consider the mere idea of combining ‘home time’ and ‘work’ to be an outright oxymoron!

I am particularly interested in student engagement in homework and how we can ensure that it is meaningful and worthwhile. As part of my MSc in Learning and Teaching, I explored ways to improve student engagement, including all aspects: behavioural, emotional and cognitive (Fredrick and McCloskey, 2012). For logistical reasons, we often focus on the behavioural aspects of engagement; how can we create conditions that will extrinsically motivate our students? We follow the usual praise and sanction policies, and the world continues to turn.

However, when students come to revise or work beyond the school gates, they are mostly required to engage with tasks independently, driving themselves through self-efficacy. Although the value of homework is much-contested within the primary sector and there is a large disparity between time spent on homework by different groups of students, the value of building student self-efficacy, resilience and independence is irrefutable. Given the findings of the Sutton Trust’s recent report, ‘Parent Power’ (Montacute and Cullinane, 2018), the importance of proper support and opportunities for students to develop these skills and dispositions seems more pertinent than ever. Moreover, with so much to cover on the curriculum, most teachers would agree that some sort of homework (or preparation for learning in class) is essential. So why do we still have students persistently refusing to engage with these tasks?

Many schools have changed the name of homework, referring to it as ‘prep’ or ‘independent study’; this has proven to go some way towards winning over the students’ hearts and minds. Given homework’s reputation in some schools for being a punitive task, where – dare I say it – detention appears a preferable option to some students, it seems prudent to rename detention as well. Suggestions include the likes of: catch up, independent study club, drop-in, the hub… However, it would seem that re-branding only gets schools so far.

Having interviewed a number of students, teachers, and parents on the matter, a pattern emerged:

Task design needs to be

  1. Clear
  2. Suitably challenging but not inaccessible
  3. A springboard to more learning

Feedback needs to be

  1. Timely
  2. Meaningful
  3. Actionable

As part of my research, I’ve been working with a number of Bedrock schools to make homework meaningful. It starts with a collaborative approach, with both students, parents, and teachers on board. Hold a parents’ evening if necessary; if schools have parents in partnership beyond a contract or a text home, that is half the battle won. Make sure your approach is clear and straightforward so everyone knows what to expect. Most importantly, make sure everyone knows the purpose and value of each task. Through their new approach to literacy homework, Bedrock schools:

  • Ensure their students are reading a range of fiction and non-fiction texts regularly
  • Teach their students a panoply of Tier 2 vocabulary
  • Track student progress and efficacy at regular intervals

As the schools I work with use an automated vocabulary and reading homework programme where the lessons are self-generating and self-marking, these schools have not only lightened their workloads, but have improved their abilities to monitor learning and intervene intelligently. Once students’ starting points have been established, they are assigned to an appropriate learning ‘Block’ for their needs. The in-built motivation of immediate feedback, a multi-modal learning sequence, visuals and clickable, human-narrated stories means that homework is no longer seen as punitive or a futile struggle of wills. In fact, it actually informs teaching and learning for both teacher and student. Through the range of topics covered, students begin to make links across the curriculum and (anecdotally) have gone looking for other books on the same topics in the library.

Isn’t that the aim?

If anything in this blog has piqued your interest, Alex – or another member of our team! – would be more than happy to discuss this with you. Why not book yourself a Bedrock demo now to find out more?

Fredericks, J. & McCloskey, W. (2012). The measurement of student engagement: A comparative analysis of various methods and student self-report instruments. In S.L. Christenson, A. Reschly & C. Wylie (Eds.), Handbook of research on student engagement (pp.763-782). New York, NY: Springer Science + Business Media. Montacute, R. and Cullinane, C. (2018) Parent Power: How parents use financial and cultural resources to boost their children’s chances of success (Sutton Trust: London).

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