Homework – keys to success

The Homework Conundrum

Homework is always a subject that generates comment and discussion.  Teachers are either told that they are not setting enough homework or too much. Then there are debates about whether homework serves any purpose at all and of course let’s not forget the perennial brainteaser “what is a meaningful homework”. For what it’s worth my opinion is that homework is an essential feature of the school curriculum.

For many children homework poses no problems and is often even enjoyed! These children probably benefit from having supportive (nagging!) parents or carers a quiet place to work and a fair amount of motivation. Even then some of them struggle with the time management and planning aspects that are often required. But what about the kids who have none of this support? They are the ones who often have the most entertaining excuses for not handing their homework in on time but these ‘tall tales’ sometimes mask a number of genuine problems they have faced trying to do the task they have been set.

In school they don’t always succeed but when they do it is often because:

  • there are very clear expectations and structures to work with;
  • they have been able to discuss work;
  • they have worked collaboratively.

One aim of homework is, of course, to get kids to develop a bit more independence and self-discipline in their studies but I’m becoming more and more convinced that sadly that’s exactly where most of the ‘problems’ with homework start. A majority of our pupils have internet access at home. So here are a few ideas my faculty are trying out…

Clear Expectations

It is routine for homework to be recorded in a planner/homework diary. Homework is written/projected on the board and carefully produced materials provided. However despite all this structure and setting out clear expectations you can bet your life that someone will ‘lose the sheet’ or ‘forget the deadline’ or ‘write it down on the wrong day’. The most common problem I find however is that despite being reminded to ‘start the homework in plenty of time’ most pupils will leave it until quite near the deadline to start. This is clear from the standard of the work they produce but they will of course insist they ‘didn’t do the work the night before, on the bus, during tutor time (delete as appropriate!). So how can we ensure the clear expectations set out in school also have some impact at home?

  • Homework Pages – in addition to having details of homework written in planners details of all homework tasks including deadlines, task sheets and materials are published in Pdf format on the school web site. This means that they:
    1. are available to check at all times by both pupils and parents so that everyone knows what is coming up and can, if necessary plan ahead. This is useful for higher and lower ability pupils;
    2. can be downloaded and don’t ‘get lost’.
  • Click Buttons – many websites have a tool that allows you to keep a record of how many times an item has been ‘clicked’. Let the pupils know about this tool; in my case it is only myself that can access these details. Combined with having homework downloadable from you site this ability to see who has accessed the materials and when can be a very useful tool indeed. A quick check after a couple of days will reveal that maybe two thirds of a class have successfully downloaded the task and (one hopes) are working on it! A personal reminder next lesson to the few who have yet to start can work wonders. I can also see if parents have accessed the task/materials.

Discussion

I can’t think of many professions where people work completely on their own. Working independently doesn’t mean working in isolation without discussing ideas or being able to ask questions. Helping pupils and student to do this is relatively easy.

  •  Comment Boxes – many websites have the facility for users to post comments about a specific topic. Encouraging pupils to use these means:
    1. they can ask for guidance about a specific task they know their classmates are working on;
    2. get a realtime response to problems they are having with homework either from a teacher or from another pupil;
    3. get motivated because they can ‘see’ other people working;
    4. exchange ideas.
  • Twitter – setting up a department Twitter account helps:
    1. raise the profile of your subject;
    2. provides another forum for pupils and parents to discuss your subject;
    3. provides interesting material and links for people to investigate.

Collaboration

From quite an early age pupils are told that they ‘must not copy other people’s work’. Of course that doesn’t stop the beautifully ‘cut and pasted’ homework making a fairly regular appearance! Nevertheless most pupils recognise that ‘copying’ is not ‘good’. In class we encourage them to work ‘together’, in ‘teams’, ‘groups’ or ‘tables’. But for homework they are on their own! Well that was the case before the internet and mobile phones. Children are pretty much constantly ‘connected’ to each other and this can cause problems. However it is also an opportunity. Working collaboratively can have real advantages; motivational, more thoughtful ideas and less errors. Using the Comment Boxes mentioned above is a good way to get this ethos going and with a little more coaching pupils can start to use other tools such as:

  • Google Groups – creating a group for a particular subjects/classes gives:
    1. a specific forum for general questions;
    2. a means of getting useful URLs and other content to a specific target audience;
    3. a useful tool for getting reminders about deadlines to classes;
    4. this with smartphones the ability to get messages by email whenever and wherever they are. This is a great tool for VI Form classes whose timetable might be ‘flexible’!

An extension of the classroom?

I’ve often heard it said that homework is a way of extending what is done in the classroom. Unfortunately the very things that are the foundations of a successful lesson are quite often lacking when it comes to children completing homework successfully. Homework was/is seen as being a burden by children because quite often it was/is done in isolation. It doesn’t have to be like that. Asking and answering questions, working collaboratively and developing ideas fully are all outcomes we want to see in our classrooms. Using a few simple ICT tools can help to ensure that homework is very much more like an extension of our ideal classroom.

About richmiller66

My name is Richard Miller. I am currently Director of Learning and Head of History at a secondary school in Suffolk, UK. I teach history, politics and geography to pupils aged 11-18. I am particularly interested in teaching more able pupils and looking for innovative and creative approaches to learning and teaching. Having recently started studying for the NPQSL I'm using the blog as my reflective journal - the views I share are 'work in progress'!
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