The Alleynian Review: How Beneficial is Homework for Senior School Students?

Assistant Head of Senior School, Lucy McAllister explores arguments on why and how homework is set, as she strengthens her case in its benefits for our Senior School students.

I am about to embark on my 16th year in teaching and during that time, I have always set homework for my students.

The style, amount and the time required for its completion has varied significantly depending on the current educational thinking, context of the school I’ve taught in, and the needs and age of the students whom I’ve had the privilege of teaching. Admittedly, what I don’t think I’ve spent enough time considering is that the homework I set often enters the home-life of my students and inevitably impacts family-time, levels of anxiety, the many valuable co-curricular and enrichment activities, and let’s not forget; time for being bored. I am a great believer in the wealth of literature that suggests that allowing yourself to be a tad bored on occasion, generates imaginative and creative thinking.

So, having said that, it may be surprising that despite my concerns over the encroachment of homework into home-life, I am an advocate of setting regular homework. I am certainly not an expert in early years or primary education, so I will focus on the value of homework and the strategies teachers could use when designing tasks for Senior School students, to ensure that time devoted to learning at home is used as effectively as possible.

Sherrington provides an excellent synopsis of the current educational thinking on homework: he refers to Tim Lott’s article for the Guardian ‘Why do we torment kids with homework?’ and suggests that despite Lott basing his article on primary school students, “too often the sweeping generalization is applied to all homework for all students. I think this is wrong”. I’m in agreement with Sherrington and I think Lott’s wording is an example of the type of catchy, emotive and in my opinion, dangerous headlines seen in the media and my concern is that homework, at all stages and of all styles or types, is being tarnished with the same brush.

Wexler, in 2019, writing for Forbes, opens with a similar catchy headline to Lott: “Some schools are eliminating homework citing research showing it doesn’t do much to boost achievement”. I was initially concerned this article would again homogenise homework, but instead, it went on to make this clear distinction which reinforces Sherrington’s earlier comment: “The research relied on by those who oppose homework has actually found it has a modest positive effect at the middle and high school levels - just not in elementary school”. I think Wexler’s use of “modest positive effect” is interesting, as admittedly, some research isn’t showing an overwhelmingly positive effect of homework on student achievement.

However, homework is just one part to the learning puzzle and I am happy to accept the “modest positive effect” of homework, knowing there will be many other things, both inside and out of the classroom, that will have higher positive effects but that homework is still offering some value and apologies for quoting the Tesco advertising slogan but “every little helps” in the acquisition of knowledge and development of skills.  I don’t think homework should be charged so severely, as it seems to be, that unless it is seen to be having the highest possible impact, then it should be scrapped. It’s just one strategy, alongside a multitude of others, that helps with student achievement.

In further support of the value of homework for Senior School students, Sherrington paraphrases the work of Hattie and his meta-analyses, suggesting the effect of homework on educational achievement “has the highest effects in secondary” education. Indeed, the impact of homework on student achievement in secondary education has an effect size of 0.64 and Hattie suggests anything above 0.6 as having an excellent effect.

It's imperative to acknowledge that Hattie’s effect sizes have also been criticised because ‘homework’ is wide ranging, and the types of homework set are so different, thus, it’s difficult to say that all homework set in secondary schools have the same positive effect (0.64). There also seems to be little evidence on whether homework has a larger effect size for younger or older Senior School students. Is homework as beneficial for 11 to 12-year-olds, as it is for 17 to 18-year-olds? This would be an interesting follow-up and something I would like to explore further.

Having spent time reflecting on the homework I’ve set over the years, I think some things have been extremely worthwhile, but others less so. Therefore, I plan to make some changes.

To do this, I’ve selected three improvement strategies from the work of both traditional and progressive educational protagonists.

It is worth noting that I’m unashamedly one of those people who swings back and forth within the traditional versus progressive educational debate. At times, I find myself leaning towards traditional thinking, and at other times, I feel very much affiliated with progressive educational ideas. I don’t believe that selecting ideas from both dilutes either educational approach, but instead, allows teachers to hand-pick what’s best for their students. Dare I say, variety is the spice of life.

Strategy 1: Ensure the majority of homework set is consolidation of what’s already been taught.

I suspect this might be controversial and I absolutely see the benefit of project-based homework, investigative or flipped learning (pre-reading before a topic), but to make homework more effective, it should mostly be based on consolidation of what’s already been taught and in a manner that isn’t too open-ended.

Silvester, writing for the Guardian in 2017, makes a case for setting the “right kind of work” and quotes Hattie speaking to the BBC in 2014: “The worst thing you can do with homework is give kids projects; the best thing you can do is reinforce something you’ve already learned”.

Sherrington suggests that the “more specific and precise the task is, the more likely it is to make an impact for all learners”. However, he does note that “Homework that is more open, more complex, is more appropriate for able and older students”. It would be extremely difficult for teachers to set a completely different homework task for every student in each class, but Sherrington’s point leads me to suggest that there should be some flexibility within the overall homework task set by teachers to allow for students to make choices about the level to which they feel comfortable stretching themselves to.

In practical terms, this might involve able learners being able to pick an option within the homework task which is more open-ended. Realistically the teacher may stipulate some parameters for this, but I think that this is reasonable.

The element of choice might make students feel a greater level of ownership over the task and it may, therefore, be more appealing. For example, as a geography teacher, this might involve me outlining a series of key questions based upon a case-study, but the students having a choice of three places to base their case study on. 

Mujis and Reynolds make a case for homework being accessible, i.e. not so challenging that many won’t do it or won’t do it properly. Silvester reaffirms this by suggesting teachers should ensure “students can complete the homework. Pitch it to a student’s age and skills – anxiety will only limit their cognitive abilities in that topic. A high chance of success will increase the reward stimulation in the brain”. These arguments aren’t suggesting teachers should just set easy homework, instead they’re arguing for students to have some choice and flexibility within the design of homework tasks to match different abilities, and a task that isn’t so difficult to achieve, logistically or mentally, that it puts students off and ultimately leaves them feeling negative towards homework and learning.

Intrinsic motivation is about a love of learning and feeling satisfied and accomplished personally, without needing extrinsic motivators, such as rewards. Designing doable homework tasks that are mostly focused on consolidation is, to a great extent, making homework more worthwhile, and the feelings of success upon its completion should boost intrinsic motivation.

Christodoulou highlights that we “need to remember how easily we forget things: it’s because of this, that we frequently need to repeat and restudy material we have already learnt”.  She also discusses the importance of “spaced-practice or distributed-practice” whereby students are tasked with remembering content not just from that day or week but also learnings from previous topics or content. For me, this supports the argument for homework to be mostly a consolidation task, and ideally it would include some recall of older material.

An opposing view comes from Claxton, in 2018, who argues for more open-ended or independent study opportunities that tie into students’ passions. Although Claxton isn’t talking about homework specifically here, but learning opportunities as a whole, it is worth me pointing this out, as I suspect it might be the type of argument against consolidation-style homework. I am not suggesting that independent study, open-ended tasks or projects cannot or do not work as a homework task. I believe there are benefits to them and absolutely should be set, but realistically and particularly for more content-heavy subjects, they should be set less frequently. As students get older, in my opinion between Years 10 to 13, the opportunities for more open-ended homework may also increase and may be more appropriate.

Strategy 2: Feedback and responding to homework is essential

Feedback can be controversial, as many teachers feel that a huge amount of time is dedicated to giving feedback for it then not to be read properly, acted upon or understood. It might be shocking to hear that I don’t mark every single piece of homework, every single week, from every single student, I don’t think I’d ever leave my classroom if I did!

However, I know that “teacher involvement in homework is key to its success” and that “it is essential the teacher interacts with the homework”. I know that students are more likely to complete the homework to a much better standard if they know I am going to mark it. However, my time might be better spent having a coaching conversation with a particular student about their progress and a genuine discussion which gets to the bottom of their thinking, ultimately helping me to support and stretch them.

Wiliam and Leahy suggests it’s a good idea for teachers to give detailed feedback on one quarter of their students’ work, use peer assessments for another quarter, self-assessment for the next quarter, and quickly check the final quarter. This seems sensible, yet I do feel vulnerable about my books lacking my green pen all over, this may be something I may need to give further thought to.

Adding to the topic of feedback,  Mujis and Reynolds refer to the work of Cooper, from 2006, and argue that “homework should consist of instructional feedback rather than grades. This is because grading homework might lead to pupils losing intrinsic motivation to do homework and lead them to completing it out of fear of bad grades instead”.

I agree, a grade doesn’t need to be given, instead diagnostic written or verbal feedback, possibly with a score, is useful and this can then help me understand what to do next. A significant argument for me, which emphasises the value of homework, is that it helps me respond to what I’m seeing in the classroom. If the homework task exposes a lack of knowledge or an inability to master a skill, then it’s hugely helpful for me as it suggests a student is not yet able to go away and do it on their own, so I need to support them further before we move on.

Strategy 3: Ensure students reflect on their homework

Something I would like to develop further in my own teaching is getting students to reflect metacognitively on their homework. I particularly like a reflection idea suggested by Mujis and Reynolds, which involves asking students to note down how long they spent completing the homework, this would help me identify that even though a student might have got everything correct, it might have taken them 2 hours to complete a 20-minute homework task.

Therefore, that could lead to a coaching conversation about how they went about the task. Without information on how long it took to complete, I might just assume they had completed it in 20 minutes without any difficulties. Sharratt identifies a number of extremely useful reflective questions which students can use when setting individual goals.

There are a number I’d like to pinch for the purposes of getting students to reflect on the homework they’ve just completed:

  • “Self-assessment questions” - What is still unclear? What is getting clearer?
  • “Self-reflection” - What did I learn? How do I feel about my learning?
  • “Self-evaluation” - How did I do? How have I improved? What are my strengths? Where are my areas for growth?
  • Individually Setting Goals - What is my next step? How can you help me? How can I help myself?

It might not be practical to deal with all of these questions after every piece of homework, but being selective and engaging in reflective conversations or activities about homework, would, in my view, raise the profile and importance of homework, therefore its impact on student achievement is likely to increase.

To summarise, I do believe homework is worthwhile for Senior School students to a great extent, if what is set is predominantly a consolidation of previously taught material. I also think it’s very useful when homework is acknowledged and diagnostic feedback is give,n so students know what they need to do to improve. The teacher might not always be the one to give that feedback, and students need to be able to self and peer assess.

Finally, in order to make homework more effective, reflective questions could lead to meaningful coaching conversations between students themselves, and the teacher which raises the profile and value of homework. Open-ended tasks and project-based homework can be assigned and there are benefits, but its impact on student achievement is less than consolidation tasks, and as such, it might be completed on occasion.

I hope to be able to implement as many of these ideas into my own teaching routines this academic year.