Professor Cathy Vatterott from the University of Missouri St Louis, also known as ‘The Homework Lady’, shares the key insights from the research on homework into whether or not teachers should set homework and how to go about designing high quality homework tasks.
What does the research say about homework and student achievement?
The research on homework is complicated and inconclusive, which is mainly due to the fact that the majority of studies focus on the relationship between time spent on homework and student achievement, and rarely consider the type or quality of homework tasks being set. Due to the huge variability in the type and amount of homework completed by students, it is extremely difficult to demonstrate definitively that homework leads to greater achievement. Research has also found little correlation between time spent on homework and student achievement at either primary or secondary level, although some well-established guidelines have emerged from the evidence.
First of all, frequency is more important than duration when it comes to homework, because this leads to effective habit-building. Secondly, researchers agree on the 10-minute rule, which states that students should spend no more than ten minutes per year level per night in total doing homework (i.e. year 1 students spend 10 minutes, year 2 students spend 20 minutes and so on). Indeed, research on secondary school students has shown that their achievement reaches a plateau or even starts to decline when they exceed this. Cathy recommends that teachers consider whether the total amount of time students are spending on schoolwork each day (at school and at home) is reasonable. She also argues that homework should not be set at weekends or during school holidays.
What kinds of tasks should be set as homework?
Start by considering the purpose of the homework: this will depend on the content and the point you are at in the unit of study. Homeworktasks should fall into one of five main categories:
- Diagnosis (to determine where a student is at in their learning)
- Checking for understanding
- Processing or synthesising new learning
Homework should never be used for new learning, and students should be able to complete their homework without help: it is important for teachers to seek feedback from students and parents about whether homework tasks are set at an appropriate level of difficulty. It is important to provide students with feedback on the work they have completed as homework, but ideally homework should not be graded.
How do you design high quality homework?
Effective, high quality homework tasks have four key characteristics:
- Purpose: they have a clearly identified learning goal
- Efficiency: they demonstrate the learning associated with the identified goal
- Competence: they are achievable and promote the student’s sense of competence
- Ownership: they allow the students to demonstrate their learning
In the case of secondary school students, it may be appropriate to have students prepare for exams as homework, but it is important to ensure that students have first been coached on effective study strategies such as taking practice tests.
What should a school’s homework policy cover?
A school’s homework policy should allow teachers a level of autonomy over the amount and type of homework they set, although it should ensure a minimum of intrusion into students’ family life. Provision should be made for students who are unable to study at home for various reasons, and no consequences should be handed down for incomplete homework. Homework should never be used as a punishment for poor behaviour. Processes should be put in place to allow parents to offer feedback about the amount and difficulty of the homework their children receive. At secondary school, a school-wide calendar should be used that coordinates due dates and, where homework tasks are summatively assessed, the percentage of a student’s final grade they carry.
Cathy’s top 3 tips on setting homework
- No homework task is infallible: offer students choice about what they do as homework
- Learners differ: the same task or assignment will not have the same benefits for all students
- Clarify for parents that homework is not their responsibility!