Many of us question whether setting homework is essential to improving pupil outcomes and developing knowledge away from the classroom. Some of us also question whether homework is a harmful practice that creates anxiety, disengages pupils and has a negative impact on overall pupil welfare. This debate about the usefulness of homework has long been a controversial issue amongst teachers, pupils and parents and, as the conversations from my own school’s working group on improving homework testify, it shows no signs of abating. However, for most of us the debate is not a simple for and against, but a case of reform. For example, the researcher and writer Cathy Vatterott has suggested that “there’s a growing suspicion that something is wrong with homework” and that it needs to radically change for a new generation of children, parents and teachers (Vatterott 2010).
Vatterott, in her book Rethinking Homework: Best Practices That Support Diverse Needs (2009), argues that most teachers have never been properly trained in effective homework practices and, as a result, traditional practices such as setting the same blanket tasks to all pupils in a class and negatively sanctioning those that fail to fully complete these universal homework assignments is still commonplace.
She goes on to suggest that these traditional practices do not support learning for all pupils. In many ways, the common flaws of getting pupils to finish off work at home and covering areas of content not covered in class require a radical rethink. In fact, Vatterott calls for a “new paradigm” of homework assignments. Her emphasis is on improving the design and quality of homework tasks, which would include more thoughtful differentiation of homework tasks; a move to de-emphasise the grading of homework (what does work completed with the help of mum and dad or Wikipedia actually tell us about pupil progress); improving homework completion by understanding the home life of our pupils; providing homework support programmes for pupils and, importantly, parents.
Moreover, homework should not be set in idiosyncratic isolation from what has been taught in class, but should be closely connected to recent classroom learning (unless set as part of wider revision or deliberate knowledge retrieval tasks prior to exams). Therefore, Vatterott argues that the purpose of homework is to support classroom learning through practice, pre-learning, processing information and/or checking for understanding. Moreover, when classroom learning and homework are interconnected through careful planning, she claims that ‘the pieces of the puzzle fit together nicely’ and that homework can used as a formative assessment to check for understanding as opposed to the mis-placed grading or summative assessment of homework (see Vatterott 2010); tests should be tests in genuine exam conditions.
To facilitate this, Vatterott argues that there are five key hallmarks of good homework (2010). These include:
- Purpose: homework needs to be meaningful and pupils must understand why they are doing it and why it is beneficial to their wider learning. For example, if a pupil’s homework task is to ‘write definitions of the 15 science vocabulary words needed next lesson’, the point of the task is to get pupils to know the words prior to a lesson in which they are needed. However, does writing definitions really help pupils learn what the words mean? Writing definitions is clearly a low-level rote task and many would point to evidence that pupils learn best when the meanings of new words or terms are used in context. An improved, more purposeful, task could include one of the following instructions:
- Show that you know the meaning of the science vocabulary words by using them in sentences or in a story.
- For each vocabulary word, read the three sentences below it. Choose the sentence that uses the word correctly (ibid).
- Efficiency: homework should demand challenge and independent thinking, but should not become too time consuming as to waste valuable learning time or lead to pupil disengagement. For example:
“Instead of building a model of the solar system [which would involve lots of cutting, gluing and looking for resources], students could create a poster to show the planets’ temperature extremes, periods of rotation in Earth time, and the importance of inertia and gravity to the motion of the planets. Students could create a video that they post on YouTube or a game to demonstrate their knowledge of the steps in a process, such as how the digestive system works, how a bill becomes a law, or how to solve an algebra problem (Vatterott, 2007).”
- Ownership: pupils who understand the point of the homework, as suggested above, are more likely to be motivated and focused. Vatterott suggests that an element of choice could offer a greater sense of ownership. Here, tasks could be designed and set in relation to pupils’ needs to allow for effective differentiation. Essentially, ‘the goal of ownership is to create a personal relationship between the student and the content’ (Vatterott, 2009).
- Competence: importantly, pupils need to have the time, resources and ability to complete the tasks independently and well. This does not mean removing challenge or not taking pupils out of their comfort zone, but does hint at pitching the tasks in line with pupils’ abilities and with consideration of their access to resources and practical opportunities to complete the tasks effectively. As discussed above, Vatterott argues that, ‘If all students are to feel competent in completing homework, we must abandon a one-size-fits-all approach’ (2010). Moreover, she suggests homework that pupils cannot complete without help is not good homework as research shows they could potentially be discouraged when they are unable to complete homework on their own (here, she references both Darling-Hammond and Ifill-Lynch, 2006 as well as Stiggins, 2007). Lastly, referencing Tomlinson (2008), she argues that teachers need to make sure homework is doable and should differentiate tasks so they are at the appropriate level of challenge for individual pupils.
- Aesthetics: perhaps surprisingly, not least controversially, Vatterott argues that the way homework looks is important as “presentation is everything”. Here, she writes that excellent and experienced practitioners have learned that the vast majority of pupils are far more likely to be motivated to complete tasks that are visually uncluttered or have straightforward instructions. For instance, she says that, “Five-page worksheets or endless lists of definitions or math problems look boring and tedious”. Therefore, “Less information on the page, plenty of room to write answers, and the use of graphics or clip art make tasks look inviting and interesting”, which will inspire and motivate pupils to engage in learning (Vatterott, 2010; see also Vatterott 2009).
Cathy Vatterott’s arguments come from copious research and experience and, therefore, can help us improve how we set homework. Her book, Rethinking Homework, has numerous references to other studies. However, it is worth noting that we may have questions as to whether homework at KS5 should necessarily follow these five hallmarks, especially as we prepare pupils for the more complex realities of academic learning in higher education. Moreover, we should also question her use of “learning styles”, especially in relation to hallmark 3, as there is now a lot of evidence suggesting that we – the teaching profession – have either misused the idea of preferential learning or that the main “learning style” theories are founded on questionable evidence (see Weale, 2017). Nonetheless, these five hallmarks do provide a helpful criteria for our re-evaluation of the purpose and impact of homework and should be considered in any debate on the relevance of homework.
Darling-Hammond, L., and Ifill-Lynch, O. (2006) ‘If they’d only do their work!’ in Educational Leadership, 63(5), 8–13.
Stiggins, R. (2007) ‘Assessment through the student’s eyes’ in Educational Leadership, 64(8), 22–26.
Tomlinson, C. A. (2008) ‘The goals of differentiation’ in Educational Leadership,66(3), 26–31.
Vatterott, C. (2009) Rethinking homework: Best practices that support diverse needs. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Vatterott, C. (2010) ‘Five Hallmarks of Good Homework’ in Educational Leadership, 68(1), pp. 10-15.
Weale, S. (2017) ‘Teachers must ditch ‘neuromyth’ of learning styles, say scientists’ in The Guardian, Monday 13th March 2017.
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