Homework: practice makes perfect

First posted on the Herts & Bucks TSA and Reach Free CPD blogs on 12 February 2018.

This post is part of a series of blogs on the relevance and impact of homework, which is the focus of the Herts & Bucks Challenge Partners’ Hub’s joint research project for the 2017/18 academic year. So far a couple of things have become clear. Firstly, we know from Harris Cooper et. al.’s (1989; 2003) gargantuan studies and the DfE’s own research (see Sammons et. al, 2014) that homework has a positive impact on pupils’ attainment. Secondly, research also suggests that homework potentially engenders useful study skills and habits that support learning, which  includes self-recognition of the importance of effort and the ability to be resilient in overcoming mistakes and facing challenges (Bempechat, 2004).

However, we still need to unearth what type of homework assignment has the most impact on pupil attainment, especially as writers on homework tend to identify at least 4 types of homework assignment. These types include:

  • Practice homework, which involves questions, exercises or tasks that directly relate to content that has already been taught. In these assignments, the pupil will reinforce any knowledge or skills learnt by practicing them away from the classroom. This could include writing a GCSE question based on the knowledge taught in as a history lesson or practicing mathematical equations that were taught in a maths lesson.
  • Preparation homework, which involves preparing for an upcoming lesson. This could involve pre-reading or looking over new material in set texts, knowledge banks or worksheets prior to studying them with the teacher.
  • Study, which would constitute the revision of knowledge and skills learnt over time.
  • Extended homework, which would include longer homework assignments such as investigating the causes of World War One, writing book reviews or creating newspaper articles. Extended homework can include projects.

The homework study group at The Reach Free School (TRFS) also included two other types:

  • Creative homework, which could include building motte and bailey castles in history or making mobiles of the solar system in science.
  • Finishing off homework, which is the straight forward completion of unfinished work from the lesson.

These latter two were included as, after much discussion, it was quite clear that we set these types of homework regularly in some subjects, especially at KS3.

Although all these types of homework assignment have their place in the greater scheme of things, we looked at a vast amount of literature to see which, if any, are seen to be most beneficial to pupils’ learning and, therefore, outcomes. This has lead us to identify “practice homework” as having the most impact.

Why Practice Homework

By and large there seems to be a consensus amongst researchers and writers that practice homework has the most impact on developing pupils’ cognitive, or rather academic, ability. Many agree that homework should generally be about reinforcing what pupils learned in lessons, which is particularly true of linear acquisition subjects such maths, science and languages, but also essential to the retention and application of subject knowledge in all other curriculum subjects.

For example, researchers have demonstrated that the academic mastery of a subject requires regular and focused practice over time. Here, Robert J. Marzano(2005) argues that after only 4 practice sessions pupils reach a halfway point to mastering an area of study or cognitive skill. However, it would take more than 24 practice sessions before pupils reach 80 percent mastery in that topic or subject area. He also points out that this practice will happen over a span of days or weeks, depending on the time and frequency of sessions, and cannot be rushed. Similarly, Newell & Rosenbloom (1981: 47) in a paper entitled Mechanisms of Skill Acquisition and the Law of Practice suggest that the “chunking model” of learning provides a theory of knowledge acquisition that would improve memory overtime.

The benefits of regular practice is also backed up by research on the spacing effect. Researchers have found that “spacing” practice massively improves knowledge retention over time – so long as the gap or space between activities is right. For instance,  an experiment by Cepeda et al. (2008; cited in Carpenter, 2014: 4) had participants learning obscure facts through various combinations of spacing gaps, which included 0, 1, 2, 4, 7, 11, 14, 21, 35, 70, or 105 days, and test delays of 7, 35, 70, or 350 days. The researchers found that shorter spacing gaps were more conducive for short-term knowledge retention whereas longer spacing gaps were more beneficial for longer-term retention.

In a similar vein, the authors of the best selling Make It Stick (Brown, Roediger  & McDaniel, 2014), who are all leading experts on knowledge retention, suggest that pupils learn more by active practice as opposed to review (or revision). For instance, if they are studying a mathematical skill, foreign language or recalling and applying knowledge from any other topic area, pupils should practice retrieving it from memory rather than rereading a text or reviewing written material. In turn, pupils should practice regularly, but avoid cramming, as suggested by advocates of the “spacing effect”. Moreover, they also say that pupils should test themselves, which suggests that the regular setting of practice homework where pupils are tested, quizzed or set questions based on past papers, could be hugely beneficial to their learning.

Lastly, and importantly, research also indicates that practice homework should not cover vast swaths of knowledge, but be focused on certain areas if they are to have maximum impact. For instance, studies show that pupils learn more when allowed to practice fewer skills or concepts (Healy, 1990; Marzano, 2005) and that complex processes should be broken down into smaller chunks, or be focused on particular skills, in order to be properly understood by pupils (Marzano, Pickering, & Pollock, 2001; Marzano, 2005).

Interestingly, the staff researching homework at TRFS concur with this research. I canvassed their views after they had been looking at their own use of homework and its impact on pupil outcomes throughout the Autumn Term. My colleagues were tasked with experimenting with different types of homework over three months. They then evaluated the quality of work produced as well as any impact on the pupils’ overall understanding of the material taught. Subsequently, over half report that practice homeworks were most effective in terms of impact. Of course, we can see that this is not unanimous, but practice homework is clearly perceived as the most useful when compared to the other types listed by the majority of staff involved in the project.

Screenshot 2018-02-12 at 11.07.35

Creative and “finishing off” homeworks are considered the least useful by the same staff.

Screenshot 2018-02-12 at 11.07.53

Nevertheless, as I said at the start, all types of homework have their place. Extended projects can foster a love of a subject and allow pupils to creatively explore a topic whereas creative homework can be fun, especially at KS3. It is apparent, though, that practice makes perfect as pupils approach exams and it is important to regularly set practice homework alongside the odd preparatory homework and in addition to the expectation that pupils will be revising anyway.

References

Bempechat, J. (2004). ‘The Motivational Benefits of Homework: A Social-Cognitive Perspective’ in Theory Into Practice,  43(3), pp. 189-196.

Brown, P. C., Roediger, H. L., III., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick: The science of successful learning. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Carpenter, S. K. (2014). ‘Spacing and interleaving of study and practice’ in V. A. Benassi, C. E. Overson, & C. M. Hakala (Eds.), Applying the science of learning in education: Infusing psychological science into the curriculum (pp. 131-141). American Psychological Association.

Cepeda, N. J., Vul, E., Rohrer, D., Wixted, J. T., & Pashler, H. (2008). ‘Spacing effects in learning: A temporal ridgeline of optimal retention’ in Psychological Science, 19, pp. 1095-1102.

Cooper, H. (1989). Synthesis of research on homework in Educational Leadership, Vol. 47, Issue 3, pp. 85-91.

Cooper, H. Robinson, J.C. & Patall, E.A. (2006). Does homework improve academic achievement? A synthesis of research, 1987-2003 in Review of Educational Research, Vol 76, Issue 1, pp. 1-62.

Healy, M. J. R. (1990). ‘Measuring importance’ in Statistics in Medicine, 9, pp. 633–637.

Marzano, 2005, R. J. (2005). Homework and Practice [online]. Available at: https://escmarzano.wikispaces.com/4.+Homework+and+Practice [Retrieved 09/02/2008]

Marzano, R. J., Pickering, D., & Pollock, J. E. (2001). Classroom instruction that works: Research-based strategies for increasing student achievement. Alexandria, Va: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Newell, A & Rosenbloom, P.S. (1987). Mechanisms of Skill Acquisition and the Law of Practice. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press).

Picture credit: Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 Alpha Stock Image

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