Principles and practices of effective homework

Thanks to our regular guest blogger Nick Hart for this post on homework and how to make it as effective as possible!

Homework can have quite a negative reputation.  It is often the source of familial tension as parents make sure their little ones have done it, not to mention the effect on teacher workload.  Research organisations like the EEF have not found it to be too effective either.  That said, research can only judge the effectiveness of existing practices so the job of teachers and school leaders is to find better ways of doing it.  When it is done well, homework can undoubtedly have a positive effect on learning.  The EEF states that effective homework is associated with short, focused tasks which relate directly to what is being taught and is built upon in school.  It also recognises the importance of parental involvement.  With these conditions in mind, here is a set of principles and practices for making homework as effective as possible.

Principle 1: Homework must be worthwhile for the child

Setting work for children to do at home can do wonders for children’s conceptual development and attitude towards maths.  If set up right, children can practise the basics to automaticity, experiencing success and enjoying what they are doing.  If set up right, children can appreciate the beauty of number or have the satisfaction of solving a tricky problem.  However, ill thought out homework can at best be a waste of time and at worst lead to a complete disengagement with maths.  It is vital that we select or design tasks that have an impact on children’s learning.  Sometimes, practice tasks are required to develop fluency and understanding.  Sometimes, children need to reason about misconceptions or different ways to approach a problem.  Sometimes, children need to tackle problems that require perseverance and the application of a number of different morsels of knowledge and skills.  There is a delicate balance needed between variety and uniformity, and open-ended and closed tasks.  These decisions need to be rooted in what the children need in order to solidify their learning.

Practice: Give lots more examples of the work done in class that week.
If children need further practice to embed a concept or develop fluency, then homework is an important part of their learning.  We often underestimate how much practice children need in order to embed a procedure so homework is one way of ensuring that children over learn these strategies to automaticity.  Here, familiarity is important – using minimally different questions can support children to do enough work to embed the concept.

Practice: Revise previously learned concepts.
It is all too easy to fall foul of the assumption that just because children could add fractions a few weeks ago when we were learning about it in class, that they still can now.  In all likelihood, most children will have either forgotten or will resort to clunky thinking, slowing right down.  Forgetting is a good thing.  Being presented with a problem a few weeks after learning about it for the first time can elicit that jarring annoyance of ‘Oh I’ve done this before…’ and the subsequent grapple as connections in the brain fire once more and are strengthened.  Homework is a great way of bringing previously learned concepts back into working memory.  Simply throw in a few questions that were covered a few weeks ago.  Mix up the previously taught concepts so that children have to switch between ideas learned.  Whereas current learning requires more uniformity to achieve automaticity, prior learning requires variation to encourage the selection of appropriate strategies.  Mix up those questions to make homework desirably difficult. 

Practice: Reason around misconceptions.
Great teachers have great subject knowledge and that includes knowing exactly which common mistakes children are likely to make and which misconceptions are often exhibited.  Great teachers build this into their daily modelling but when used as homework too, this can deepen children’s understanding of the concept in hand.  For example, take the very common ‘multiplying by 10 – just add zero’ misconception.  A skilful teacher will present something like: 4.5 x 10 = 4.50 Agree or disagree?  Explain...  Hopefully, the child will then launch into an explanation that the two numbers are the same and that even though it looks like you add zero to multiply by ten, what you are actually doing is moving each digit one place value column to the left. Great teachers know what these common misconceptions are through experience but there is always the delightful ‘new’ misconception that crops up in a unit of work – simply take note and use it for a homework task.

Principle 2: Homework must be manageable for the teacher

Planning, preparing and marking homework is a vital part of a teacher’s responsibility.  If we are not careful, this work can expand to take up a huge amount of time and effort that is disproportional to the time children will spend on it and indeed the benefit of them doing it.  Homework should be a seamless continuity of the work done in class and as such planned in a sequence of work.  No teacher should be scrabbling around online the day before homework is to be set for something to send home.

Practice: Build homework into medium term / weekly planning.
As part of planning a sequence of work, build in homework tasks that are slight variations of the classwork.  Homework will look different at various points in the unit of work.  At the beginning of the unit, homework may focus more on fluency and as the unit progresses, there may be more reasoning and problem solving tasks. 

Practice: Mark homework in class.
Marking homework can be time consuming for very little impact. If it’s worth setting as homework, it’s worth looking at properly.  Build in time in during the school day for children to self or peer mark, while you circulate and check which children have and have not understood.  Use this time to intervene and explain things once more, setting a few more practice questions.

Practice: Set the homework day for the whole school.
When there are routines in place, teachers can organise themselves into an effective working pattern.  If each teacher in the school sets homework on the same day and takes it in on an agreed day too, they can be supported by middle and senior leaders in setting effective homework.  A scenario where a teacher thinks ‘I’ve not set homework for a while, I’d better send something home,’ can only lead to ineffective practice.  With routines set, homework can be planned in advance.  It also removes the excuse of ‘I didn’t know I had to hand it in today,’ as children would have the same day each week to bring in their work.

Principle 3: Homework must be clear for parents

In most cases, parents are very keen to support their children with homework but there are some barriers that prevent parental support.  Many parents say things like, ‘I’m not sure which method you’ve been teaching them.’  If this is the case, communication has not been clear enough.   

Practice: Provide a worked example.
Include a fully completed example and success criteria as part of any homework pack so that parents can see how the work should be completed.  

Practice: Run regular parent workshops.
By inviting parents in to school and explaining how key strategies are taught, parents are empowered to support their children more effectively at home.  This can be as simple as sharing the calculation policy and modelling some examples of what will be taught in the upcoming term.  Parents will appreciate the guidance.


Practise Maths provides you with a bank of ready-made practice questions that cover every objective in the maths curriculum and are perfect for homework tasks!

Find out more and download a free sample.
 

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mathematics, maths

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