Like all teachers, I’ve spent many hours correcting homework. Yet there’s a debate over whether we should be setting it at all.
I teach both primary and secondary, and regularly find myself drawn into the argument on the reasoning behind it – parents, and sometimes colleagues, question its validity. Parent-teacher interviews can become consumed by how much trouble students have completing assignments. All of which has led me to question the neuroscience behind setting homework. Is it worth it?
'My son works until midnight': parents around the world on homework
Increasingly, there’s a divide between those who support the need for homework and those who suggest the time would be better spent with family and developing relationships. The anxiety related to homework is frequently reviewed.
A survey of high-performing high schools by the Stanford Graduate School of Education, for example, found that 56% of students considered homework a primary source of stress. These same students reported that the demands of homework caused sleep deprivation and other health problems, as well as less time for friends, family and extracurricular pursuits.
When students learn in the classroom, they are using their short-term or working memory. This information is continually updated during the class. On leaving the classroom, the information in the working memory is replaced by the topic in the next class.
Adults experience a similar reaction when they walk into a new room and forget why they are there. The new set of sensory information – lighting, odours, temperature – enters their working memory and any pre-existing information is displaced. It’s only when the person returns to the same environment that they remember the key information.
But education is about more than memorising facts. Students need to access the information in ways that are relevant to their world, and to transfer knowledge to new situations.
Many of us will have struggled to remember someone’s name when we meet them in an unexpected environment (a workmate at the gym, maybe), and we are more likely to remember them again once we’ve seen them multiple times in different places. Similarly, students must practise their skills in different environments.
Revising the key skills learned in the classroom during homework increases the likelihood of a student remembering and being able to use those skills in a variety of situations in the future, contributing to their overall education.
The link between homework and educational achievement is supported by research: a meta-analysis of studies between 1987 and 2003 found that: “With only rare exceptions, the relationship between the amount of homework students do and their achievement outcomes was found to be positive and statistically significant.”
The right type of work
The homework debate is often split along the lines of primary school compared with secondary school. Education researcher Professor John Hattie, who has ranked various influences on student learning and achievement, found that homework in primary schools has a negligible effect (most homework set has little to no impact on a student’s overall learning). However, it makes a bigger difference in secondary schools.
His explanation is that students in secondary schools are often given tasks that reinforce key skills learned in the classroom that day, whereas primary students may be asked to complete separate assignments. “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,” he told the BBC in 2014.
The science of homework: tips to engage students' brains
So homework can be effective when it’s the right type of homework. In my own practice, the primary students I teach will often be asked to find real-life examples of the concept taught instead of traditional homework tasks, while homework for secondary students consolidates the key concepts covered in the classroom. For secondary in particular, I find a general set of rules useful:
- Set work that’s relevant. This includes elaborating on information addressed in the class or opportunities for students to explore the key concept in areas of their own interest.
- Make sure 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.
- Get parents involved, without the homework being a point of conflict with students. Make it a sharing of information, rather than a battle.
- Check the homework with the students afterwards. This offers a chance to review the key concepts and allow the working memory to become part of the long-term memory.
While there is no data on the effectiveness of homework in different subjects, these general rules could be applied equally to languages, mathematics or humanities. And by setting the right type of homework, you’ll help to reinforce key concepts in a new environment, allowing the information you teach to be used in a variety of contexts in the future.
Helen Silvester is a writer for npj Science of Learning Community
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Tips for Setting and Collecting Homework Online
InAdvice for Teachers, Teachers
In this article we look at some of the main considerations for setting/collecting homework online and offer advice on managing homework in a safe online environment.
Things to consider
Schools have a duty of care to their pupils, and this includes helping children and young people to use new digital technologies safely and responsibly, wherever and whenever they go online. Before you get started there are a number of things to consider:
- Remember, children may not have adequate internet access to complete homework tasks online. Therefore it may not always be a suitable option.
- Give your pupils clear instructions on how to complete the tasks online. It may also be helpful to put these instructions on a note/handout so parents can also understand the task at home.
- When setting homework, a class blog, web page, or using a shared bookmark tool like Evernote or Delicious can work well. Setting up a blog is very easy and can be a great way to show what you are doing to the wider world and keeps parents up to date also.Click here for tips on setting up a class blog: edublogs.org/curriculum-corner-class-blogs/
Using Reliable Sources
Remember many pupils won’t be supervised and won’t have content filters at home, therefore giving them direction on where to find resources will help minimise the risk of coming across any inappropriate content.
When you are setting homework or project work that requires online research, it is best to provide pupils with a list of recommended resources they can use rather than expecting them to perform searches. These can be shared via a bookmark, posted on a web page or by creating a learning path on Scoilnet . This video explains how to use learning paths for your class.
Critical media analysis
Aside from encountering inappropriate content, the biggest issue students encounter when researching online is unreliable content. Critical analysis of the media is a core literacy skill that is becoming an increasingly important aspect of the curriculum. Media literacy is covered in the English curriculum at post primary level and through SPHE at primary level.
Use every opportunity you get to encourage students to be sceptical of content they find online and always to take steps to validate its reliability. Students should ask the following questions when checking content online:
- Who owns the website?
- Why did they build it?
- When was it last updated?
- What will they do with the information I provide?
Collecting Homework Online
If your school uses a virtual learning environment such as Edmodo, Fronter, or Moodle, you can use it to set and receive assignments in a safe online space. You can also use features such as forums and message boards to share links and resources.
If you are using email to collect assignments and support students, it is recommended to use school assigned accounts and not personal ones. You can be easily found on social networks by anyone with your personal email address. Again, refer to your school’s policy in this area.
Likewise, it’s not best practice to communicate directly with students by mobile phone or social media unless you have sought permission from school management beforehand.
Finally, many whiteboards now have the capability to capture videos of the instructional parts of lessons and post them to the internet too so that pupils can refer to them as they do their homework.
If you are using services like YouTube or Vimeo, be sure to manage the comments.
You can configure your account so that only approved comments are displayed or you can disable comments completely. Make sure that videos of this kind are not publicly accessible on the internet as they sometimes inadvertently capture other goings on in the classroom.
Shared Drives and Online Portfolios
Alternatively you could use a shared drive or cloud based programmes to store and share work. There are many options available. Many of these programmes can be used to submit homework, give one on one feedback and are also very useful for sharing working with colleagues. For more information on cloud based tools and applications go to: pdsttechnologyineducation.ie/Technology/Cloud-based-Tools-and-Applications.pdf
For more tips and advice go to our teachers section: webwise.ie/category/teachers/
Recommended Resources and Useful Links