Analysis of results for Homework Survey

View the survey responses here

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Context

As a teacher (via student grumbles) and parent (via direct observation), it is apparent that when homework is assigned to students, it is done so without the knowledge of how much homework they already have from their other teachers. The central concern of this context is that students can easily become overloaded with work, which can have both academic and emotional consequences. This survey seeks to achieve two things: to ascertain whether these assertions are valid; and if they are, how willing or able educators are to rectify the issue.

Homework of course has always been around, but has recently gained more attention as schools have become more conscious of the benefits of establishing strong relationships between the school and the home. Besides parent teacher evenings and termly reports, homework is by far the greatest opportunity to connect parents with what the child is learning and the progress they are making. As a result numerous online notification tools have established themselves in the market. But in effect, these tools have simply become technological planners, with information previously written down by students now available online for a parent to view. Of course this is a preferable scenario to the planner, removing the battleground for parents trying to ascertain what homework the child has to complete. But the improvement is marginal, largely because it still doesn’t solve the issue of the potential overloading of students, and quite frankly, in today’s world, reasonably uncreative considering the potential that technology can offer this issue.

Results and Discussion

Q 2 – Do you agree with the statement: ‘At home, students have a limited time to complete homework.’

Q 3 – What is an appropriate amount of homework per night for a student in Yr10

Questions 2 and 3 were designed to engage educators in thinking about what constitutes appropriate amounts of homework for year 10 students, considering their home-life context. Once the respondents had quantified this in their own minds, question 4 was designed to encourage reflection on some possible consequences of that time being overrun.

Q4 – What are some possible ramifications for the school if students are given more homework than they can complete in the appropriate time? E.g. lower performance on tasks, teacher time following up etc.

The average time indicated by respondents for a student in Yr. 10 to complete homework was just over an hour a night, a figure that most students and parents would understand as being extremely conservative. This notion is reinforced by looking on any school website that advertises its homework policy: a year 10 student, on average, is required to complete no less than 1 ½ to 2 hours per evening. This suggests a disparity between what teachers and school leaders believe is an appropriate amount, and how much is actually being given.

Answers to this question could be separated into four key themes: ability to cope, motivation, time, and performance.

  • Coping – of the 70 respondents one in six cited increased stress levels as a consequence of overloading students. Linked closely to this were comments about feelings of inadequacy, lowered self-esteem, depression, burnout, and mental health concerns. Another respondent suggested students experience a sense of injustice when teachers were unaware of how much work they had already been given yet added another task.
  • Motivation – an equal number of respondents cited demotivation as a consequence of overloading. As one teacher stated, students either sink or swim. This is an interesting observation, and draws attention to how imperative it is that students are not only given appropriate amounts of time to complete homework tasks, but are also given tasks that have been expertly designed in terms of how much independent work they involve. One respondent stated that students lose enjoyment in studying as pressure is increased.
  • Loss of time – several respondents discussed the loss of time in having to chase up homework that wasn’t completed, with some stating that the resultant detentions become a barrier to motivating students from then on. One educator stated that homework was simply used to fill in time, an alarming but not uncommon comment, to say the least.
  • Decreased performance – some educators correlated the loss of time with poor performance in that the reduced quality demonstrated in tasks due to overloading rendered them pointless to mark. Many respondents expectedly suggested that overloading resulted in: lower performance on tasks; lower grades; and, directly related to the motivation aspect, feelings of being disadvantaged in class from not being able to complete the set work. Several respondents cited students being ill prepared for the next lesson as an issue directly related to overloading. One teacher stated that there would be less opportunity to see whether the student could handle the learning independently: a perceptive and important observation.

Q5 – Please indicate which best describes your position in relation to the statement: ‘Parents observing their child having too much homework sends a message that the school’s homework policy isn’t organised.

This question was meant as a direct follow-on from considerations about overloading. Of the responses (not including those whose school uses a schedule), 62% suggested that parents would receive a negative message about the efficiency of the school’s homework policy. 16% stated that it would send a very negative message, with 22% stating that it wouldn’t send a negative message. The question’s primary purpose was to raise teachers’ and other educators’ awareness of parents’ perception of the school in regards to homework setting. The rationale is that schools pride themselves on promoting organisation, and certainly encourage students to become very good at it, and yet potentially drop the ball when it comes to transmitting an organised homework policy.

Further questions could explore what led 22% of the respondents to suggest that it had no adverse effect on a school’s perception in the community.

Q6 If you use a schedule: Would you say that your homework schedule strategy is effective?

 Of all surveyed, 17% indicated that they used a schedule to manage their homework distribution. This equated to 12 respondents. 8 indicated that their schedule strategy was okay but could be better; three suggested that it was working well, and one respondent stated that teachers didn’t stick to it. Of course it’s a small sample, but those believing that their strategy could improve dominates these figures. Q7 was designed to validate anecdotal evidence suggesting a possible reason for dissatisfaction with schedules was due to teachers having to set meaningless tasks to either keep up appearances or for fear of missing a designated slot. However the results did not concur. There is a possibility however that the question itself threw respondents off, as so few people answered this at all. Again, more questioning would be needed to ascertain the cause of dissatisfaction, but another anecdotal reason could include the inflexibility that accompanies a schedule, which leads to tasks not being set in real time.

Q8 What would prevent your school from adjusting its homework policy if it became aware of a tool that helped teachers to spread out workload by letting them see how much work their classes already have?

 The final question was designed to investigate two contexts: whether an educator would be willing to adjust their homework policy having identified negative aspects of its current use; and whether it is true that schools are becoming more reluctant to take on new technology because of the enormous influx of Edtech companies advertising themselves to schools and teachers.

  • In terms of the first point, because there was no direct question asking respondents whether or not their school was experiencing the alluded to issues, any response in this question could not be tied to previous answers. This is a shame, but the inevitable price of poor survey design. Having said that, many of those who indicated that their use of a schedule was okay but could be better, also indicated that no adjustment was needed to their policy. I would be keen to explore what appears to be an inconsistency here.
  • It was pleasing to note that there was only one response indicating that their school may be overwhelmed with the amount of edtech being pushed towards them. Of course the nature of the respondents, being generated mostly from Twitter users, slightly skews the perception of edtech, but the question was generic enough for respondents to presume the attitude of their school. Some stated that time invested in the existing platform would be a barrier as well as time needed to retrain; some stated cost, and interestingly a few stated a required cultural shift, not only including converting teachers to technology, but also ensuring that there was a parity between subjects in the setting of homework. However, very few people added their email address for me to be able to directly communicate the results to them, perhaps a sign after all of wariness to increased unsolicited communication.

Conclusions and recommendations

Whilst the survey didn’t explicitly ask respondents to state whether or not they believed overloading was an issue in their school (because they have no way of knowing anyway), a distorted perception of the amount of homework given by educators versus the actual amount being given can be deduced from the survey’s results, and certainly something that needs to be addressed, given the consequences of overloading.

The disparity is certainly understandable because teachers are effectively working in silos in terms of homework communication, and set tasks based on their own instincts. A possible explanation is as follows: when a teacher sets a task, it is hard for him or her to imagine that their students already have 1 ½ – 2 hours work to do on the same night. This may be for two reasons: firstly, as most respondents indicate, teachers don’t believe that close to two hours is an appropriate amount of time to be completing homework after a school day and so naturally don’t presume that they have already been given this much work. Secondly, because they are working in isolation, their subject takes priority, and if a task is required to be completed it tends to cloud consideration of other subjects’ tasks. Of course this is not how it should be, but I would be surprised if teachers disagreed with this.

This situation is highly inefficient, resulting in the ramifications cited in the responses. Teachers need a tool that can tell them how much work they already have before they set another task, and take the guessing game out of it.

This scenario raises another very relevant question: how many teachers would be aware of what constitutes an appropriate amount of homework per night for a student of this age? I say this not just in terms of a school’s policy, but more so in terms of the developmental considerations of the student. Is it appropriate to suggest a specific amount of time that applies to all students within a year group, knowing just how different students can be in terms of their cognitive and emotional development within a year, let alone their home contexts? Is the recommended time based on current research or simply a school’s expectations? These are important questions, because as this survey demonstrates, students can be enormously disadvantaged if they are put under undue pressure. Unfortunately, there is little research related to this aspect of homework setting.

The central calendars offered by the leading tools in the homework distribution market do little to alleviate the issue of overloading. The reason is because even if tasks that are set are pinned to the central calendar, teachers have no way of knowing if the tasks affect the students in his or her class. The teachers certainly don’t have time to try and work it out, and cannot ask the students and expect accurate answers. The result is that homework setting is carried out in a random fashion. In a busy classroom, the teacher needs to be able to click a button and be told right then and there how much work his or her class already have.

The alternative to random assigning is the schedule. Whilst the survey didn’t validate anecdotal perceptions that the inflexibility of the schedule leads to reduced quality in homework setting, the lack of answers to the relevant question keeps this notion open for further investigation. The basis of the theory is that when teachers are only allowed to set a task on a designated day, the task is usually pre-planned and can therefore not be representative of real-time learning. There’s plenty of research suggesting that the most effective homework tasks are those that are closely related to current learning. Therefore, whilst the schedule can prevent overloading, in teaching and learning terms, it would not be as effective as a technological tool that could not only prevent overloading but also provide flexibility in setting tasks.

The result of very few respondents being perturbed by the introduction of a new tool to alleviate the issue is indeed encouraging. The one final question now then for the respondents to this survey is the one that should have been asked to improve the validity of question eight:

Q8a – Considering the implications of your answer, are you aware of how much work your students have already received?

I would like to thank all the respondents for helping me to produce this research. Their generosity in the giving of their busy time was certainly well noted, and appreciated greatly.

Plenaries, not LO’s – that’s where it’s at.

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There would be few teachers around the world who haven’t been advised to publish LO’s at the beginning of every lesson – to signal where the learning is going, so students can check to see if they are getting there or not. But for me it has largely been an ineffective strategy, with students just mindlessly writing them down and rarely independently checking their learning against them as the lesson unfolds. John Dabell succinctly articulates a possible reason: It could be argued, that we need to accomplish the learning first before we can understand what the learning objective is and what the knowledge and understanding relates to. I concur, and after years of adhering to the expectation of writing down LO’s at the start of lessons, at the beginning of this year I decided to try something different.

What benefits students more – foresight or hindsight?

For me, a more effective strategy for students to engage with the LO’s is to get students to add a title to each activity they complete, a title that forces them to think about the purpose of the task: the task’s objective. Each of these moments serves as a mini plenary, with students then asked at the end of the session to add up these mini plenaries to decide on the overall purpose of the lesson, and to check their progress against it.

There would be few teachers around the world who haven’t been advised to ensure that each lesson ends with a plenary. The rationale is full proof: inviting students to piece together the learning in the lesson as a means of checking to see if progress has been made. But there’s a large risk in waiting until the end, because in that great length of time many students may have fallen off the learning path. This is why more frequent ‘assessment for learning’ (AFL) is emerging as a ‘go to’ strategy for effective teachers. There are of course many ways to check progress whilst students are working, but adding titles not only provides an opportunity to check, but also an opportunity to deepen the learning experience. Observe the example below:

title-1

When I was wondering the room, I asked the student to expand on the learning objective he had written for the task. He considered what the activity involved, and it forced him to reflect, and deliberate on its purpose. He then added more detail.

 

Checking progress: By asking him to consider the purpose of the task, he was then better placed to be able to judge his proficiency in it. He could have written the objective down at the beginning of the activity, and checked progress against that, but for me, he deepened his learning by having to process the task in a way that required him to summarise and synthesise it, in order to create a title.

The feedback provided in the image below will engage the student to reflect on the purpose of the task at a much later date, perhaps reinforcing the learning even more by challenging the student to not just remember, but to analyse the work done in order to compose a more specific title.  title-2

This is the same task processed by another student, and validates the effectiveness of a ‘title’ strategy. Simply providing the title wouldn’t have facilitated this student’s thinking about the task, as my objective for the activity was merely to develop the ability to ‘show’ a reader’s actions rather than ‘tell’ them. The fine tuning of adding the word ‘emotions’ in this student’s title demonstrated a further personal connection and focus with the task.

title-3

Some students prefer to add the title after their work:

title-4

Travels so far: Creating this routine certainly didn’t happen overnight. Students couldn’t believe that I wasn’t giving them a title from the outset. Armed with only the date, many students felt consternation with this practice, especially those highly organised students who hate to leave space not knowing how much room they need for the title later on. Perhaps significantly, students groaned at the expectation of having to think about the task once completed, suggesting to me that they were used to not taking time to evaluate their work independently, and potentially only superficially completing work. But gradually they began to accept the rationale behind it. Of course some students still need prompting to generate a concise (and sometimes precise) title, but most are getting significantly better at it.

 

Conclusion: Adding a title to a task promotes more thinking from the students, and encourages them to make connections with what they are learning. Every time they carry out this mini plenary activity, they reinforce the LO, and they can more easily check their progress against it.

 

 

Ensuring HomeWork is Outstanding

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Click the image to go to one of the most extensive resources created about all things to do with Homework. The site focuses on

  • the pedagogy behind homework setting,
  • tips to help ensure you set appropriate and quality homework if you decide to set it, and
  • critiques on the latest tools that distribute homework

The resource will help you to ensure you only set OUTSTANDING HOMEWORK.

Should students be able to sue if their school teaches to the test?

Should students be able to sue if their school teaches to the test?

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If in teacher training teachers are expected to consider childhood development in designing suitable teaching and learning activities, and if there is indeed enormous amounts of research validating the different cognitive and emotional capacities of different age groups, could it be argued that a parent could sue the school for denial of learning if the school’s curriculum is exam focused rather than developmentally focused?

 

Sometimes when I am talking about the importance of being able to prevent overloading students with homework, I will hear some educationists say that it is not such a bad thing if the student is overloaded. They believe that there’s value in the pressure created, as it will help to prepare them for the examination period, a period where students may have more than one exam on the same day. The issue with such a strategy though is that it forgets that students are continuously developing.

As a teacher you know what it’s like to have to come home having taught all day and then having to spend up to 2, possibly three hours preparing/marking for the next day. We hate it, are exhausted by it, and quite rightly complain about it continuously. Yet rarely do we speak out when we become aware of 15 to 18 year olds under the same pressures. We just expect them to knuckle down and get on with it. We expect that because we believe it is preparing them for when they leave school. But not only does it seem like a strange thing to be promoting (to feel the same anxieties that we feel by having to work for long periods outside of work), it is assuming that a teenager can cope with the same pressure. It is assuming that developmentally they can cope.

How many of us are aware of how much pressure a 15-18-year-old can actually handle? Where have we got our numbers from? How conscious are we of the developmental needs of a student of this age? I’m not sure anyone can say we are if this Psychology Today article is correct. What if the increased pressure we now apply due to the new more difficult curricula is not appropriate to this developmental period, and in fact only stunts progress through it? The idea of developmental stages is hardly refutable, with countless renowned theorists espousing, albeit with minor variations, distinct stages characterised by increasingly complex cognitive and emotional capacities. A 13 year old doesn’t have the same tolerance for pressure as a 16 year old, nor does the 16 year old compared to an adult. Yet as teachers, because of external pressures to demonstrate progress, we are driven to prepare students for the next developmental stage, by providing contexts that are from it: by teaching to the test, and by overloading them with homework.

 

The perils of teaching to the test

Teaching in the upper grades practically demands a seriously strong focus on examinations and their content. The pressure to succeed in such a context is enormous, and not only for the student. Many teachers fall into the trap of immediately teaching to the test. Taking direct examples from past examinations and designing lessons around them is common practice. Yet there isn’t any level or key stage around the world that is not categorised by what the student should achieve by its end. The examination at the end of this stage should be characterised by a building of skills up until perhaps the last month or two of that stage. When teachers begin the course with questions on a par to what they would receive in the exam they actually deny the developmental process to take place, and inadvertently dampen the students’ ability to succeed to their potential.

Take for example a students beginning an English GCSE course. They could hardly be expected to produce a sufficient response to a 10 mark analysis question if on the very first day the amount of time given to complete such a question was the same that they would expect to have on the examination day. The chance of success is minimal. In fact they would, at worst, undoubtedly lose motivation to continue, and at best usurp valuable energy to overcome the pressure. Many students will of course pull through, but at what price? Have they become significantly stronger people, or have they just persevered through an unnecessary, never to be reclaimed period of their lives? The amount of exhaustion that I see in students in the upper years seems to prove the latter. The building towards skills process is absolutely necessary, and it requires an incredibly experienced and skilful teacher to always be guided by a child’s development rather than the schools performance table.

And analogous situation is the increasing trend of English faculties beginning to cover GCSE texts in year eight and nine. What a teacher must carefully consider however is whether or not that aged student can cope with the type of skills that are required in the examination, let alone the emotional capacities for such texts. For example, the very strong focus on analysis in the English GCSE examination is a skill more suited to someone on the verge of adulthood compared to a young teenager. The mental capacity has just not been developed yet, and so the insistence on an analysis focus becomes merely just robotic learning rather than meaningful learning. Consider also emotional variances in the year eight student compared to the year 11. Are we actually destroying the love of English by presenting themed texts to the wrong audience? An ultimate irony perhaps in our focus on audience?

Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development urges the teacher to carefully plan activities based on cognitive capabilities. The zone of proximal development surely applies to emotional capabilities also; that is after all why there are age restrictions on viewing certain films and television programs. Pitching tasks to a student who’s not capable of handling them is a waste of time.

 

The perils of setting too much homework/revision

 Setting more homework and revision tasks when students already have sufficient work for that developmental age does not therefore serve to strengthen the students and prepare them for a future pressurised context, but actually weakens them. The random assignment of homework, a process that happens in every school that doesn’t have a strict schedule, creates such a context. By doing so it denies recognition of developmental theory, and therefore has a lot to answer for. The inevitable consequence is a compromise in the performance and the quality of the tasks undertaken, and an inevitable effect on the student’s well-being.

 

Backlash? It all makes me wonder. Could we potentially face a time when a parent could actually sue their school for failing to provide adequate learning for a specific developmental age? If a student is highly demotivated by the schooling process, or emotionally exhausted, preventing them from succeeding in the final examination and thereby affecting their entire future, wouldn’t that be grounds for a class action?

Setting independent homework ain’t easy

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Knowledge-based homework versus independent study

A Teacher setting homework must be conscious of the difference between these two types of tasks. The reason being that once students are on their own with the task the potential for success is greatly correlated with the size of the jump they need to make in their thinking processes.

 

Knowledge-based tasks require practically no jumping. These types of tasks may include drill and practice activities that usually help to consolidate classwork and strengthen skills. Shaun Allison and Chris Runeckles’ admirable determination to take homework setting seriously led to the formulation of the term ‘embedding’ to describe such a context. Students should be able to begin and complete such tasks by relying on what they have already learnt in class, and without having to refer to any assistance, except perhaps information in their books. Consequently, the only obstacles to setting successful tasks in this environment include getting the amount of time the task should take to complete right (something that needs more attention in schools), and ensuring that the task is relevant to the learning at the time (something that also needs more attention in schools). But it is when homework is set to make students jump from what they know to develop independent learning that significantly more thinking by the teacher is necessary in the design of the task.

Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development is an interesting theory that suggests that people are willing to challenge and stretch their thinking up to a certain point, before deciding to give up. The theory certainly explains many moments in classrooms in my early years of teaching where I encountered students disengaging from a task because it was simply too difficult for them. Of course we learn as teachers, continuously, and I quickly realized that in order to promote challenge I had to first of all understand the level a student was at, and then carefully calculate how large a jump they could then make on their own. Some students can be stretched further from the same place as other students, and some students are more resilient if it all goes awry. Getting the balance right is indeed an art form. Fortunately, when setting such tasks in the classroom the teacher can intervene if necessary, and prevent any disengagement by adjusting the level of challenge. It is in this context then that the setting of homework tasks demands far greater attention than perhaps it has been currently receiving. There is no chance of intervention once the student is away from the classroom, and tasks that stretch the student beyond their capabilities can result not only in disengagement from the tasks, but potentially from the concept of homework itself.

With this in mind, it is little wonder that homework has gained such a poor reputation; setting it requires a great deal of attention and equally as much skill, and I think it would be fair to say that, with some notable exceptions (Sherrington, Allison), it has not been an imperative on the agenda of most schools. That may be controversial, and as you read this you may refute it, but I say to you that you only can if your policy adheres to these 3 central principles:

  • The time necessary to complete tasks should be carefully calibrated so it is proportionate to the amount of time students have spare;
  • Tasks must be relevant to current learning and consequently cannot be set too far in advance; and
  • Independent learning activities must be carefully designed to avoid demotivating students in the homework process.

 

TIPS TO SETTING INDEPENDENT HW

 

  1. Differentiation: Teacher Toolkit’s analysis of the situation: ‘I have calculated carefully, that differentiated; targeted and independent homework, followed with targeted feedback, leads to student ownership and improved levels of progress’ led to the creation of the #TakeAwayHmk resource to deliver such outcomes. The underlying premise with takeaway homework is that homework takes on more of a project feel, where students not only choose which task to undertake, but make choices from interesting and inspiring options, options that Mark Creasy suggests lead to self-motivation and independent learning – surely the ultimate goal of education. The options provide a sense of ownership and choice for the student and consequently increase engagement in the activity.

 

  1. Set short tasks: As Teacher Toolkit suggests, there is an important caveat to consider: ‘Make sure each-homework can literally be read there and then, and is a ‘Takeaway’. This means, it requires no further guidance.’ Students must be able to make the jump on their own, and so my advice is to permeate the options list with smaller, more time manageable tasks. Too often well-meaning and excited teachers make the mistake of setting project type tasks that take hours to complete, expecting students to be able to maintain attention for extended amounts of time. Without the supportive home environment, this is practically impossible, but even those with it find this overwhelming – this is certainly the case with my daughters.

Remember too that you will have to provide meaningful feedback on the activity, which strengthens this point.

 

  1. Don’t set it too far in advance! You can’t differentiate meaningfully to reflect where the students are presently with their learning if you set tasks too far in advance, and students will disengage because of the lack of relevance. It may seem like good organization, but it’s impossible to know where your class’ learning will be 2 or more months in advance, and so setting tasks like this is pointless. The latest fad and promotion of the recycling of homework shares a similar outcome; it is work set that is not relevant enough, and thus not respectful of the commitment that home learning demands. The irony of it advertised as a means of saving time is felt most heavily by the teacher who has to chase the incomplete work.

 

Homework setting is a complex business, but like all good teaching and learning practices, when it’s done well, it’s a powerful thing. Take your time in considering what type of homework you will be setting, and your students will gain from it enormously.