Setting independent homework ain’t easy


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.




  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.

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