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.