HOMEWORK is a new strategy

Forget about all the negative past conceptions of homework. When set properly, HOMEWORK is an effective strategy to improve learning.

Establishing a base from which students can easily and automatically retrieve content to apply to new learning contexts is likely to improve learning because it assists the working memory’s battle to process the new content. The cognitive load involved in the process is managed, and learning is made possible.  To enhance the development of this knowledge base, teachers can facilitate 2 things: the content taught is secure in students’ minds; the content taught can be recalled easily when required. Homework can help. 


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To assist in the consolidation and strengthening of learning within the classroom, homework  should take the shape of practice, with questions or exercises designed to master skills. Such tasks should be 20-30 minutes in duration, and precisely matched to the content just taught.

The nature of modern schooling is characterised by an enormous amount of content, but students rarely have sufficient opportunity to truly process it, as the next piece of knowledge must be delivered shortly. This presents a big problem for the student, who is effectively forced to consume knowledge in a superficial way. They simply don’t get the chance to deepen their understanding by practising problem solving and building mental models of what they have (briefly) seen in class. Homework tasks that facilitate practice can address this. 

The research in designing good homework is clear, and nicely summarised by Carr: ‘Teachers should not assign homework as a matter of routine, rather, only when there is a specific purpose. Students must also understand the purpose of the assignment and why it is important in the context of their academic experience (Xu, 2011). Assigning “busy work” or rote assignments is counterproductive. Homework should provide teachers with feedback about student understanding (Redding, 2000) and thus should reinforce concepts. Homework should not be given on topics that have not been taught (Redding, 2000). Finally, students should leave the classroom with a clear sense of what they are supposed to do and how they are supposed to do it (Protheroe, 2009).’

 The most effective tasks provide clear precise instructions, and provide an example of a question or exercise as a model for students to get the ball rolling. When a model and clear instructions are given, students are less likely to invalidate the homework process by outsourcing the learning, to either Google, or a parent/carer. More on this outsourcing later.

Bjork’s distinction between performance and learning is also highly relevant here, and homework that consolidates in class learning builds the foundations of real learning.   This is incredibly pertinent if the knowledge learnt is a requirement for the next learning sequence, as most school learning is.


See the source imageThe underlining premise of retrieval practice is that in order to overcome the forgetting curve, information that a student has stored in their long term memory needs to be recalled several times before the knowledge could be deemed to be completely secure, and retrievable at later stages. By actively ‘working’ on the memory, the memory is strengthened.

By interrupting the forgetting, the knowledge is now made available in new learning contexts.  The best time to interrupt the forgetting is after some time has passed. Homework tasks that enable retrieval are perfectly suited to satisfy such a spaced condition. The research by Bjork is clear, that the memory is strengthened if the student is ‘challenged’ to remember it, a likely process if distractions occur between engagement with the content.

Retrieval practice also achieves 2 other useful outcomes

  • it greatly assists in reducing the manifestation of cognitive overload: as the learner becomes increasingly familiar with the material, the cognitive characteristics associated with the material are altered so that it can be handled more efficiently by working memory (Sweller 1988).
  • it teaches students how to study. If we use homework as a way to teach and train students how to study more effectively, as retrievalpractice.org state, by retrieving content as opposed to simply re-reading, taking notes, or listening to lectures, then we improve the likelihood that students will be more successful in assessment, and much more independent in their future academic endeavours.  


Tasks should be 20-30 minutes in duration, test like in nature, and should be a mixture of previous learnt material. The 5:3:2 ratio exploits the concept of interleaving, which suggests that by chunking revision the likelihood of remembering the knowledge increases: again the 20-25 min task works well here, perhaps 20 mins on English, then 20 mins on Maths.

In the next post, I discuss the problems with students having to outsource their learning in homework tasks. 

See here for lots of information and ideas on homework. 


Sweller, J., Cognitive load during problem solving: Effects on learning, Cognitive Science, 12, 257-285 (1988).

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click to view Carr’s research

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger

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