Project-based homework

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In a bid to transform student engagement with homework, Caistor Yarborough Academy has introduced project-based assignments which span up to seven weeks and are student-led. Kathryn Fowler explains.

In September 2011, Caistor Yarborough Academy launched a homework project around developing the fundamental learning skills referred to as TRICs – team, reflective, independent and creative learning.

Previously homework had been the root of many issues within the school, particularly the number of detentions that were being issued. Students attending the academy come from a diverse range of backgrounds and those with difficult home lives seemed to be falling victim to the detention system.

Lack of parental support at home meant that they often did not hand in homework which then led to a department detention. Students’ attendance at these detentions was often poor, which then saw them given a whole-school detention where they would sit in silence for 30 minutes. 

Many seemed to prefer this to actually completing the homework set during the department detention. It was also felt that the homework being set was not necessarily extending or developing students and as a school we wanted to focus on improving the independent learning skills of our young people.

After researching projects set within other schools and playing around with cross-faculty homework initiatives, I developed the idea of homework based on the key learning skills, TRICs. The idea of using TRICs to promote learning had been introduced the previous year and was still being developed. The school had also recently moved to a vertical tutoring system so it seemed sensible to tie all these elements together.

The new homework projects are delivered by tutors during tutor sessions. All students in key stage 3 are given three projects a year, each lasting six to seven weeks. Each year group has a choice of two themes on which their homework will be based, such as movement (see image above of a project into how muscles work) or colour.

Students, with support from tutors and key stage 4 mentors within their tutor groups, then chose a title to investigate further. Year 9 students are encouraged to devise a question that they intend to investigate and answer. The titles need to be linked to the theme but they are otherwise able to interpret the theme in any way they wish.

Students receive a homework booklet that they work through to help them record the learning journey and their progress is checked by tutors and mentors during tutor sessions. The booklet covers areas such as generating ideas, producing an action plan, research and referencing, creating a project, and then evaluating their work at the end. The booklet is focused on the different stages of learning and how the TRICs will help them achieve each stage.

The purpose for the projects is to give students the opportunity to work creatively, think for themselves and organise their own time without the spoon-feeding which can sometimes be expected and relied upon.

Students can choose to do their work on something which interests them and it can become quite personal. All homework projects are unique and cover a whole spectrum of subjects, presentation styles and skills.

The projects also allow parents, grandparents and the local community to become involved in the students’ learning in a positive way. We hope that by encouraging students to organise themselves, meet deadlines, problem-solve and make decisions about their learning, they will arrive in key stage 4 with the skills and attitude to learning that will equip them for their studies and ultimately improve results.

The projects have been hugely successful; student surveys have shown that 75 per cent really enjoy the homework and this is evenly balanced between boys and girls. A total of 95 per cent of students hand in their projects on time and to a satisfactory standard. 

The work produced has been fantastic – very creative and individual. Presentation styles vary and include models, written booklets, poems, textile work, sculpture, drawings, cooking, videos, animations, the list goes on. A selection of work has recently been displayed at an art gallery in Cleethorpes with a very successful preview evening. Feedback has been very positive. 

One of the biggest changes I have seen is the confidence that students are gaining from completing this work. Students who might normally struggle due to the written nature of traditional homework tasks now have access to homework and have been very successful. 

Students are proud of the work completed and are more than happy to show it off and tell people about what they have done. Some students have commented on how it has allowed more discussions to take place at home, as they have involved their families with the work. After each project, tutors select students who they feel have worked hard on their projects and send letters home acknowledging this. The students also receive merits and house points. 

At the end of each project, students will set specific targets for the next assignment, linked to the skills they need to develop. The projects allow students to take responsibility for their own learning and encourage them to think about how they learn and the skills needed to learn.

The projects were viewed positively by Ofsted during a recent inspection. Inspectors described them as “successfully developing students’ independent learning skills within the effective mixed-age tutor groups”, adding that they play an important part in the academy’s aim to make students more responsible for their learning.

I would strongly recommend switching to project-based homework. It is easy to manage by tutors, who have approximately 15 key stage 3 students in their groups. Subject teachers are no longer required to set regular homework and so their workload has decreased.

Homework is still set when required in other subjects. The maths department uses Mymaths, a computer-based homework program, and English has a reading passport, which encourages students to read regularly and comment on the books that they have read. This supports the work being completed in core subject areas.

Overall, the response by students to the projects has been fantastic and way beyond my initial expectations. As the projects progress and become embedded in the learning at the school I think the quality and diversity will continue to improve too.

  • Kathryn Fowler is leader of extended learning at Caistor Yarborough Academy in Lincolnshire.

Further information
If schools would like to find out more information, they are welcome to contact Caistor Yarborough Academy. Email enquiries@cyac.org.uk

CAPTIONS: A year 8 student’s art work produced as part of research into how muscles work (top image); a portrait of a British landscape created as part of the Caistor Yarborough's homework exhibition (inset)


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