Seven principles of effective secondary homework

Written by: Andrew Jones | Published:
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What is the secret to effective homework? Drawing upon the research, author of a new book on the topic Andrew Jones offers seven key principles for setting good homework at secondary level


Homework is a divisive issue. In fact, it is one of those educational topics that everyone has an opinion on – whether they work in education or simply went to school.

I personally hated it, rarely completed it and lost an awful lot of free time at break and immediately after school because of it. However, I now have a different view.

If set properly and in line with current trends in evidence-informed practice, homework can have an impact on learning and attainment, especially at secondary level. Here is why.


The academic research

Research on homework is mind-boggling to look into. There are thousands of articles in numerous academic journals. However, despite this, many of these articles reference the meta-analyses – or systematic reviews of homework research – of Harris Cooper.

These tend to show an overall positive relationship between homework compilation and attainment. For instance, in his most widely cited analysis, Cooper reviewed 20 US studies conducted between 1962 and 1986 and found that secondary level pupils who completed homework assignments outperformed by 69 per cent those who completed no homework (Cooper, 1989).

Similarly, in 2006, Cooper and his fellow researchers found further positive links between homework and attainment in a meta-analysis of more recent studies, which resulted in them stating: “With only rare exception, the relationship between the amount of homework students do and their achievement outcomes was found to be positive and statistically significant.” (Cooper, Robinson & Patall, 2006).

Other researchers have also found homework to have a positive impact on attainment. Fan, Xu, Cai and Fan (2017), for example, found a largely positive relationship between homework and attainment in maths and science in particular.

Nevertheless, it is worth noting that the studies cited here, as well as other studies by Hattie (2009) and Baş, Şentürk and Ciğerci (2017), show discrepancies between primary and secondary levels.

Importantly for us, the impact at secondary is more evident and – in many studies – seems to be more significant at key stage 4 than at key stage 3. Research also suggests that as pupils become more cognitively independent, they are better able to organise the time and resources needed for homework, as well as comprehend instructions, understand the cognitive processes needed, and appreciate the purpose of the tasks set.


Teacher-led projects

I have been involved in a number of projects over the last four years involving schools in a local Challenge Partners hub, which is a network of schools working together on various development plans to trial and share best practice ideas.

The first of these, in the 2017/18 academic year, was on homework and we followed that with retrieval practice and interleaving in the following years (until we were hit by Covid). Over the first lockdown, I reviewed all of this information and wrote it up in a book entitled Homework With Impact: Why what you set and how you set it matters (Routledge, 2021).

In the initial homework project, it was clear from my colleagues’ discussions that the issues around homework were an area worthy of investigation, especially in terms of understanding how the type of homework tasks we are setting has an impact on our pupils’ attainment. We also considered pupil wellbeing and teacher workload. Importantly, the project sought to canvas the views of our pupils, parents and teachers.


What does best practice look like? Seven approaches

Combining my colleagues’ feedback with my own further research and practice, some common strategies for improving homework’s impact on attainment seem clear. These include the following seven approaches.

1, Setting practice or preparation tasks

Homework should focus on either practising previously taught knowledge or preparation for the next lesson. My colleagues felt that these types of activities benefited their own practice and many researchers concur (see, Hallam & Rogers 2018, for an overview). In later hub projects on retrieval practice (see Jones, 2019), tasks such as short exam-based practice questions or preparing by learning vocabulary or facts for low-stakes quizzes (see Jones, 2020) in the following lesson seemed to work well as homework tasks.

Even colleagues in creative arts subjects suggested that practice was a core proponent of successful homework tasks, especially perfecting techniques taught in practical lessons (if possible at home).

2, Making tasks focused and concise

Pupil responses and various studies suggest that pupils learn more when allowed to practise fewer skills or concepts (Marzano, Pickering, & Pollock, 2001). Therefore, homework should be set in small chunks in terms of content or focused on particular skills in order to be properly understood by pupils.

3, Making sure students can complete the homework

Pitch tasks to pupils’ age and ability as confusion will hinder their learning. A higher chance of success will increase confidence ahead of more challenging work in class. My colleague, Meg Gillan, has looked into sleep and anxiety in relation to homework and – although pupils like challenges – asking them to complete something that is far too difficult without access to our expertise is obviously very risky.

4, Limiting tasks to 20 or 30 minutes per subject

This is important otherwise it will affect the pupils’ wellbeing as well as their ability to complete other homework. Overall, pupils should have no more than 1.5 to 2.5 hours of homework a night. Ideally, subjects should be limited to either 20 or 30-minute activities. Academics suggest a curniliver approach to homework as too little is pointless and too much is impractical and is impeded by cognitive load (Cooper, 2007). An exception, of course, is key stage 5.

5, Checking the homework with the pupils in class after completion

This offers a chance to review the key concepts, correct misunderstandings and better embed the work completed to memory (Rosenshine 2012 is clear on this). Importantly, any preparation work should involve some form of low-stakes quizzing or evidencing. Regular feedback – whether oral, written or through whole-class feedback – has an impact on homework completion too (Walberg & Paik, 2000).

6, Informing parents of homework

Epstein and Van Voorhis (2001) have suggested effective communication of the purpose and content of homework can allow parents to understand what is being taught in class and facilitate parent-child conversations, which may reinforce the importance of school work. Nonetheless, all of this – ideally – needs to be underpinned by a crystal clear homework policy that is regularly shared with parents.

7, Spacing and interleaving previously taught content

A later Hub project on interleaving (see Jones, 2020b) also demonstrated that homework tasks could revisit previously taught content. If feasible, homework activities can follow a spaced rotation where one short task is set on the current topic and another set on a previous topic.


Conclusion

It is important to not dismiss homework as a teaching and learning strategy. Yes, homework is controversial and Professor Dylan Wiliam was probably right when he stated at a 2014 ResearchEd conference that: “Most homework teachers set is crap.” (see Alex Quigley’s excellent 2018 blog on this point).

However, it is clear from the above points that homework, if set well with relevant and purposeful tasks, can have an impact on pupils’ recall or even mastery of the knowledge and skills taught in class.

  • Andrew Jones is assistant headteacher at The Reach Free School in Hertfordshire. He is the author of Homework With Impact: Why what you set and how you set it matters (Routledge, 2021). Visit https://bit.ly/3C6cvk5


Further information & resources

  • The Homework Project: For full details of the academic references in this article and for further information on the homework project itself, visit https://homeworkresearchproject.wordpress.com/
  • Baş, Şentürk & Ciğerci: Homework and academic achievement: A meta-analytic review of research, Issues in Educational Research (27, 1), January 2017: https://bit.ly/3lxaBni
  • Cooper: Synthesis of research on homework, Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, November 1989: https://bit.ly/3v0fCaQ
  • Cooper: The battle over homework: Common ground for administrators, teachers, and parents, Corwin Press, November 2007: https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2006-22225-000
  • Cooper, Robinson and Patall: Does homework improve academic achievement? A synthesis of research 1987-2003, Review of Educational Research (76, 1), Spring 2006: www.jstor.org/stable/3700582
  • Epstein and Van Voorhis: More than minutes: Teachers' roles in designing homework, Educational Psychologist, September 2001: https://bit.ly/2YFgzJL
  • Fan et al: Homework and students' achievement in math and science: A 30-year meta-analysis, 1986-2015, Educational Research Review (20), February 2017: https://bit.ly/3Ax1XcC
  • Hallam & Rogers: Homework: The evidence, UCL IOE Press, October 2018.
  • Hattie: Visible Learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses on achievement, Professor John Hattie, 2009 (updated in 2011 and 2017). For details, see https://visible-learning.org/hattie-ranking-influences-effect-sizes-learning-achievement/
  • Jones: Diversifying retrieval practice: Simple ideas that can be used to recall subject knowledge, Mr Jones Whiteboard blog, January 2019: https://bit.ly/2YSzpgw
  • Jones: Low Stakes Testing: Key principles for the classroom, Mr Jones Whiteboard blog, March 2020a: https://bit.ly/3hpUDbU
  • Jones: Interleaving in Practice: insights and observations from a TSA research project, Mr Jones Whiteboard blog, April 2020b: https://bit.ly/3C92C5k
  • Marzano, Pickering, & Pollock: Classroom Instruction That Works: Research-based strategies for increasing student achievement, Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2001.
  • Quigley: The truth about homework, The Confident Teacher blog, January 2018: https://bit.ly/3nt3A8o
  • Rosenshine: Principles of Instruction: Research-based strategies that all teachers should know, American Educator, Spring 2012: http://bit.ly/2ZpbIqW
  • Walberg & Paik: Effective Educational Practices, International Academy of Education, 2000: https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED443788.pdf


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