Homework: what it’s for and how to approach it
Homework is a sticking point for many families, students, teachers and schools. In this episode of The School Success Formula I'm going to talk about:
- The purpose of homework
- How to get the most out of it
- How to approach homework
- How to manage homework
- What you should expect from the school in terms of marking
1. What's the point of homework?
There are several reasons that homework is set by schools. I'll talk about each one in turn.
Promotes independent learning
I believe that the most important reason to do homework is to promote independent learning. As students move through their school career, into the GCSE and A Level years and on to university it becomes more and more important that students are able to work and learn indepedently.
It's one thing for a child to complete their work at school under the supervision of their teacher. It's quite another thing to understand that task, sit and concentrate on it without a teacher breathing down your neck, solve any problems involved in doing the work, do any research that's necessary and set your own standards about what's acceptable to hand in.
When I've been into schools to speak around the country one of the most alarming things I've found is that even students who are in year 10 are often not set regular homework. I think this stems from schools wanting to control the entire learning process, and not trusting that all of their students will complete the work. It's certainly a struggle as a teacher to manage students who don't complete their homework – it's very difficult to set detentions when you have minimal break times and fewer and fewer free periods – you're often left having to choose whether to go to the loo or eat in your breaks and holding a detention is often the straw that breaks the camel's back in terms of a teacher's working day. You also have to remember that schools and teachers are under huge pressure because of league tables – and this has, in many cases, turned them into control freaks as far as teaching the curriculum is concerned – they don't want to leave things to chance by setting them as homework.
But, schools should be setting homework. They are doing pupils a disservice when they don't set homework as students are not learning to study independently.
Extend and deepen learning
Homework gives students a chance to go deeper with what they've learned in class, or to practice the things that they have been taught. Maths homework is a great example of this. If your child has been taught a certain mathematical method in class then doing some exercises which enable them to practice this method really embeds their learning.
In other subjects such as science or the humanities, homework can be an opportunity to use a child's independent research skills and find out more about what they've been studying in class.
Cover what you haven't got time in class to do
With the recent changes in curriculum many GCSE specifications have become a lot heavier in content. I've seen teachers saying that they just haven't got the time to cover everything they need to teach to their students in class – so they're setting homeworks in which their students need to cover aspects of the specification independently. This isn't ideal – but I think teachers, families and students should be seeing this as an opportunity to move away from the culture of ‘spoon-feeding' students what they need to know that has arisen since so much focus has been placed on league tables.
If students learn to study independently during their GCSE years then the transition to A Level will be much less of a shock and they will also be more equipped to be independent workers.
The other way that homework can be used is to do things like extended pieces of writing in English and project work or coursework that are actually better done in the quiet and privacy of a child's own home.
2. How to get the most out of homework
In order for your child to get the most out of their homework both you and they need to have the right attitude towards it.
Homework should be seen as an exciting opportunity to consolidate and extend learning – rather than something inconvenient that has to be rushed through before your child can get back to the Xbox or Netflix.
This attitude can be cultivated by you as a parent. Show interest in what they're being asked to do. Encourage them to tackle difficult tasks with curiosity and interest. Praise the effort they put into their work rather than the results and marks that they're given. These are all hallmarks of a growth mindset.
I might be teaching my grandmother to such eggs here, but your child needs the right environment in which to do their homework. When I go into schools to teach students about how to study, many young people tell me about the distractions that they experience at home. Everything from their phone to their dog or their little brother seems to get in the way.
Make sure you child has a quiet, comfortable environment in which to study. Ideally a desk or table in a room where a door can be closed to shut off noise and distraction from other parts of the house. You also need to come up with ways to keep the phone out of the way so that your child can concentrate properly. Joanna Grace and I talked more about how to create a safe and comforting environment for study in episode 15 of the podcast.
Access to other resources
When I was at school my parents made sure I had a top quality encyclopaedia to refer to for my homework. That seems a little out-dated now – but make sure your child has access to good reference materials and books to assist them with their homework. There are some fantastic resources out there such as GCSEPod who provide podcasts related to GCSE subjects. There are also language learning courses and study guides that can really enhance your child's knowledge and understanding, as well as the quality of their homework. Check out the GCSE English study guides provided by Mr Salles.
3. How to approach homework
In the spirit of encouraging independent learning, it's important that as a parent, you approach homework in the right way.
The first way that you can do this is by showing an interest in the tasks that your child needs to complete. You can do this by asking them what they've been set today, what they've been doing in class to set up this homework task and by reviewing their planner with them.
The second thing you can do is ask your child how they're going to approach their homework. If they've been set something like a project, research task or extended piece of writing you can talk through how they're going to do this piece of work. This is effectively coaching them through the planning stage. Younger people don't have the same planning ability that adults do so if you can help them to think through their plan and approach you'll be modelling to them how tasks should be tackled and setting them up to do a much better piece of homework as a result.
Once you're happy that your child knows how to approach their work they should be left to get on with it themselves – in the spirit of promoting indepdendent learning.
Where you can next intervene is in reviewing what they've produced. Before passing any judgement on what they've done I suggest asking them questions such as:
- What do you think you did particularly well in this piece of homework?
- What did you find difficult or did you feel didn't go particularly well?
- How do you think you could improve this piece of work?
By getting your child to think through the answers to these questions you're teaching them to critically evaluate their own work, which is a priceless skill for improving grades. (See the Revision Power Hour for a really practical way that GCSE and A Level students can critically evaluate their own work).
4. How to manage homework
Many families find it difficult to fit homework in because both parents are working and children are doing so many out of school activities. The way to manage homework, for anyone, is to establish some kind of routine and pattern around it. You can get an idea of how this is done in my blog post, The Weekly Routine of a Straight A Student. The approach in this blog post can be adapted to any age of student. The priciples are:
- Identify the best times of the day and the week for doing homework. I've found that with my five year old son, doing his reading before school works so much better than doing it after school. He's fresher and much better able to concentrate. You might find that your children at secondary school need to come home, have a snack and a drink and a bit of a relax, and then focus on their homework before they're allowed to do other things that they enjoy, such as the Xbox!
- Set up rewards and rest periods. It's important to acknowledge that no-one can concentrate for very extended periods of time. With homework, I don't think any child should sit for more than an hour without getting up and having a short break. Most children won't even be able to concentrate for this long. Work out what works for your child. Once they've finished their homework have small rewards in place – this basically means they have free time and can choose what they want to do (clearly within reason!). You might like to check out my blog post, 7 Smart Strategies to Turn Distractions into Incentives and Get You Revision Done to help with this.
- Establish the way that you check on their homework – is it every day or every week? Is it before or after they've started their homework? Turn this into a routine and a way that you show interest in your child, rather than making them feel that you're checking up on them.
5. What to expect from school
The inspiration for this podcast episode came from a conversation I had in my Facebook group exclusively for parents, The Supportive Parents, Successful Students community. The parent in question was upset because her daughter's homework wasn't marked consistently.
I agree that when teachers ask students to do homework that it should be marked in a timely fashion. When I was teaching I found that when I marked books at least weekly the students produced better quality classwork and homework, and that overall behaviour was better in my classes.
However, I think it's really important for parents to know the realities that teachers are contending with, and thereby manage your children's expectations about marking. When I realised how much of a difference prompt and regular marking made to my students I set myself a stringent marking routine. In the end it ran me ragged. The work load of a teacher is such that often something has to give – particularly in weeks when they have parents' evenings or some other after school activity (which most of the time won't benefit your child directly).
A teacher's priority should always be planning effective lessons for their students. The thing that can give is marking. I believe that families and students should have high expectations of teachers – but there also needs to be a level of empathy about the regularity of marking. And it's much better to have a teacher who is turning up and teaching effectively each lesson than for them to burn out, go off sick and have lower quality supply teachers supervising cover lessons.
Regularity of homework
Some schools set up things like homework timetables where the school management decree what day of the week teachers are allowed to set homeworks. These timetables often turn out to be impratical when viewed in conjunction with the scheme of work. Teachers are always trying to set meaningful homework that will actually enhance students' learning, rather than setting homework for homework's sake. Don't be surprised if teachers don't always do exactly what it says on the homework timetable – they're simple trying to give your child the best quality learning experience possible.
Length of homework
Your child's school probably also has a policy about the length of homeworks that are set for your child in each stage and year group. However, it's difficult to judge exactly how long a piece of homework is going to take, particularly when you've got children with wildly different abilities in your class. Take the length of homework as guidance, and if you feel your child is spending far too long on their homework then talk to the school about it – it's probably best to contact their form tutor as the first point of call.
During the GCSE years students should be doing approximately 1.5 hours per subject per week (this includes homework, revision and further reading). At A Level they should be doing 5-6 hours per subject per week. You can learn more about this in the blog post, The Weekly Routine of a Straight A Student.
Homework is rarely going to be perfect in terms of what's set, how your child approaches it and how it's marked. However, if you and your child approach it with the right attitude and try to get the most learning from the experience possible, they will be set up for success as they become more independent in their studies. Your aim as a parent should be to give them structure and support when they're younger so that good homework practices have been modelled and they can transition into working more and more independently as they progress through their school career. Just remember one thing – never do your child's homework for them. They will learn nothing from that other than you'll pick up the pieces for them, no matter what they do.
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