Key Stage 3: Effective homework

This article was written for SecEd magazine and first published in September 2016.  You can read the original version on the SecEd website here.  

You can read more of my monthly columns for SecEd here


Ofsted’s 2015 report KS3: The Wasted Years? claims that key stage 3 is not a high priority for secondary school leaders in terms of timetabling, assessment and the monitoring of pupils’ progress. It also says that schools prioritise the pastoral over the academic needs of pupils during transition from primary school and that many secondaries do not build sufficiently on pupils’ prior learning.

Notably, the report claims that homework in key stage 3 does not consistently provide opportunities for pupils to consolidate or extend their learning. During this term I will be focusing on some of these issues. Here, I will look at this last point – homework.

What’s the point of homework?

Homework has had a rough ride in recent years with many teachers and parents calling for it to be scrapped. Those who fail to see the merits of homework tend to cite Professor John Hattie’s book Visible Learning which gives homework an effect size of 0.26, meaning there’s only a 21 per cent chance that homework will make a positive difference to a pupil’s levels of progress.

One prominent advocate of scrapping homework is Tim Lott of The Guardian who, in October 2012, asked: “Why do we torment kids in this way?”

He wrote: “I had no homework during my primary school years and very little during the first years of grammar school. This was the norm in the 1960s and 70s. At some point since, the work ‘ethic’ that has infected national life generally – not that it’s particularly ethical – insists that if you’re not working, you’re doing something faintly dissolute or purposeless, even if you’re six.

“Nothing is more precious than those islands of childhood that are left untouched by invading adults and their fund of schemes for the future when you finally make it as a ‘worthy citizen’. Let children drift and dream and make up games … but this makes evangelists for the work society uneasy.”

Homework generates conflict with parents, Lott said, and, worse still, parents are required to help. The problem is, most parents are not trained teachers and are often impatient and ineffective.

The end result of homework, according to Lott and many others, is that study becomes associated in the young mind with conflict and unhappiness.

However, the facts are a little more nuanced. It is probably true that too much homework – particularly if it’s meaningless “fluff” – for Lott’s 10-year-old daughter is pointless, counterproductive and switches her and her parents off education.

But that’s not the whole story. The benefits of homework vary by age; the older the pupil, the greater the benefit. Indeed, if you look in detail at what Hattie says in Visible Learning, you’ll see that behind the headline figure of 0.26 are two separate figures, one for primary and one for secondary and those two figures are startlingly different.

But first let’s look at effect sizes in general. An effect size of 0.2 is considered small. An effect size of 0.4 is considered medium. An effect size of 0.6 is considered large. Anything greater than 0.4 is therefore above average and anything above 0.6 is classified excellent.

Hattie says that the effect of homework on pupil outcomes is 0.26 overall but is 0.15 at primary and 0.64 at secondary. Therefore, it is small at primary but large at secondary.

In other words, the effect of homework on pupil outcomes in the primary phase is, as Lott and others rightly argue, negligible and could do more harm than good if it’s not managed well. But the effect of homework on pupil outcomes in the secondary phase of education is excellent and therefore well worth persevering with, albeit improving. Homework, then, is not to be disregarded quite so quickly.

Hattie also goes into some detail about the kinds of homework that work best. The highest effects, he says, are associated with practice and rehearsal tasks. And short, frequent homework tasks that are closely monitored by the teacher have the most impact on pupil progress.

The optimal time per-night for pupils to spend on homework also varies by age; the older the pupil, the more time they should spend on homework. This is an imperfect science but, roughly, I would argue that the following is a good guide: pupils in the primary phase should do no more than about 20 minutes a night, pupils in key stage 3 should do about 40 minutes, pupils in key stage 4 should do about 60 minutes, and pupils in key stage 5 should do about 90 minutes a night.

What homework works best?

In my experience, homework – like all forms of assignments – works best when you give students a clear picture of the final product and a real audience for their work. Homework also works best when you allow a certain degree of autonomy, whereby pupils can make choices about which tasks they carry out, how they carry them out and how they will be assessed on the final product. And homework also works best when you incorporate cultural products into it such as television, film, magazines, food, and sports – to name but five examples – in order to engage pupils’ personal interests and awaken prior knowledge.

Naturally, it is always best to avoid “fluff” assignments – homework tasks which bear no relation to what is being learnt and which simply waste pupils’ time.

For homework, my daughter recently baked a cake in the shape of a wind turbine for a science project. It took her five hours. Needless to say, I was less than impressed. What aspect of science did she practise, rehearse or consolidate during those five hours, I asked her. She struggled for an answer. “But I like baking,” came her eventual reply.

Homework must have genuine purpose and the “doing” must be linked to the “learning” because pupils remember what they are asked to do more than what they are asked to think about.

It is also wise to vary the language of homework tasks, perhaps by using Bloom’s Taxonomy. Rather than always asking pupils simple comprehension questions or to summarise a text, try to move up and down the taxonomy by asking them to: define, recall, describe, label, identify, match, name, or state (knowledge); translate, predict, explain, summarise, describe, compare, or classify (comprehension); demonstrate how, solve, use, interpret, relate, or apply (application); analyse, explain, infer, break-down, prioritise, reason logically, or draw conclusions (analysis); design, create, compose, combine, reorganise, reflect, predict, speculate, hypothesise, or summarise (synthesis); assess, judge, compare/contrast, or evaluate (evaluation).

Homework, if it is to be taken seriously, should be non-negotiable like class-work. As such, you should not allow “passes” whereby pupils can be excused from handing homework in and you should require everyone to “turn in a paper”, so even when someone has forgotten to bring their homework in on the due-date they should be required to write their name on a piece of paper and the reason they haven’t got their homework and submit that instead.

Then, crucially, at the bottom of the page they should add A parent/carer’s name and daytime phone number. That way you have a paper from everyone, a record of who hasn’t handed their homework in on time and a way of contacting parents to make them aware of their child’s failure to comply with the rules. I’m sure you will find that the tactic of requiring pupils to submit phone numbers will quickly have the desired effect.

Occasionally, homework could be integrated with other subjects, becoming cross-curricular and thematic, enabling pupils to see the natural links that exist between subjects and the transferability of key skills, as well as to provide variety. This could occur once every half-term as an extended project.

Types of homework

Broadly speaking there are four types of homework task: practice, preparation, study, extend/elaborate.
Of these, practice is the most valuable in terms of producing measurable academic gains because practice builds proficiency and mastery. Practice can be single skill or cumulative. Cumulative practice is where a new skill is practised alongside a previously learnt skill.

A pupil must have demonstrated competence in the skill being practised before being asked to do it for homework. Homework should not – except in the case of flipped learning – introduce new concepts or information. There are three forms of practice worth considering for homework tasks:

1 Spaced repetition

This is where information is learnt initially then repeated again several times at increasingly long intervals so that pupils get to the point of almost forgetting what they have learnt and have to delve into their long-term memories to retrieve their prior knowledge, thus strengthening those memories. As well as returning to prior learning following an interval, we should explore that information in a new way because making new associations further strengthens our memories, hence homework task number two…

2 Retrieval practice

This is testing or quizzing (such as multiple-choice) used not for the purposes of assessment but for reinforcement and to provide pupils with feedback information on what they know and don’t yet know so that they can better focus their future studies.

The number of different connections we make influences the number of times memories are revisited, which in turn influences the length of time we retain a memory. When we connect different pieces of information with each other, we retain them for longer, because we retrieve them more often. It follows, then, that the more often we connect what we are teaching today to what we taught previously, the better the information will be learnt.

If we retrieve a memory in order to connect prior knowledge to new information, the memory is strengthened even further, so using quizzes in which the information is presented in new ways helps pupils to improve their learning. We could also plan opportunities for our pupils to reorganise the information they have learnt by writing or talking about it.

3 Cognitive disfluency

This is otherwise known as desirable difficulties. This is a memory technique that makes learning stick by placing artificial barriers in the way of pupils’ learning. Doing this means that the process of encoding (initial learning) is made harder so that the process of retrieval (recalling that learning later, say in a test) is made easier.

One example of a desirable difficulty is making learning materials less easy to read, perhaps by using a difficult to decipher font, in order to make pupils think harder about the content. Another example is to use more complex language when forming questions and tasks so that pupils have to think harder about what is being asked of them before tackling the work.

General advice

Let’s conclude with some general dos and don’ts:

  • Don’t use a one-size-fits-all approach: homework should be differentiated to meet individual pupil needs.
  • Don’t set homework that contains new information – it should be used to practise taught skills.
  • Don’t set homework too quickly at the end of a lesson – time needs to be spent explaining it.
  • Don’t collect homework in but not review it – it needs to be assessed and feedback given.
  • Don’t give out homework that has no purpose or objective
  • Do give less homework but more often.
  • Do have a specific purpose for every homework task you set; don’t set “busy work”.
  • Do ensure that homework is engaging.
  • Do allot sufficient time in the lesson to present and explain the homework.
  • Do answer pupils’ questions about the homework and check their understanding.
  • Do articulate the rationale for the homework and how it will be assessed.
  • Do provide timely feedback on what has been mastered and what still needs to be practised.
  • Do provide choices about the homework task, format and presentation.

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