Like all teachers, I’ve spent many hours correcting homework. Yet there’s a debate over whether we should be setting it at all.
I teach both primary and secondary, and regularly find myself drawn into the argument on the reasoning behind it – parents, and sometimes colleagues, question its validity. Parent-teacher interviews can become consumed by how much trouble students have completing assignments. All of which has led me to question the neuroscience behind setting homework. Is it worth it?
'My son works until midnight': parents around the world on homework
Increasingly, there’s a divide between those who support the need for homework and those who suggest the time would be better spent with family and developing relationships. The anxiety related to homework is frequently reviewed.
A survey of high-performing high schools by the Stanford Graduate School of Education, for example, found that 56% of students considered homework a primary source of stress. These same students reported that the demands of homework caused sleep deprivation and other health problems, as well as less time for friends, family and extracurricular pursuits.
When students learn in the classroom, they are using their short-term or working memory. This information is continually updated during the class. On leaving the classroom, the information in the working memory is replaced by the topic in the next class.
Adults experience a similar reaction when they walk into a new room and forget why they are there. The new set of sensory information – lighting, odours, temperature – enters their working memory and any pre-existing information is displaced. It’s only when the person returns to the same environment that they remember the key information.
But education is about more than memorising facts. Students need to access the information in ways that are relevant to their world, and to transfer knowledge to new situations.
Many of us will have struggled to remember someone’s name when we meet them in an unexpected environment (a workmate at the gym, maybe), and we are more likely to remember them again once we’ve seen them multiple times in different places. Similarly, students must practise their skills in different environments.
Revising the key skills learned in the classroom during homework increases the likelihood of a student remembering and being able to use those skills in a variety of situations in the future, contributing to their overall education.
The link between homework and educational achievement is supported by research: a meta-analysis of studies between 1987 and 2003 found that: “With only rare exceptions, the relationship between the amount of homework students do and their achievement outcomes was found to be positive and statistically significant.”
The right type of work
The homework debate is often split along the lines of primary school compared with secondary school. Education researcher Professor John Hattie, who has ranked various influences on student learning and achievement, found that homework in primary schools has a negligible effect (most homework set has little to no impact on a student’s overall learning). However, it makes a bigger difference in secondary schools.
His explanation is that students in secondary schools are often given tasks that reinforce key skills learned in the classroom that day, whereas primary students may be asked to complete separate assignments. “The worst thing you can do with homework is give kids projects; the best thing you can do is reinforce something you’ve already learned,” he told the BBC in 2014.
The science of homework: tips to engage students' brains
So homework can be effective when it’s the right type of homework. In my own practice, the primary students I teach will often be asked to find real-life examples of the concept taught instead of traditional homework tasks, while homework for secondary students consolidates the key concepts covered in the classroom. For secondary in particular, I find a general set of rules useful:
- Set work that’s relevant. This includes elaborating on information addressed in the class or opportunities for students to explore the key concept in areas of their own interest.
- Make sure students can complete the homework. Pitch it to a student’s age and skills – anxiety will only limit their cognitive abilities in that topic. A high chance of success will increase the reward stimulation in the brain.
- Get parents involved, without the homework being a point of conflict with students. Make it a sharing of information, rather than a battle.
- Check the homework with the students afterwards. This offers a chance to review the key concepts and allow the working memory to become part of the long-term memory.
While there is no data on the effectiveness of homework in different subjects, these general rules could be applied equally to languages, mathematics or humanities. And by setting the right type of homework, you’ll help to reinforce key concepts in a new environment, allowing the information you teach to be used in a variety of contexts in the future.
Helen Silvester is a writer for npj Science of Learning Community
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en españolLa vuelta a la escuela
It's school time again! You're probably feeling excited and maybe a little sad that summer is over. Some kids feel nervous or a little scared on the first day of school because of all the new things: new teachers, new friends, and maybe even a new school. Luckily, these "new" worries only stick around for a little while. Let's find out more about going back to school.
The First Day
Most teachers kick off the school year by introducing themselves and talking about all the stuff you'll be doing that year. Some teachers give students a chance to tell something about themselves to the rest of the class.
When teachers do the talking on the first day, they often go over classroom rules so you'll know what's allowed and what's not. Pay close attention so you'll know if you need to raise your hand to ask a question and what the rules are about visiting the restroom.
You might already know a lot of kids in your classes on the first day. But it's a great day to make a new friend, so try to say hello to kids you know and new ones that you don't. Make the first move and you'll be glad you did and so will your new friend!
Moving to Middle School?
Sixth grade often signals a move to middle school or junior high, where you'll find lockers and maybe a homeroom. This is just what it sounds like — a classroom you'll go to each morning, kind of like your home in the school. In middle school, you might move from classroom to classroom for each subject. Your teachers know that this is a big change from elementary school and will help you adjust.
Most teachers let you pick your own seat on the first day, but by the second or third morning, they'll have mapped out a seating plan. At first, it's a good idea to write down where your seat is in your notebook so you don't forget.
Feeling Good on Day One
Seeing friends you haven't seen in a while can make the first day a good one. You also can make the day feel special by wearing an outfit you like. Maybe you got a great T-shirt on vacation, or your new sneakers put a spring in your step. If you wear a uniform, you might wear a favorite watch, a new hair band, or a piece of jewelry to show your personal style.
It can make you feel good to be prepared and have all the supplies you need. Some schools distribute supply lists before the year begins, so you can come stocked up on pencils, folders, and whatever else you'll be needing. Once you've covered the basics, you might tuck an extra few dollars in your backpack for an emergency (like forgetting your lunch money). Or maybe you'd like to bring along a book or magazine to read while you're on the bus.
Whatever you put in your backpack, make sure you pack it the night before. This prevents the morning panic when you can't find your homework or lunch box. Speaking of lunch, that's something else that can help you feel good at school — whether it's the first day or the 100th day. Help your parents pack it the night before if you don't like what's on the menu at the cafeteria. Try to include a variety of foods in your packed lunch, especially fruits and vegetables.
The first day of school is your first chance to find your way around a new school, or learn the pathways to new classes in your old school. It's a lot to learn in one day, so don't be surprised if you need a reminder or two.
It might help to write a few notes to yourself, so you'll remember the important stuff, like your locker combination and that lunch starts at 11:43, not 12:10. Before you know it, your fingers will fly as you open your locker and you won't have to check your notes to know what time lunch starts!
A Bad Start?
What if you hate school by the end of day one? Teachers recommend giving things some time to sort themselves out — once you know your way around the building and get adjusted to the new routine, you'll probably feel better. If those feelings don't fade, talk to your mom, dad, teacher, or school counselor.
Here are a few final tips for a fantastic school year:
- Get enough sleep.
- Eat a healthy breakfast.
- Try your best.
- Use good work habits, like writing down your assignments and turning in your homework on time.
- Take your time with school work. If you don't understand something, ask the teacher.
- Keep a sense of humor. One teacher we know shows his new students a picture of himself graduating high school — a grinning ape in a red graduation cap and gown. This usually makes the kids laugh, and it's a good way to remind them that school is fun!