Improving homework practices: A whole-school approach

Paula Mulhall, Sandymount Park Educate Together Secondary School, Dublin

Guidance on a whole-school approach to improving homework practices

—By Paula Mulhall

Every student, parent, teacher, and school leader is a homework expert. Whether we are completing it, helping with it, setting it, marking it, or striving to create a successful school-wide approach to it, homework is something we all have experience of and opinions on. Yet, for many, it remains a battleground, and getting homework right is an ongoing challenge for schools.

Teachers weary with the daily homework battle can be tempted to abandon the practice altogether. But our instincts tell us that homework is an important part of learning, and our experience is that students who regularly complete homework have better outcomes.

These instincts are backed up by a large body of research which indicates that homework has a positive and significant effect on student achievement (see work by Hattie, Cooper, Protheroe, Vatterott, Marzano, Pickering, and Pollock, for example).

The following guidance on a whole-school approach to improving homework practices is based on my investigation of the available research, action research carried out in my own classroom in a large urban DEIS school in 2014, and my experience establishing policy and practice as a principal in a start-up setting.

First steps

The challenges that surround homework are not surprising: ‘Homework involves the complex interaction of more influences than any other instructional device,’ writes Cooper (1989). These influences include:

  • student factors, such as age, ability, motivation, and study habits
  • home factors, such as facilities, materials, parental guidance, and support
  • school factors, such as the quality of homework given, and whether and how it is followed up.

To give due consideration to these influences, it is recommended that schools involve students, teachers, and parents in the formation of any homework policy. Online surveys for parents, students, and teachers are an easy place to start – surveys reveal expectations and provide insight and data, on which policy can be built.

It may be beneficial to offer parents a workshop on ‘How to help your child with homework’ at the start of each year. The workshop can advise parents on the benefits of homework, how best to facilitate it, and the importance of checking journals and monitoring progress.

It is highly recommended that teachers dedicate at least one class period per year to a focus group discussion with each class (see sample questions at the end). These sessions are essential to understanding where individual students are at when it comes to homework, and they give teachers and students time to co-create agreed homework practices (which may vary from group to group depending on the subject, students, timing of classes, etc.). Importantly, involving students in this process – asking and acting on their opinions – maximises their buy-in and boosts engagement.

Home and student factors both play a role in student engagement with homework, but school factors are far more significant. Schools can maximise the impact of homework by influencing what they have most control over – the quality of homework given by teachers. Schools should ensure that teachers are familiar with and engaging in effective homework practices.

Effective homework practices

‘When teachers design homework to meet specific purposes and goals, more students complete their homework and benefit from the results’ (Epstein & Van Voorhis, 2001)

  1. Good homework practices are consistent with good teaching; homework should not be assigned simply as a matter of routine but when there is a clear purpose for student learning.
  2. Students should leave the classroom with no confusion about what they are being asked to do or how to do it. They must be given written instructions.
  3. Homework should not be used to teach new material. It should be explicitly related to classwork.
  4. Teachers should make sure that students fully understand the concepts and have the skills needed to complete any homework assignment. This will help prevent frustration, discouragement, and the habituation of errors.
  5. Homework must be doable – students should be able to complete it on their own with relative ease.
  6. Variety and choice in homework assignments promote ownership and stimulate student interest.
  7. Choice in the number and type of questions to be answered and in the format of assignments is a straightforward way to differentiate for varying ability levels.
  8. Give feedback:
    • Written formative feedback, specific to the student, has been shown to significantly improve student engagement with homework.
    • Not all feedback needs to be written to be effective – oral feedback and class discussion are also useful.
    • Teachers should reinforce what has been done well, and they should re-teach concepts and skills when homework shows that students have not mastered them.
  9. Give students success criteria and rubrics. What skills do you want students to exhibit in their work? What does an excellent answer look like?
  10. Homework should not be given as punishment: this promotes the idea that homework is a negative rather than for the benefit of the student.
  11. Teachers should coordinate with one another so that students are not being overwhelmed with many assignments and projects at the same time.

Students with additional needs

Students with special educational needs (SEN) may exhibit characteristics that make it more challenging to complete homework, such as distractibility, forgetfulness, literacy difficulties, poor time management, and fatigue.

In addition to the steps above, SEN students may need shorter assignments, more time, different rubrics, and scaffolding of answers.
Teachers should assess students’ homework skills so they are aware of problems and can support students to complete homework – in a homework club or study skills class if necessary.

‘There is nothing so unfair as the equal treatment of unequal children’ —Thomas Jefferson

Schools must recognise the limitations that students’ home environments might place on their ability to do homework well or even at all. Teachers should be sensitive to the fact that when homework is used improperly, it may increase achievement gaps and absenteeism and cause some students to disengage further from school.

Schools must take steps to ensure that homework does not further marginalise disadvantaged students. Every effort must be made to positively engage and support students with homework. A resource class or a lunch-time or after-school club may be necessary for some.

Carrot, not stick!

Punishment for non-completion of homework rarely improves student engagement with it. Instead, it causes frustration and stress and affects relationships negatively.

Think of those who complete their homework regularly, perhaps only occasionally forgetting a task. How might they feel if they spent 2–3 hours completing homework but were punished the next day for the one task they forgot or could not do?

For those who cannot complete homework due to SEN or difficulties at home, punishment is particularly unfair. It compounds feelings of inadequacy and causes further disengagement from school life. These students are often late or absent or skip class to avoid being punished for homework they cannot hope to complete. This results in them missing out on both class and home learning, further widening the achievement gap.

To maximise student engagement with homework:

– involve students from the outset in the formation of a school homework policy
– involve students at class level to establish the timing and types of homework preferred
– give choice
– provide feedback
– give doable work.

This engagement should be reinforced verbally, as well as with stamps and stickers, notes, work retained in folders or displayed on walls, postcards home, etc. Ongoing positive acknowledgment of work well done will help maintain engagement. Crucially, increased engagement with quality homework is likely to boost student achievement and so become a reward in itself, and students will make the connection.

A school-wide system of negative points, detentions, or punishment work can drain teachers’ time and energy, create negativity, frustrate and stress students, and adversely affect relationships. These systems are often in place to try to target a minority who will not engage with homework – using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. The time and energy may be better placed on the following:

  • teacher CPD on quality homework and effective homework practices
  • homework planning time for subject departments
  • supporting those who can’t do the homework
  • communicating student progress and engagement with homework to parents.

Schools can make it clear to the school community that homework is a valuable and valued part of learning in a variety of positive ways:

  • involving the whole school community in the formation of a homework policy
  • regular communication of the benefits of homework
  • feedback to students
  • regular communication to parents on how students are engaging and progressing with homework
  • acknowledgement of effort
  • displaying students’ work
  • support for those struggling with homework.

In summary

To improve student engagement with homework:

  1. Involve the school community in the formation of a homework policy;
  2. Involve students at class level to establish class homework practices;
  3. Provide CPD to teachers on quality homework and effective homework practices;
  4. Provide time for teachers to plan homework and coordinate timing between departments;
  5. Provide support for students who struggle with homework;
  6. Give choice and be flexible;
  7. Differentiate;
  8. Positively reinforce student engagement;
  9. Communicate regularly with parents about homework;
  10. Provide workshops on ‘How to help your child with homework’.

Quality Homework

Clear Purpose

Written Instructions


Linked to Classwork

Success Criteria


Focus group sample questions

How do you feel about homework?
Do you find it helpful? Why/Why not?
Why do you not do your homework?
What could teachers do to help you do your homework?
What could the school do to help you do your homework?
What type of homework do you like best?
What type of homework do you like least?
What type of homework helps you learn?
Does homework cause you stress? Why?
What could teachers do to encourage you to do your homework?
What suggestions do you have for teachers regarding homework?

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