An article by Richard James Rogers
Illustrated by Sutthiya Lertyongphati
I received a message from a very stressed out Newly Qualified Teacher a few weeks ago. It pertains to a problem that many educators face: dealing with homework. When I told her that I was planning to write an article about this very issue, she agreed to share her message with all my readers:
Dear Richard. I’m about to finish my first year in teaching and I’m really ashamed to admit that I haven’t been able to mark my students’ homework on time each week. In fact, I’ve set so much homework that it has just piled up and piled up over the course of this year, to the point where I now have a literal mountain to deal with! I’m kind of hoping that most of my students will forget that I have their work, and this seems to be happening as some of it is months old. I’m so stressed out! How can I make sure that this never, ever happens again?! – G
Being overwhelmed with marking, particularly that caused by homework, is a common problem for new and experienced teachers alike. In this article, I’ll examine the best ways to design and organise homework, as well as ways to avoid being bogged down and ‘up to your eyeballs’ in paperwork. If you would like an audio version of my strategies, then please listen to this excellent UKEdChat podcast (highly recommended for anyone who wants to get better at assigning and organizing homework) here.
Consideration #1: Homework is not pointless
It’s really important to make this point from the outset. A number of articles have come out in recent years causing us to question the merits of setting homework. At one point this message became so distorted that I remember sitting in on a departmental meeting when a number of teachers suggested that we shouldn’t set homework at all, as it’s totally pointless.
This might be a nice excuse to use to avoid some paperwork and marking, but unfortunately it’s not true at all.
In my experience, homework is only pointless if the kids never ever receive feedback, or if the homework doesn’t relate to anything on the curriculum. Then, of course, their time has been wasted.
I’ll always remember one school I worked at where all of the teachers had set summer homework for their students. Piles and piles of homework were set, including big, thick booklets full of past-papers. Guess what happened when those students returned to school the next academic year; many of the teachers had changed, and the work was piled up in an empty classroom and never marked. What a tragedy!
We’ll explore some ways in which we can give feedback in a timely manner today, as well as ways in which we can design our homework properly.
Consideration #2: Think carefully about the purpose of each piece of homework you set
This is crucial. Ideally, all homework should fall into one of four categories:
- To review concepts covered in class
- To prepare students for new content they will cover in class
- To prepare students for examinations (e.g. with exam-style questions, revision tasks and past-papers)
- A combination of two or three of the above
If the homework you are setting does not fall into these categories then you are wasting both your time and the students’ time by setting it.
Consideration #3: Think carefully about how much time the students will need to complete each piece of homework
This is an important consideration. Put yourself in the students’ shoes. Is this homework too demanding, or too easy for them? Will they actually have enough time to complete it? Is your deadline reasonable?
Consideration #4: How much self-study or research will your students have to do to complete your work? Where will they get their information from?
If the piece of work you are setting involves preparation for content or skills soon to be covered in class, then your students might have to do some research. Is the level of self-study you are asking of your students reasonable? Are they old enough, and mature enough to be able to find this information on their own? If not, then you may need to give some tips on which websites, textbooks or other material to look at.
Consideration #5: Can you mark this work?
This is such an important consideration, but can be overlooked by so many teachers who are in a rush.
Think carefully: if you’re setting a booklet of past-paper questions for ‘AS’ – Level students, then how is it going to be marked? Crucially, how will the students receive feedback on this work? And remember: homework really is pointless if students don’t get any feedback.
Be honest with yourself. If you honestly don’t have enough time to mark such large pieces of work, then it’s much better to set smaller, manageable assignments. At least that way your students will get some feedback, which will be useful to them.
Also, don’t try and do everything yourself when it comes to marking. Use peer-assessment, self-assessment and even automated assessment (such as that found on instructional software) on a regular basis. Be careful though – make sure you at least collect in your peer-assessed and self-assessed assignments afterwards just to be sure that all students have done it, and so that you can glance over for any mistakes. Students can be sneaky when they know that the teacher is trusting them with self-assessment each week by simply providing the answers to the work.
Another good tip is to spend some time on the weekend planning your homework for the week ahead. What exactly will you set, and when, to allow you enough time to mark everything? How can you set decent homework that’s not too big to mark? An hour spent planning this on a Saturday is much better than four hours cramming in a marking marathon on a Sunday because you didn’t think ahead.
Consideration #6: Are you organised enough?
Not to sound patronizing, but are you, really?
If you’re a primary school teacher then you’ll be collecting in assignments relating to different subject areas each week. If you’re working in the high school, then you’ll you’ll be collecting in work from potentially more than a hundred students on a regular basis.
You need to have some kind of filing system in place for all of this work. Maybe a set of draws? Folders? Trays? Electronic folders?
One strategy that absolutely works for me is that I get all of my students to complete their homework on loose sheets of paper, not their notebooks. Why? Because if they do it in their notebooks, and I haven’t had time to mark their work by the very next lesson, then it’s a nightmare having to give back notebooks again and collect them in continuously.
With loose paper its easy. I collect it in, and put each group’s assignments in a set of trays. I have one set of trays for work collected in, and one set for work that is marked. It stops me from losing students’ work and losing my sanity at the same time! The students then glue the work into their notebooks afterwards.
In addition to organizing my paperwork, I also organise my time. I use every Saturday morning for marking, which really saves me lots of headaches during the week. Do you set aside a fixed slot each week to do your marking?
- Think carefully about the purpose of each piece of work you set
- Don’t set work that will take the students too long, or too little time, to complete
- Think carefully about the demands of any research that students will have to do. Maybe you need to point them in the right direction?
- Use a variety of assessment strategies to mark student work. Don’t make assignments so big that you just don’t have time to make them.
- Make sure you have some kind of filing system in place, so that you don’t lose work.