Sally is new to gardening. She knows that she needs to cut the grass and weed to ensure the garden is maintained well. No one has shown her how to do either, so she watches videos, reads articles and asks her neighbours. Over time, she becomes proficient and learns the best ways and times to work on the garden.

Paula is also new to gardening but works long hours. She is exhausted by the time she gets home and only works on the garden during the holidays and some weekends. As a result, the garden is usually overrun with weeds and plants struggle to grow well.

Weeding is an important practice that most people seem to know about, but its impact can vary greatly from highly successful to entirely ineffective (think pulling up weeds but leaving roots behind).

Homework is similar. Teachers worldwide often set homework because it is a customary practice and they think it is important. However, homework can prove ineffectual or even detrimental if not carefully considered.

The homework dilemma

The research regarding homework’s effectiveness is relatively weak, given the variation in homework type, duration, and contexts across different studies, or the dominance of specific subjects in the research.

The natural conclusion must be, ‘Let’s not set it then.’ After all, it:

  • Takes time to design, set, give feedback and chase non-completion
  • Forces students to work away from school (surely, school should be enough?)
  • Limits the opportunity to spend time with family and friends, and to participate in extracurricular activities
  • Only works for those who have time and a quiet space at home

Each of these is an important reason, and those who support homework should not dismiss them. So, why should we set homework?

Student completing homework in exercise book.

Because there is a lot we do know about how learning happens and the benefits of spaced retrieval practice done independently. Teachers think carefully about their explanations, the examples they use in the classroom, and the questions they pose. They also provide opportunities for students to practise in lessons. Some would argue that surely this is sufficient. However, if students do not ever practise completing work away from the influence of their teacher, they will always expect relatively immediate support and have limited chances to develop self-regulated learning.

Benefits of homework

There are three main reasons homework can be an important extension of the learning process that begins in the classroom:

  1. Homework can build confidence through lots of practice and the opportunity to attempt challenging questions independently
  2. Homework can improve attainment by allowing students to practise not only relevant tasks but also good study strategies in their own time
  3. Homework can help students learn how to organise themselves

In order to achieve these goals, homework must have certain features. All of these key features enable students to experience success but with the right level of challenge so that the homework is worthwhile.

Components of effective homework

ComponentWhat does it entail?
Linked to classroom learningTasks that are based on current and previously covered topics are most effective as students can see their relevance to improving their learning.
RegularStudents know when to expect homework and what it looks like. If homework is set erratically or looks different from anything they have done in the classroom, they are less likely to succeed.
Resources are available to students (e.g. textbooks, booklets, key websites, mental resources in the form of core knowledge)Students know where to look if they are stuck or to improve their answers. This allows students who have missed lessons or those who struggle to recall knowledge to feel included in the homework.
AccessibleIf online, all students can access the homework. If on a worksheet, all students know where to look if they misplace their copy. The content of the homework is accessible to all students, whether they are in lessons or not.
Standardised formatInstructions to complete the homework are clear and familiar, having been practised in lessons.
SupportIf students don’t know what they need to do to be successful at their homework, they must know where to look or who to speak to. Equally, students who have other barriers to completing their work are given support to practise independent study in school (e.g. a supportive homework club).
TimeExcessively lengthy homework lacks effectiveness, while very short tasks yield minimal impact. Determining the suitable time allocation, length, and complexity of homework should involve collaboration throughout the school. For instance, if all subjects set lengthy weekly tasks, students may become overwhelmed, compromising their effort across all tasks.
Feedback and responsivenessHomework is effective if students know their efforts are being recognised by teachers, get feedback to improve, and teachers use information gathered from completed homework to decide the right level of challenge both in the classroom and for future pieces of homework.

When designing, setting and responding to homework, if we think of how students can succeed at it, then we are on our way to making homework effective. This is when homework can truly help our students work independently, build confidence, and increase attainment over time.

Dr Jo Castelino

Dr Jo Castelino is currently leading the Science team at an incredible school in Wakefield. Jo has been writing and speaking about how she applies cognitive science research to her classroom practice and has been thinking deeply about homework in recent years. She has previously led on homework school-wide, has written several articles on the benefits of homework and how we can get the most of it. She regularly blogs at