Transforming Homework to Home Learning

Each night in homes across the globe young people and adults prepare to do battle over the completion of homework. Parents often have strong beliefs about homework and its benefits for student success and believe their involvement in its completion is a key measure of successful parenting a view supported by Jeynes’ (2007) analysis of parental involvement in home learning. Students by contrast see homework as a burden that takes them away from family time and time with their friends. John Hattie speaking in an interview with BBC radio in August 2014 said ‘Homework in primary school has an effect of around zero. In high school, it’s larger. Which is why we need to get it right… Treat the zero as saying, “It’s probably not making much of a difference but let’s improve it”.

A recent strategy to alter the negative image that homework has built is to re-brand it as “home learning”. But is this enough and if we are going to “get it right” what do we need to change besides the name?

Research on home learning conducted by Jianzhong Xu (2012) concluded that teachers needed to focus on ‘designing more interesting, well-selected, and adequately difficult and challenging home learning assignments’ if they wish to improve the effectiveness of their instruction. Xu adds that the time spent on home learning compared to the effort applied can indicate aspects of student motivation Students who choose to engage with distractions such as games or social networking according to Xu choose to do so because they are not motivated to complete their home learning. Xu concludes it is important to listen to students and find ways to make home learning more interesting. This contrasts starkly with the traditional approach that blames and punishes students for not completing home learning on time. 

According to Xu ‘This, in turn, will further promote students' self-efficacy, self-regulatory skills, and responsibility for managing their own home learning.’(Xu. 2012 p192) Research by Harris Cooper (2003) indicates that home learning does promote academic achievement in high-school students, has a reduced effect in junior-high and no effect in elementary school. Cooper states that ‘Home learning should be one of several approaches we use, along with soccer and scouts, to show our children that learning takes place everywhere. (Cooper. 2001 p38) Cooper acknowledges that home learning can have non-academic benefits for students in the primary grades where it can help students recognise that they can learn at home, it fosters independence and responsible character traits. But for these goals to be achieved students will need to appreciate and value the purpose of the learning that they engage with. 

In a 2012 meta-analysis Cooper, Steenbergen-Hu and Dent (2012) report that ‘individualised home learning assignments, particularly those assigned according to students’ learning styles, outperform un-individualised ones in terms of improving student achievement, attitudes, or conduct.’ Educator and blogger Mark Barnes refers to Cooper’s research in a post where he asks ‘When will the home learning madness end’. Barnes questions the value of homework that is enforced in a punitive way and denies students the opportunity to develop responsibility and independence. A valuable goal for home learning is that can facilitate self-regulated learning and set patterns of behaviour which are a foundation for adults who are self-navigating professional learners. This goal might be best supported by parents who engage with personally purposeful learning alongside their children rather than committing energy to homework enforcement. 

Choice is a factor linked to student engagement and a method used for individualizing home learning. Patall, Cooper and Robinson (2008 p 294) found ‘The conclusion that can be drawn from this meta-analysis supports the assertion that when individuals are allowed to affirm their sense of autonomy through choice they experience enhanced motivation, persistence, performance, and production’. Patall et al. advise; that choice should not be allowed to become a laborious process, that multiple options should be offered up to a point and that allowing multiple choices can be of benefit.

Self Determination Theory (SDT) identifies three factors which influence motivation, namely autonomy or internal perceived locus of control, competence in ones abilities with the task and relatedness or feelings of security with the setting and people involved. ‘In particular, options should be constructed that are relevant to students' interests and goals (autonomy support), are not too numerous or complex yet not too easy (competence support), and are congruent with the values of the students' families and culture of origin (relatedness support).’ (Katz. & Assor. p439. 2007)

Ryan and Decci (2000) researched SDT and established its theoretical underpinnings in their paper investigating the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development and well-being. They explain the role that the principle factors of SDT play in developing intrinsic motivation or in self-regulated extrinsic motivation. Ryan & Decci (2000) refer to numerous studies that show increased levels of self-regulation can be fostered by providing autonomy (choice), secure connections to carers and supporting perceptions of competence.

When applied to home learning this would indicate a need for home learning; to support autonomous engagement, include elements of choice, be sufficiently challenging while not beyond what is achievable with reduced scaffolding (think Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development) and fits within a learning environment that supports a growth-mindset where risk and mistakes are a part of learning. 

By Nigel Coutts

Cooper, H., Steenbergen-Hu, S., & Dent, A. (2012). Homework. APA Educational Psychology Handbook, Vol 3: Application To Learning And Teaching., 475-495. 

Cooper, H. (2001) Homework for all in moderation.Educational Leadership, Vol.58(7), p.34-38  

Katz, I., & Assor, A. (2006). When choice motivates and when it does not. Educational Psychology Review, 19(4), 429-442.

Patall, E., Cooper, H., & Robinson, J. (2008). The effects of choice on intrinsic motivation and related outcomes: A meta-analysis of research findings. Psychological Bulletin, 134(2), 270-300.

Ryan, R., & Deci, E. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist55(1), 68-78. 

Xu, J. (2012) Homework and academic achievement. In Hattie, J., & Anderman, E. (2012). International guide to student achievement. (pp 191 – 193) New York, NY: Routledge.