Homework in times of confinement: are they effective?


Due to the coronavirus, we are experiencing the most radical situation of educational exceptionality that the world has experienced since the great wars of the 20th century: closed educational centers, students and teachers confined to their homes, doubts and uncertainty about the usual processes in the educational system (evaluation of the second trimester, next year’s schooling, university entrance exam, etc.). Without a doubt, we can affirm that everything that was solid in education vanishes in the air – hopefully for a short and limited time.

From classroom teaching to online

In this situation, regulations and common sense oblige us to carry out an unprecedented experiment: the hasty and unforeseen transition from face-to-face teaching to online teaching for all students, from Early Childhood Education to Higher Education, and in many countries worldwide simultaneously.

How can we do it? What kind of activities can we do? How will we relate to our students and their families? What resources will we use? These are today some of the many questions that schools and teachers are urgently trying to solve so that as soon as possible students can take advantage of their time at home for study and learning.

Unfortunately, teachers are organizing this transition without valid references because never, not in the worst of our nightmares, would we have imagined such a situation – and at the same time questioning the fragility of the school’s digitalization, timid and limited in resources and depth.

A barrage of initiatives

In a few hours, private, community, institutional and business initiatives have emerged that offer resources and ideas, but the truth is that the panorama that we observe is dominated by the ambiguity of the administration (protected by the mantra of “autonomy of the centers”) , the doubts of the centers and many teachers and the passage to the front of many educators who have believed for years that in digital there was an opportunity to explore to offer quality teaching.

However, in the educational system we have valuable experience that can help us in this situation to illuminate, even partially, the way. It is a daily and discreet experience but also a central experience in our educational system, known to families, students and, of course, teachers: homework.

The black box of the educational system

Homework is the black box of the educational system. If we want to know what relationship teachers have with their students and families, we must look at homework; If we want to know how learning is defined in the educational project or the saturation level of the school ratio, we do well to analyze the duties and review them; If we need to know what the knowledge and competences of a specific student are, we can see how they solve their homework; If we want to know the level and type of family involvement, let’s look at the duties.

Homework is, therefore, one of the clearest indicators about the state of education, the operation of a center, the way of teaching of a teacher, the way of learning of a student and the way of exercising the parental work by families.

Thus, the fundamental reference for these days of “home schooling” will, most likely, be homework, and this requires us to review what we know about them from the perspective of educational research.

Duties-results relationship

For starters, research has clearly shown that there is a positive correlation between homework and learning outcomes ( Evidence 1 ; Evidence 2 ). However, now come the nuances.

Let’s see:

  • if duties are repetitive and extensive, the correlation is negative;
  • if the students do not clearly perceive the purpose of the homework, the implication drops and then the correlation is negative ;
  • on the contrary, if the students understand that the homework has been well designed, then the correlation is positive;
  • if the homework time is too long, the correlation is negative – and it may be a sign that there are learning difficulties -;
  • if families interfere too much with homework, then the correlation is negative compared to families that stimulate autonomy and security, whose reassuring presence seems to generate a positive correlation.

Thus, the answer to the question of homework effectiveness responds to what some authors have called the “ chameleon effect ”: it seems that there is a positive relationship between homework and learning outcomes, but depending on how it is analyzed, this is shows in one way or another.

Precisely in this “it depends” is where the key is that makes homework a useful complement to learning, a heavy stone on the leisure time of students or, simply, a waste of time.

The four key ideas

Let us analyze, then, that “it depends” focusing on four fundamental ideas: purpose, design, revision and hope .

  1. The first key to making homework a learning factor is its purpose. The research has analyzed various purposes ranging from the practice of knowledge acquired in school time, going through the expansion of that knowledge or the transfer to other contexts, to purposes related to evaluation or even punitive in nature, related to behavior in class.Only when students perceive coherence between the purpose of homework and learning, then homework has a positive effect on learning; that is, homework should be aligned, in a normal class situation, with classroom practices and should never serve to reprove or punish behavior. In an exceptional situation such as the one we find ourselves in, the tasks we assign to our students can cover the entire range of “positive purposes” (practice, expansion or transfer of knowledge to other contexts) and this purpose must be obvious to our students.
  2. The second issue is the design of the duties. On the one hand, as we have already mentioned, the quality perceived by the students correlates positively with the learning results: the students appreciate the effort on the part of the teacher to generate well-designed homework, which could come to question the “homework duties ”From the activities prescribed by the textbook.On the other hand, it seems that some homework with clear, short, frequent instructions and that students can solve autonomously by posing a challenge adjusted to their level of development positively correlate with the learning results .

    In this matter we find ourselves with the problem of the human resources structure of our educational system: customizing the tasks requires time and dedication that exceeds the usual availability of teachers with current ratios. Thus, defending lower ratios is, among other issues, a fight to have more time and better resources to personalize teaching.

    However, in a situation like the present one, we have to make the greatest effort possible to design the tasks that we assign to our students to the best of our ability. This implies personalizing tasks as far as possible in relation to the level of competence, knowledge and resources of our students, being especially aware that homework, according to the OECD itself, can be a source of inequality .

    In this sense, a transcendental challenge now is to know what are the resources available to the students, design with the socio-economic reality of the families and, from there, contribute the scaffolding strategies (examples, guides, help material , telephone or online tutoring, etc.) necessary for our students to carry out the tasks with the highest possible level of autonomy.

  3. In the same sense, the revision of the duties is a necessary exercise so that these have a positive impact on learning . This review has a double function: on the one hand, obviously, helping and informing the student about their homework performance, solving the problems that may have appeared during work outside the classroom; on the other hand, homework review is an interesting mechanism for the “regulation of learning”, which is the basis of the evaluation.Of course, we are not talking about “qualification”, but rather obtaining data about the progress of each student and the whole class so that the teacher can, in the event that there are doubts or problems, propose the appropriate solutions – at this time, of course, electronically.

    That is, the revision of homework is an important moment for the teacher as a researcher of their own practice and, although in a normal situation the ratio or the schedule can be problems that prevent calm observation or personalized response, in a situation like Today, providing quality feedback to our students is perhaps the most important work we can do for a long time that is time consuming and complicated as it may seem.

  4. In any case, the fundamental factor that we would like to comment on regarding homework is not only related to the teacher’s activity (definition of the purpose, design and revision of homework) but to a feeling necessary for learning: hope. Students must be able to face homework, such as learning in general, with hope, that is, being able to see a path to carry it out and having the resources to travel it .Hope, which implies knowing the path and having the ability to walk it, is at the base of a success-oriented attitude , as is also the case with self-esteem and a positive perception of oneself.

    Different “hope profiles” make certain academic behaviors that positively affect learning, such as doing homework, studying or participating in class , more or less likely, and our obligation now is to promote a positive “hope profile” regarding learning for all our students in all possible life situations.

A window to order in this situation

What is more, today more than ever this necessarily virtual and electronic school that we are organizing must collect the best of our knowledge and our professional competence to be a true space of hope in times of uncertainty.

Many boys and girls stare in surprise at the empty streets of their cities and see their families locked up at home fearing an enemy invisible but whose gravity is drawn on the faces of their elders. In this situation, academic activity should be a window of normality and order, of meaning and hope.

If teaching is the profession that allows our children to find meaning in the world, this is the time for good teachers, the time to bring hope to our students through learning.

Author Bio: Fernando Trujillo Sáez is a Full professor at the Faculty of Education, Economy and Technology of Ceuta at the University of Granada