13 ideas to help boost homework completion rates 🚀🚀🚀

When done well, homework offers a golden opportunity for students to consolidate and extend their knowledge, and develop good study habits. Homework also provides valuable insights to the teacher into student understanding. Best of all, homework can do all of this without eating into valuable lesson time. But in many of the schools I visit, homework is an issue.

Recently, I visited a school that had a maths online homework completion rate of 15% among Year 9 students. At my school, many years ago, we abandoned giving homework to some Year 10 classes because so few students were doing it, and instead used the homework sheets in class so our efforts to create them would not be wasted. The sad truth is that lots of students simply do not engage with homework at all, or put in whatever effort is just high enough to avoid the wrath of the teacher. And the old cliche rings true: often it is the very students who need to engage with homework the most that simply do not.

I have been thinking a lot about homework recently. Eedi, the platform I co-founded, allows teachers to set high-quality diagnostic maths quizzes for their students to complete, then provides bespoke support and challenge in the form of videos and practice questions depending on their responses. All of this is completely free, and you can access over 800 maths quizzes here.

With all the time, resources and money put into homework in its many guises - paper-based, online, etc - we need to make sure as many students as possible are engaging with it to the standard we expect. How? Well, here are 13 ideas that should help boost the number of students completing their homework.

1. Decide on the purpose of the homework, and communicate this purpose to your students

There are lots of reasons to set a piece of homework:

  1. To consolidate classwork
  2. To extend classwork
  3. To provide a retrieval opportunity for topics students encountered in the past
  4. To check students’ prerequisite knowledge for an upcoming topic
  5. To help students prepare for a test
  6. To allow students to be creative
  7. To help develop good study habits

Have a look at the next piece of homework you plan to give to your students. What is its purpose?

Once you have decided on this, the next step is to communicate that purpose to your students. If you were to ask a student in your class “Why do you think I give you homework?”, what do you think they would say? This is a useful exercise to try. If students think you are giving them homework just to keep them busy, because you have to, or because you are a narcissist, then they are unlikely to put the effort in that you hope. Whereas, if they understand the purpose of the homework, you might get a bit more buy-in.

2. Treat online homework just as seriously as you treat written homework

This is a big one, especially for maths teachers. It is so easy these days to set a homework on one of the many online platforms out there, and then sit back as the homework is marked for you. But students pick up on this “set and forget” approach, and low completion rates for online homework especially are sure to follow.

Think what you would do if a student did not complete a paper-based homework. Think what you would do if they produced a wonderful piece of written work. Think how you would use the results of a paper-based homework to inform your teaching. The more you can replicate this with online homework, the more students realise that online homework is just as important as any other, and the more effort they should put in.

3. Set shorter homeworks, more frequently

Research into homework is extensive, but often inconclusive. This is no surprise as there are so many influential variables that are hard to control for. But one thing that does come through from the research is that shorter, more frequent homeworks are likely to be more effective than longer, less frequent homeworks. In Fernández-Alonso et al’s 2015 paper, they conclude: The data point to the fact that the teacher regularly assigning homework matters more than the quantity.

A key reason for this is habit. The more homework students complete, the more completing homework becomes a part of their routine. So, if you want students to complete, say, 1 hour of homework a week, then breaking that up into two 30-minute homework set across the week is likely to lead to greater completion than a single 1-hour homework. How does this fit in with your homework policy?

4. Ensure the homework is worth completing

In their 2010 paper, Homework Works If Homework Quality Is High, Dettmers et al conclude: Our study provides strong evidence that interesting and well-selected homework assignments are associated with higher expectancy and value beliefs and with higher homework effort and that they are effective for learning.

The message here is clear. Students are more likely to complete homework if homework is worth completing. Homework quality is determined by factors such as the challenge level, how engaging it is, and crucially whether it serves the intended purpose. When I look back at some of the dross I set my students to complete in my early years of teaching, it is no wonder many students looked at it and decided not to bother. Are all your homework worth completing?

5. Establish the norm that everyone does their homework

Norms in school are so powerful. Few students want to be different from the crowd. So, to boost homework completion rates we need to establish the norm that everyone completes their homework.

In his book, Motivated Teaching, Peps Mccrea suggests we do this by increasing the profusion and prominence of the behaviour we want to become the norm. Maths teacher, Beth Kearns, has a great blog post on using the profusion and prominence of norms to boost homework completion. Here are some of her ideas:

  1. Initial contact with parents – all year 7 parents were contacted to inform them of expectations, the new homework day and the dates that subsequent homeworks were due in. Profusion.
  2. Parents were contacted each week if their child had not completed their homework. Profusion.
  3. Prior to the first week of homework being set, all year 7 students were given the opportunity during a maths lesson to log onto Sparx in order to correct any issues with forgotten logins etc. Profusion.
  4. Lots of “air time” given to celebrating homework completion. Each week I visited year 7 form groups and publicly celebrated those students who had engaged with homework. Prominence.
  5. I privately targeted groups of students who had not engaged and helped to discuss and break down any barriers. Profusion.
  6. We celebrated (and sent reminders regarding) the homework completion via the schools Instagram page (we get high levels of parental engagement with this) for example, “Well done to the 75% of year 7 students who did Sparx homework last week”. I hoped that this would encourage further conversations at home with parents checking if their child was ‘safely’ in the 75%. Profusion and Prominence.
  7. I asked form tutors and class teachers to both celebrate the successful homework each week, and remind students of when the next homework was due in. Profusion and Prominence.

Which of these do you currently implement? Which could you implement?

6. Consider barriers students might experience and how you can remove them

Here are some barriers students may face in completing their homework:

  1. Lack of equipment
  2. Lack of technology
  3. Log-in issues!
  4. Lack of time
  5. Poor organisational skills
  6. Lack of support
  7. No suitable environment to do the work

Which of these barriers can you help reduce? Homework clubs, maths mentors, and products that remind students and parents of when homework is due can all help.

7. Make the first question easy

In their paper, Understanding performance in test taking: The role of question difficulty order, Anaya et al show just how important stating a test with an easy question is. It can reduce the drop-out rate from around 45% to 30%, and increase the percentage of correct answers across the entire test from around 25% to 35%

And for homework - when students do not have the motivating factors of a teacher nearby watching - this impact could be even greater. Fortunately, this is a quick win. Make the first question of every homework the easiest one - possibly even too easy compared to the rest of the homework - in order to give students the boost they may need to get started and persist. How often do you do this?

8. Have something students can do if they are stuck on their homework

Teacher: Why haven’t you done your homework?

Student: Because I got stuck

Where do you go from there? It is important to have a plan for what students should do if they are stuck on their homework. Here are some options:

  1. Is there a link to a video?
  2. Do they have access to the final answers?
  3. Can they collaborate with a classmate?
  4. Is there a student maths mentor they can ask?
  5. Is there a homework club?
  6. Is there a designated time they can come and see you?

What do you expect your students to do when they are stuck on their homework?

9. Make sure students know what to do if they are stuck on their homework

Last week, I overheard a student telling a teacher they hadn’t done their homework because they got stuck. The teacher asked why they hadn’t come to homework club. The student replied that they didn’t know there was a homework club.

Of course, it is one thing having these protocols in place, but a whole other making sure students are aware of them. This needs clearly explaining, and then regularly revisiting. Do you do this?

10. Standardise the format of homework

If homework always looks different, then students need to consider both the structure of the homework and the content of the homework. This could be overwhelming, and may lead to students opting out. Instead, if homework always has a familiar structure - say, always set out the same way, with the same number of questions, that they answer in the same place - then students can divert more of their attention to thinking about the content of the homework, which should lead to them being more successful with the homework. Do your homework have a consistent structure?

11. Hand the homework out and collect the homework in on the same day and same time each week

Here we have routines again. If homework is sometimes handed out on a Tuesday and due in on a Friday, but then other weeks it is handed out on Thursday and due in on a Monday, then the routine for completing homework does not become familiar, and hence it does not become embedded. This routine becomes even more robust if it is replicated across the whole department. Do your classes have a consistent homework routine?

12. Have consistent sanctions for when homeworks are not completed

Sanctions are, unfortunately, an important part of creating a routine. What happens if students do not complete their homework up to the standard you expect? Is it:

  1. A detention?
  2. A phone call home?
  3. Students named and shamed in class?
  4. A different sanction?

Consistency is the key here. As soon as students see you are not always following through, it is another reason for them not to complete their homework.

13. Ensure homework feeds into lessons

I have saved the most important until last. If students regard homework as something separate from what happens in class, then it is very easy to not take it as seriously, hence completion rates fall. This could be the “set and forget” we discussed earlier with online homework, but equally, it could be when teachers had out homework at the start of the lesson, kids have a quick flick through to see their score, and then the teacher cracks on with the lesson.

If however, classwork and homework are regarded as two key components of the same machine that feed into and mutually reinforce each other, then you stand a much better chance of students buying into homework.

So, you could:

  1. Choose the three worst-answered questions and address them at the start of the lesson, modelling how to complete them and then checking students’ understanding with related questions
  2. Take photos of students’ homework and showcase them at the start of the next lesson, challenging students to identify the error, improve the work, or identify the feautes that make this an example of excellence
  3. Set the Do Now on topics, or even questions, from the homework as a way to judge the effort students have put in. This is what Adam Boxer does.

How does homework feed into your lessons?

I will be talking more about making homework effective at Marvellous Maths 3 in October, so make sure you have your ticket. And a reminder that Eedi can be your complete in-class and homework solution for free. Visit eedi.com to get started.