Managing homework in the early Senior School years

Teachers often come across parents in different parts of the campus and chat about academic progress. On one occasion a few years ago, I was slightly shocked to be accosted by a mother who told me she was very disappointed by the mark SHE had received for a particular project. She revealed that she had spent some considerable time working on this assessment task for her son for a number of reasons, but she just couldn’t understand why she hadn’t received a better mark for her work. The subsequent discussion about how doing work for our children actually disadvantages them in so many ways (never mind the fact that it is cheating!) was, I hope, a constructive one. However, the bizarre experience did make me realise that homework is something about which students and parents seem to have significant worries when they arrive in the Senior School. Happily, we have many strategies in place to help Year 7 students make the most of the opportunity to continue to learn outside the classroom at Guildford Grammar School.

How much homework is enough, and why is it important?

There are various schools of thought regarding homework. Some suggest that no work should be completed outside the classroom and that children should be allowed to be children. Others suggest that a strict schedule should be implemented from a very early age and that children should focus solely on work and learning when they are not at school. I like to think that I take a more moderate line on this. I feel strongly that homework should not ruin family life and cause rifts between parents and their children. It should still allow time for hobbies, sports and lots of reading as well as some time to just do nothing. However, I also know that if students want to achieve their best in school and in real life afterwards, the skills associated with organisation and study are vital both in terms of academic results and a successful life, long after school is a distant memory. So, for me, Senior School homework should be relevant, should involve learning and should teach students how to manage their time, break up large tasks into manageable sections and to meet deadlines. Clearly these skills are not innate and need teaching, which is why it is helpful for mentors, teachers and parents to regularly talk about organisation and time management.

I have written previously about the parent contact we regularly receive, whereby one parent is concerned that their child receives excessive amounts of homework and another is worried that their child has no homework. This is despite the fact that the kids are in the same classes with the same teachers and have clearly been given exactly the same homework. It is a beautiful demonstration of the varying interpretations that different kids take from instructions, as well as revealing to us the different lengths of time and effort that different learners have to put in to achieve a certain result.

To help everybody realise what is considered a reasonable amount of homework, the student diary lists approximate lengths of homework and study that we’d expect for students in each year group. Obviously these will vary and there will be quiet times as well as busy times when multiple assessments are due, often at the middle and end of terms or semesters. The aim of the diary is to help students learn how to organise themselves. Mentors regularly check the students’ diaries and parents are also asked to sign them each week to reinforce the importance of what is recorded in the diary. The kids sometimes think we insist on their using a diary just to waste their time or to be annoying, so parents can help us emphasise the fact that real people use diaries and calendars too, whether that be on a phone, a paper version or a calendar on the kitchen wall. I often show them my diary, and how I couldn’t possibly organise my life either in or out of school without listing somewhere what I’m supposed to be doing when, so they see that it is a life skill we are helping them to develop.

How long is too long and where can I communicate this?

We do need parents to help us by communicating to the relevant teacher any concerns that arise. I often point out to the kids that we’re good, but we’re not psychic. As a classroom teacher, for example, if I set a piece of homework and receive what seems to be a decent effort, I have no idea whether this has taken the student the 20 minutes I had planned, or if they felt the need to spend all Friday evening and most of Sunday on it. If you find your son or daughter is spending excessive lengths of time on their homework, then please do let their teacher know, so we can help advise on how long certain tasks should take. If you see that your offspring has spent significant time on a particular task and done their best, yet it is becoming clear that they are not going to complete it in a reasonable timeframe, then talk to the teacher involved so they can help work out what needs to happen. Note that this is quite different from someone leaving a task until the last minute and expecting a deadline extension because they didn’t organise themselves appropriately! Communicating with us in this way means that we are aware of what is going on in terms of learning at home and can support the kids’ efforts and find out what they need to enable them to succeed.

Homework vs study – what is the difference?

It’s also really important that the difference between homework and study is understood. I generally explain that homework is a task set by a teacher to be done by a specific deadline, whereas study is a set of skills and strategies you use to learn more about a subject and reinforce the learning you have done in school. Of the two activities, it tends to be study rather than homework which is not completed, since the results of it are slightly removed in time. There is no instant “you haven’t done your homework!” feedback; the more likely outcome is a disappointing test or exam result some time in the future, at which point the student may regret not doing the necessary study. So if your son or daughter gets home at the end of the day and says “I have no homework”, one useful response can be “Fantastic! So what study will you be doing tonight?” If, for example, an hour and a half has been allocated for work that evening and no homework is evident, it might be that they spend half an hour studying each of three subjects. It is this frequent and active revision of what has been learnt in class which makes a real difference and equips the students for success.

Study strategies and advice

Useful strategies for studying are any which involve active processing of what they are learning. For example, drawing up mind maps, making key word and definition lists (glossaries) or constructing study cards and practising learning the facts on them are all ways of studying which can prove useful. Mr Lawson and I run evening sessions for Year 7 parents and their children early in the year  to demonstrate and practise the sorts of things that constitute study and how they work best, backing up what is taught in classrooms. Having students and parents attend the same sessions means that there are no mixed messages and seeing the faces of some students hearing us explain to parents that no homework means more time for study is always enlightening.

The other piece of advice I would pass on is that in Years 7 to 9 in particular, doing homework early in the evening seems to work better than leaving it until late and being so tired that it takes longer. Having a set time and being disciplined about sitting down and getting it done can help – we advocate a study schedule copy on the fridge and encourage the kids to take responsibility for the times to which they have committed. I encourage them to say “I’m off to do my work now”, rather than waiting for someone to tell them they should have started. In this way, they feel less nagged and their parents are pleased that they don’t have to be constantly reminding them to get on with it.

The Homework Help Initiative

Homework Help is another really helpful Guildford Grammar School initiative – we employ university students who have achieved good Year 12 results and are suitably skilled to teach others to help out in the library after school. From 3:30pm to 5:00pm on Monday to Thursday inclusive, these homework tutors are available in the library. For older (Year 11 and 12) students, choosing a helper who specialises in a particular subject may be helpful, but our tutors are generally able to assist with all subjects from Year 7 to 10.There is no need to book – students just turn up when they need a hand and spot the slightly older looking person in the navy GGS staff T-shirt.

The library tutors can help with study strategies, diary organisation and revision – they can suggest ways in which particular study strategies suit particular subjects and they can quiz students to find out in which areas of a particular topic they need to focus their study. In short, they are a fabulous resource and we strongly encourage the students to make use of them.

In conclusion, for Senior School students, homework and study are extremely useful for learning and practising the skills of time management, organisation, academic discipline and ‘how to learn’, that will last a lifetime. They should not spoil family life by making rifts in relationships at home, nor should they be so onerous that they cause stress and anxiety. It is our job to support students to take responsibility for their work and to encourage them to do their best. But it is not our job to do our children’s homework, however busy they are and however interesting it may look.

Dr Julie Harris
Director of Teaching and Learning