Making history homework worthwhile: purpose (Part one)

Author: Will Bailey-Watson
Published: 24/08/2020

Whatever the subject, there are two overarching rules for homework: it must have a clear purpose and it must be valued by you once students have completed it. Without either of these crucial features, students will increasingly question the worth of completing their homework to a high standard, making it less worthwhile and creating more follow-up work for you.

Becoming a great history teacher involves thinking carefully about the rationale behind decisions you make in the classroom. Here are just some of the reasons why you might set homework in a history classroom:

Consolidate and reinforce knowledge that has been studied in lessons

One of the most effective uses of homework can be to ensure that students are secure in the content they studied in class, so that they can draw on it in subsequent lessons more fluently, and engage with new knowledge more easily.

Prepare for an upcoming lesson

Sometimes a new topic is so vast or alien, or even so niche, that a useful homework is getting students to explicitly prepare for the upcoming lesson. This way, they arrive with questions, an inkling of what the topic is about, and are potentially in a more informed position to hit the ground running.

Broaden hinterland knowledge

There is so much history that it simply cannot be studied in the classroom on a scale that does it justice. Homework can be the opportunity to go beyond necessary topic content and allow students to develop their wider contextual knowledge. For example, when studying the impact of the Wall Street Crash on Germany in class, you could set students a homework on the impact of the Wall Street Crash in Britain. This may not be used in an assessment but will sharpen the students’ sense of typicality and allow them to unpick what was distinct to Germany in the early 1930s, and what was part of a wider trend.

Collaborate with family

At key stage 3 I always wanted students to feel like history was something that happened everywhere and affected everyone. In order to do this, I wanted to bring students’ families into conversations about history. Homework gives an opportunity for students to explore oral history by asking their family questions about the past.

Examples that could be asked of different generations include:

  • ‘Which famous events were you present at and what do you remember about them?’
  • ‘Who was the first politician you remember, and why?’
  • ‘When were you most worried during the Cold War?’
  • ‘What has been the biggest change to your home life since you were born?’
  • ‘What would you say is the biggest difference between my schooling and yours?’

These questions, which could be asked of any adult in a student’s life, make a clear connection between the history studied in class and the history that students bump into in their daily lives.

Produce outcomes not possible in the classroom

Students remember work that took time to produce in their own distinct way and of which they were really proud. This is a justification for giving them a chance to produce something big and creative, like a medieval castle, an Industrial Revolution town or a First World War trench. It is really important that you don’t confuse this with the students learning history per se, as they will be thinking about the construction process far more than the history itself. However, in a broad and memorable curriculum, there is room for students being given a few weeks to produce something in history that they will remember for years to come: just make sure it is something worth doing.

Read Will Bailey-Watson's guide to Making history homework worthwhile: value (part two).

Will Bailey-Watson

Will Bailey-Watson is the PGCE History Subject Lead at the University of Reading.