Making history homework worthwhile: value (Part two)

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

Student doing their homework

Students need to feel that engagement with homework will lead to greater understanding and enjoyment in class. Here are some ideas.

  • Try by beginning with a discussion about what they read at home. This can be structured around broad questions like: ‘You have three minutes to discuss with the person next to you, what was the most interesting thing you learned?’ This could be taken further to really get them thinking about what they already knew and what they read at home: ‘What was the most surprising thing you learned? And why was that?’ By discussing these with a peer, students will see the importance of having engaged with the homework and will be prepared to partake in a discussion about a historical topic/text.

  • Expect them to retain what they learned at home. Too often, homework is seen as something that can just be forgotten in class, which gives the wrong impression about its value. Taking the first few minutes to ask some hands-down questions or to set a small low stakes quiz can help instil a culture that homework is not optional or disposable. (Although if you set the homework a few days before, it is reasonable to give them a minute or two to remind themselves of the homework.)

  • Choose one of the following as appropriate: feedback, mark, display. It might be that students leave their completed homework on their desk during the lesson and you give verbal feedback as simple as ‘Brilliant, you did everything you were asked’. It might be that you decide to collect in and mark a typed GCSE answer, because it is Easter in year 11 and your marking comments will be understood and quickly processed by the student. It might be that the next time they see their work, it is stapled to the wall as an example of great practice. These are all ways of showing that their efforts were valued, and it is up to your professional discretion to decide which approach is most appropriate.

  • Very simply, refer to the homework in your teaching. Explicitly draw on the content they needed to learn in their homework – this connects the home and class work, and students can see the connection.

With that in mind, here are five ideas for history homework that can work really well:

  1. Read an extract from a historian who is writing about a topic the students are studying. For instance, if students are studying the Norman Conquest, then a passage from the introduction of Marc Morris’ Norman Conquest could expose them to the debates, the arguments, new knowledge and the historian’s craft. Make sure you choose your passages carefully and structure with targeted questions if the text is challenging.

  2. Revisit and memorise key dates and events from previous lessons so the knowledge is secure for subsequent analysis. An example from my teaching came when I taught a three-lesson sequence on the Korean War and the final lesson culminated in a detailed, rich debate on ‘Who won the Korean War?’ In order for this analysis to be as meaningful as possible, I needed students to have secured the substantive content from the first two lessons, so set a homework to revisit everything they had learned.

  3. After a series of lessons, give students an empty timeline and get them to collate all their learning so far on the timeline. This will get them to think about the sequencing of knowledge and the relationship between different events.

  4. Research a topic or person before studying them in the next lesson. This will often give the students a head-start in the lesson when encountering new information, but also shows them that it is interesting and valuable to study the topic or person because so many other people have cared enough to produce materials on them.

  5. Get students to find out what else was happening in the world, alongside the content you are teaching in class. For this you might use a ‘Meanwhile, elsewhere…’ worksheet and expand students’ horizons beyond the taught curriculum. A wide range of free resources can be found on the meanwhile, elsewhere… website here.

One final word of caution: lots of homework is ‘finishing off’, but only set this if it is acceptable that part of the work was completed in different conditions. If it is an essay or assessed piece of work, it does not give you reliable data about their knowledge and understanding if half was completed in studious silence, and half with the TV on. It's something every training history teacher should consider!

Read Will Bailey-Watson's guide to Making history homework worthwhile: purpose (part one)

William Bailey-Watson

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