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Homeschooling - How learning at home can work

June 16th, 2021

It all depends on parents, teachers, the home working environment and digital infrastructure

Olaf Köller, Johanna Fleckenstein, Karin Guill and Jennifer Meyer

In March 2020 all schools in Germany were closed due to the Corona pandemic. In the weeks that followed, students were to learn from home. In the coming school year it is likely that teaching will continue to take place using a mixture of face-to-face and distance learning due to the pandemic. But what should home-based work assignments look like to ensure their potential in initiating and sustaining successful learning processes on the part of students? What role do parents play here?

Until now, homework was regarded as an outdated school instrument that sends students home at lunchtime and robs them of time in the afternoon. It is also controversial whether the completion of homework leads to acquisition of knowledge and the enhancement of competencies. After the Corona-related suspension of face-to-face teaching, however, working and learning at home offered schools the last opportunity to foster students’ acquisition of subject-specific knowledge and skills.

Looking at various studies, three factors emerge as particularly important in contributing to the success of homework:

a. parental support for students in completing homework assignments

b. preparation, monitoring and follow-up of homework by teachers

c. the home work environment and digital infrastructure.

 

Parental support in completing homework assignments

Classical homework should be designed so students can complete it independently. However, most students have parental help at their disposal. It turns out that more parental help (quantity) is not automatically an advantage for the children. More important is the how of parental homework help, i.e. its quality. The following three factors play a major role in the quality of parental help with homework:

Responsiveness

This describes parental attentiveness and positive attention to the child in response to the child's need for social inclusion. Responsive parents provide assistance when the child asks for it, but also listen to the child's own suggestions for solutions first.

Control

This includes pressure, intrusiveness and dominance of the parents, which has a negative effect on the child's experience of autonomy and competence. Controlling parents interfere in the homework process even when the child does not signal a need for support, sit next to the child, improve mistakes immediately and react angrily to the child's mistakes.

Structuring

This includes positive forms of parental guidance such as organizing the child's environment and providing a framework that supports the child's competence. This can be done by organizing the workplace or protecting the child from disturbances, but also by providing rules for structuring the timing of homework in the daily routine.

Responsiveness and structure have a positive effect on homework completion, while controlling parental behavior has a negative effect on performance and homework behavior.

Beware of the trap!

Parents are known to react to unfavorable work behavior of their children with unfavorable support strategies, i.e. they exert more pressure and control. Thus, there is a threat of a negative downward spiral of mutually reinforcing parent and student behavior. It is also evident that controlling parental behavior goes hand in hand with more disputes about homework, and that lower-performing students in particular report more arguments about homework. A frequent cause of contention here is that, from the children's perspective, parental explanations differ from those of the teachers. The positive news:

Effective forms of homework support can be learned and trained. For example, studies on various parent training programs show that controlling parenting behavior and disputes in the homework situation in particular can be significantly reduced using this method:

 

Preparation, supervision and follow-up by the teachers

Homework is usually intended to supplement learning at school. It serves to practice or deepen the content or skills learned in the classroom. Due to the reduction of attendance time at school, it is necessary to ensure a very close link between the limited attendance time and the homework assignments.

Sometimes less is more

Empirical findings can be used to derive rules of thumb that teachers can use as a guide when preparing and giving assignments at home. These include, for example, that giving relatively short assignments regularly is more effective than giving very extensive ones all at once. On the one hand, giving homework step by step facilitates individual adaptation of learning: Depending on how well the first block of tasks is mastered, subsequent homework may be adapted and possible difficulties addressed. Second, a high number of tasks given in a single assignment can negatively impact student motivation. Research shows that both over- and under-challenging can trigger boredom, resulting in reduced learning performance. When assigning tasks, teachers should be mindful that especially concentrated and focused completion of tasks plays an important role. Active learning time, rather than the amount of time spent on homework per se, is critical. The extent to which the time spent is actually active learning time depends in particular on the students' self-regulation.

Self-regulated learning: using time effectively

While the completion of assignments by students is usually not self-determined because the teacher sets the assignments, it is self-regulated because students decide for themselves how to organize the completion of assignments. From this perspective, the completion of homework is an important form of self-regulated learning. Here, the motivation to work on the homework plays a major role. For example, in subjects in which students show weaker performance, the processing times are longer, but the execution is less effective. Conversely, in subjects where students do not have problems, the completion times may be long because in these subjects the motivation to complete tasks is significantly higher. As a result, task processing is neglected in subjects where learning time would be more necessary.

Teachers should design tasks in as to not overwhelm students' self-regulation. A promising further way to promote self-regulation includes orienting some of the tasks towards collaborative learning (see below).

Feedback

Teachers should provide students with timely and regular feedback on the results of their work for them to be successful learners at home. Feedback should answer three guiding questions "What is the learning objective?", "Where do I stand?", and "How can I improve?" The answer to the third question should describe as specifically as possible what step would be needed next for students to move closer to the learning goals. Learning gains are highest and help children evaluate their own performance more accurately themselves when all three guiding questions are answered in individual teacher feedback.

 

Opportunities offered by digitalization for working at home

In the current situation, digitalization can be a promising approach to solving central problems in home-based homework, provided that the necessary infrastructural conditions are in place. Using digital media allows students to learn cooperatively by interacting with other learners, even in times of social distancing. Positive effects for computer-supported cooperative learning were found. In a meta-analysis, learners in computer-supported learning environments showed a significantly greater increase in knowledge and competence as well as more positive attitudes when they learned together with others rather than alone.

Establishing prerequisites

Digitalization can significantly contribute to the learning development of students in the Corona-related crisis. However, some prerequisites must be created for its implementation. Even though almost every household with children in Germany now has an Internet connection and at least one stationary or mobile PC, this is often not sufficient in the current situation. Especially families with several school-age children quickly reach the limits of their digital capacity - particularly if the parents are also dependent on a computer for working at home.

Teachers often face challenges when it comes to creating and teaching digital content. This raises two problems relating to digitalization: firstly, the availability of suitable learning tools and secondly, the lack of skills and experience of teachers in dealing with digital formats. Thus, it became apparent that most teachers continue to work with classic assignment sheets in the current crisis. Online courses or instruction in virtual classrooms, on the other hand, are used much less frequently. Since precisely such formats are advantageous for synchronous feedback and cooperative learning, a (parallel) use of corresponding learning environments would be desirable.

In this article, we draw on a broad body of research literature related to what homework or home-based work should look like as a supplement to regular face-to-face instruction. We refrain from citing the references here. If you would like to know from which original paper the findings originate, please contact the author group.


 

Advice for teachers

Advice for parents

How can the education administration help?

 

1. Linking of domestic tasks with attendance time as well as linking of tasks with each other. The scope must be manageable and motivating.

2. Using synchronous and asynchronous digital learning to provide students with timely feedback.

3. Using learning tools that provide students with automated or computer-generated feedback on their learning.

4. Promoting self-regulation: increasing self-regulation and motivation even for difficult tasks (e.g. through collaborative tasks).

5. Coordinating with parents on the special challenges of homework, which is more extensive.

6. Referencing to already existing advice on how to structure homework. The advantages of responsiveness and structure, and the disadvantages of interference and control, should be addressed in a meaningful way.

7. Providing structuring aids - as many as needed, as few as possible: some children will cope well with the freedom of a weekly schedule. Others need a daily specification of what is to be worked on and when - either as a task list or already portioned into material packets for each day.

 

1. If sufficient digital devices are available, they should be set up appropriately before the students use them. Parents may need advice from teachers on this.

2. What is the appropriate place for the child to work? If necessary, how can he or she keep order among the many additional work materials, even in a confined space? Additional standing folders or folders could help here.

3. Parents can create a schedule with the children of when which tasks will be completed. The normal schedule from school can help as a guide.

4. If more than one child is studying at home, it may be useful to develop a separate family schedule. It is also important to have break times with exercise, just the same as the children know from school.

5. Parents must be available to answer their child's questions.

6. Parents should refrain from interference and control. They do not have to take on the role of teacher, but may leave content-related questions to the teachers or also to additional digital teaching material.

 

1. Clear recommendations are needed for pedagogically and educationally appropriate learning platforms and tools that comply with data protection laws.

2. There is a great need for further training for teachers in technical and educational media skills.

3. State institutes for teacher training and school supervisors are called upon to work with educational research to develop web-based training and continuing education programs on the use of digital media for teachers in distance learning.

4. Web-based training for parents on the organization of learning at home should be developed in cooperation with educational research.

5. Frequent alternating of distance learning and classroom days is preferable to long periods of classroom and home-based learning, especially in elementary schools and at school entry.