Prep – why bother?

The vexed question of homework and its impact on learning and family life

Homework is an age-old educational practice that has been a subject of serious debate for decades – not just among academics but also between parents and (recalcitrant) children. And, to an extent, might not the children be right? The simple fact that homework has always been a facet of school life does not mean it has intrinsic value. Still, something seems to tell us that continuing the learning from school into the evenings and weekends must have benefits, surely? ‘Well it was good enough for me…’

In recent years, academic research has shed more light on the nuanced benefits of homework and how it can be effectively utilised to bolster a pupil’s learning journey. It has also, however, pointed out the negative effects of unnecessary and time-consuming work given seemingly simply as a Pavlovian response to the lesson bell ringing. In the words of educationalist Kieran Larkin OBE, ‘what should schools and students do to make homework worthwhile? It’s not about the length of time spent on it. It’s about using the time spent on it for a reason.’

At the High School we refer to work beyond the classroom as ‘prep’. This might be used in some schools simply as a traditional synonym for homework, however, it is much more than that for us. Many parents and guardians may not be aware that the word only relatively recently came back into use at the school, following the findings of a working party led by our School Consultant Teacher, Debbie Hill. 

Mrs Hill’s remit in school, as well as in the wider GDST, is to support evidence-engaged practices in teaching and learning. Her support meant that we had access to the most pertinent research around the issue, and three surveys were also carried out by the working party. The primary outcome of the consultation was the creation of an acronym: ‘prep’. 

The acronym consists of four elements that we considered to be important in making the most of any work to be completed outside the classroom. These are expressed as verbs, placing the emphasis on action rather than passivity, and teachers are encouraged to think about which element they are focusing on when setting work. Some even offer a menu with suggested tasks under each heading:

P – prepare. Homework should help pupils get ready for the next stage of their learning in school. For example, pre-reading, watching a ‘flipped classroom’ video, where the teacher has explained a concept in advance, or simply learning something important for a lesson, such as some vocabulary.

R – reflect. Studying outside of the classroom should be an opportunity to engage higher-order thinking skills (HOTS), such as asking wider questions about the topic, analysing different perspectives and synthesising ideas; all important elements of reflection.

E – explore. Sometimes the best learning takes place when we least expect it to, for example, when reading about one topic opens doors to new areas of interest, or if when challenged with a problem to solve, pupils learn how to find answers for themselves.

P – practise. One of the most useful processes for embedding learning comes through repetition. This is most helpful when preparing for assessments but should not be restricted to rote learning; inventive approaches including the use of technology can make working in this way a joy.

Thus, prep is not merely a means to extend the school day; rather, it becomes a crucial tool for reinforcing and internalising concepts learned in the classroom. When managed well, prep fosters a deeper understanding of subject matter by providing opportunities for independent practice and application of knowledge.

The effectiveness of prep clearly hinges on its quality and its alignment with specific learning objectives. Not all prep is created equal and our responsibility as teachers is to curate assignments that complement classroom work and cater to pupils’ individual needs, while offering them an appropriate level of challenge. Indeed, homework assignments focusing on problem-solving and HOTS have been shown to yield the most significant academic gains. In addition, by challenging pupils to think analytically and creatively, we cultivate a growth mindset and prepare them for the complexities of real-world scenarios.

Of course, we also see prep as a way of encouraging a closer connection between school and homelife, ideally involving parents and guardians. Research in the Journal of Learning for Development found a positive correlation between parental engagement in prep activities and pupils’ academic achievement: when parents actively support their children with homework, they reinforce the importance of learning and create an environment for academic success.

However, we need to strike a balance and ensure that homework doesn’t become a source of undue stress or conflict within the family. Prep should be purposeful, relevant, and scaffolded to support progress. For example, a mathematics teacher might offer a mix of drills, practical applications and reflective exercises to reinforce mathematical concepts and enhance problem-solving skills. Also teachers will often adapt assignments or offer a choice of activities to cater to the varied learning styles and aptitudes of their pupils, promoting inclusivity and academic success on a personal level.

We make it clear that pupils are not expected to spend endless hours drafting and revising their prep to make it perfect. In a fast-moving world, pupils not only need to work efficiently and with purpose, but they also need to be selective about where they place their energy. We advise younger pupils to spend the allotted amount of time on their prep and then to stop, informing the teacher if needed. This gives useful information to a teacher, even if the work is not completed, and can help us to reflect on the level and complexity of the work set in future. 

I would add to this that prep is for pupils and not parents – homework is certainly not worthwhile if it is effectively somebody else’s work. There is a fine line between supporting young people as they learn and taking the work on for yourself, as the famous line goes, ‘you know you’re a parent when you dread homework as much as your children’!

In older age groups too, prep should not become a burden. Where GCSE pupils find they have excessive work to do at home, we can advise on the number of subjects to be taken. There is no correct number of GCSEs and reducing from 10 to 9, for example, can provide precious space in the school day to allow for deeper learning in core subjects.

To support our approach in prep we embrace technology in the form of Google Classroom, both as a repository for resources and to facilitate the collection of work. As teachers have become more adept in using this technology, we have learnt to support pupils better. For example, use of the Kami app allows teachers to develop sophisticated past-paper sets for exams. Pupils can ‘write’ on the screen using a stylus, so this does not impact negatively on preparation for the real examinations. However, it means that teachers can offer feedback quickly and more insightfully. Use of the Mote app for this also allows teachers to create oral ‘feedback loops’ which encourage dialogue to improve outcomes.

Of course, as a formative assessment tool, prep also allows teachers to gauge pupils’ understanding of key concepts, identify areas of difficulty, and tailor lessons accordingly. Likewise, pupils can use prep as an opportunity for self-assessment, reflecting on their learning progress and seeking clarification when needed. By fostering a culture of feedback and reflection, prep becomes a collaborative endeavour that empowers pupils to take ownership of their learning.

So the adults are perhaps right after all. When used thoughtfully, prep plays a vital role in the educational landscape. Research highlights its potential to reinforce learning, foster critical thinking skills and promote closer links between school and home. However, to realise these benefits, our responsibility is to design homework tasks that are appropriate in length and complexity, engaging, and most of all, aligned with our guiding principle of learning without limits. 

Larkin K (2013), Quoted in The Independent, 24 April 2013
Cahit E and Metin K (2020), A Meta-Analysis of the Effect of Parental Involvement on Students’ Academic Achievement, Journal of Learning for Development, Vol. 7, No. 3, pp. 367-383

Mr Rickman
Deputy Head Academic