Why a blog?

As part of our school’s CPD programme this year, teachers must undertake a research project into one aspect of their teaching that they wish to improve. This involves research, synthesis, implementation and evaluation. I figured that if I was to expend effort on this, it would be valuable to document and share my findings in the format that had helped me previously: a blog post! 

Why homework and does it matter? 

For this school-year long task, I wanted to select something that I felt would have a wide-ranging impact. Effective homework at Key Stage 3 (KS3) is something that had hitherto eluded my best efforts. With all the constraints on my time, producing something other than independent research tasks, that tended to be nothing more than piece-meal, just did not feel like a priority.  

The Education Endowment Foundation has synthesised research into the implementation and impact of homework: 

  • Homework has a positive impact on average (5+ months), particularly with pupils in secondary school. 
  • Some pupils may not have a quiet space for home learning. 
  • Homework that is linked to the classroom work tends to me more effective. In particular, studies that included feedback on homework had higher impacts on learning. 
  • It is important to make the purpose of homework clear to pupils. 

[EEF, 2021] 

There were a few more key issues that emanated from my professional practice pertaining to homework that I wished to consider. 

  • Relatively little curriculum time is dedicated to Music (50 minutes per week). Therefore, any extra opportunities to engage learners with music should not be wasted. 
  • The focus in my music lessons is oracy rather than literacy. Pupils do very little writing. Homework, I thought, provides an opportunity to reinforce concepts and vocabulary through literacy. 
  • With limited time in lessons, the focus must be on music making. Homework could be a means to add extra listening into the curriculum without compromising the music making.1 
  • Music skills are best learnt little and often. Homework is an excellent opportunity to do a just little bit more music more often. 
  • Homework must not impact negatively on teacher workload. As a music teacher, I lead extra-curricular activities such as orchestra and choir rehearsals after school virtually every day. This limits the time available to mark KS3 homework, especially when I teach so many KS3 classes. 

What makes an effective homework policy? 

On deciding my research topic, I read Twitter to see if anyone else had been written about an effective homework policy. I found a limited range of sources. But Adam Boxer’s post, The four planks of an effective homework policy, was excellent. Boxer delineates the issues with setting homework into four key components: access, purposeful thinking, accountability and value. For each of these, Boxer asks those teachers establishing a homework policy to consider some questions. The ones I found to be most helpful were from the purposeful thinking strand: 

  • Are homeworks meaningful? 
  • Are homeworks tied to the curriculum? 
  • Is it possible to complete the homework and see no accompanying gain in curriculum understanding? 
  • Does my homework feature games and gimmicks that may engage students but won’t have them execute any thinking? 
  • In what ways will teachers show students what good looks like? 

[Boxer, 2022] 

Linking to the curriculum 

To render homework assignments meaningful—something I always thought was lacking from previous attempts—I sought to link them to the curriculum. Our school’s music curriculum is underpinned by the progression framework shown in Table 1. This is based on Jane Werry’s [2017] model, which in turn was adapted from the Incorporated Society of Musician’s KS3 framework. [2019]. This approach to curriculum advocates creating a framework of skills, knowledge and concepts that you would like students to master and then using these to form your curriculum content. Or as put by Mary Myatt and John Tomsett ‘with a class of Year 9s in front of you… what does success look like in terms of what those students know, understand and can do’ [2021, pg18]. For music at my school this looks like the students being able to execute everything listed in Table 1.  Students encounter most, if not all, of these twenty-seven skills in each unit of work and the difficulty of these skills increases as pupils progress through the key stage. The spiral nature of this approach allows students the opportunity to master the skills set out in the framework by the end of KS3 through repetition. 

Table 1

I wanted to create a homework curriculum that would mirror this spiral effect, giving students the opportunity to consolidate their knowledge outside of the classroom. I felt that low-stakes testing was the best vehicle to do this. I was convinced that testing, especially cumulative testing, had value in addressing the forgetting curve. The more students try to remember something2, the stronger the chance of students remembering it long term. I therefore chose to set half termly quizzes that not only tested what pupils had learnt in a particular unit, but what they had learnt over KS3 as a whole. This pressed pupils to retain material over a long period of time because, as Dylan Wiliam writes, ‘when the assessment is cumulative, there is no incentive for students (and teachers) to adopt a shallow approach, because if material is forgotten, it has to be learned again, because it is going to be assessed again’ [2011, pg 3]. I adopted the model shown in Table 2 below to ensure the homework effectively mirrored the cumulative style of my classroom curriculum.

 TABLE 2

A homework curriculum  

Music homework is often difficult to do at home. Many of the skills in the framework are practical and cannot be assessed using quizzes. For instance, how can a quiz be used to assess whether a pupil ‘follows place in an ensemble’ or ‘plays bass + chords together’? The answer is it cannot. But what can be done is to ask pupils to answer questions on some procedural or declarative knowledge, which might improve their ability to perform a skill in the classroom. For example, to improve the ‘follows place in an ensemble’ skill, pupils could be asked to identify on which beat of the bar something happens in a listening question (procedural). To improve the ‘plays bass + chords together’ skill, pupils could be asked to identify the root note of a C major chord (declarative). This approach to testing appears to have some impact, as Daisy Christodoulou uses the analogy of a marathon to explain. ‘Put simply, you wouldn’t train for a marathon by trying to run 26.2 miles in every training session. And in the same way, you shouldn’t prepare for an exam by doing exam-style activities in every lesson’ [2019]. This shows how I am tying homework testing to the classroom curriculum. I am effectively asking students to do smaller but relevant tasks which will help them execute something bigger, like doing strength training for running a marathon.

The next question concerned the content of the homework. What did I regularly and cumulatively want to ask students to think about, retrieve and practise that would help them progress in my lessons? I settled on these five areas, which act as a vehicle to test the skills listed in Table 1.  

  1. Notation 
  2. MAD T SHIRT3 (a mnemonic we use in music to remember the elements of music) 
  3. Chords 
  4. Listening 
  5. Context and culture 

These areas were chosen for two further reasons. First, they link to the national curriculum [2013]. Although the music national curriculum is sparse, it does explicitly mention all of these, apart from chords. Second, although KS3 music should not be GCSE-lite as Richard McFahn notes [2017], these five areas address key elements of the GCSE specification. 

The vehicle

As mentioned previously the mode of homework had to be accessible to all students. I needed a vehicle that would facilitate this. Enter Microsoft Forms! As I sure you are aware, if you are an Office 365 school, you are able to create a quiz using the Forms app. This can then be shared with your classes in Teams to complete for homework. (If you are a Google school you implement this in the same way using Google Forms and Google Classroom.) There were a couple of reasons I chose Microsoft Forms: 

  • Tests can be multiple choice. 
  • It allows teachers to adapt scaffolding according to need.
  • All our students have access to Forms through their school Office 365 account. 
  • It works on mobile; there is no need for laptop.
  • It can be accessed by students using computers available at homework club, requiring no teacher input. 
  • Graphics and digital video clips can be embedded. 
  • It can provide instant, automated feedback for students; no teacher marking is required.
  • Forms can generate performance data that can be categorised by class, student or question. 
  • Quizzes can be easily shared with department colleagues.

The following example in Table 3 questions are taken from the Year 8 Jazz quiz: 

Table 3

The questions are different every time the quiz is set but always cover the five areas. Quizzes were assigned once each half term. Hence, by the end of KS3, each student will have worked on these areas eighteen times, bolstering their understanding of our classroom learning. Students appear to like the fact that the questions they are asked are tangibly linked to our work in class, as the submission percentage is markedly higher with this homework than any I had previously set. This also proved that they appreciated the routine of this method. ‘Having strong procedures and routines is one of the most important things you can do to support learning’ [Lemov, 2020] and homework can be a part of this. 

Progress

Using faded guidance (the process of removing scaffolding each time a student attempts a similar problem) allows for increased challenge each time the quiz is set and helps to secure progress throughout the KS3. Adam Robbins comments on how ‘students perform better when they complete a series of examples with increasing independence’ [2021, pg 33]. When the students are in Year 7, scaffolding (such as narrations to listening questions, definitions, translations of key words and visual guides) is added to questions. As pupils progress through the key stage, the scaffolding is gradually removed, increasing the level of challenge. The examples in Table 4 below are taken from a Year 7 and a Year 9 homework quiz. 

Table 4

Due to removal of scaffolding the quiz increases in challenge every time a student takes it. The first quiz students sit in Year 7 generates a baseline score out of 24. To map progress, subsequent quiz scores can be compared to this baseline. If student’s score stays roughly the same over the course of the key stage, they are making expected progress. Maintaining their baseline score shows that the students is coping with the increased challenge and therefore making expected progress, as seen in Table 5. If they suddenly get a much better score, they are making above expected progress and vice versa if their score goes drastically down. 

Table 5

Furthermore, not only is the increase in challenge is generated through the removal of scaffolding but also because the demands of each section of the quiz are mapped to the increasing challenge of our classroom curriculum. For example, in the notation section pupils gradually build from simply treble clef notes to both treble and bass. Another is the chord section which progresses from simple triads in Year 7 to seventh chords in Year 8. 

Feedback

As well being a great tracking tool, Forms also allows teachers to provide feedback. Harry Fletcher-Wood observes ‘focused feedback promotes a behaviour change. What matters most is how the students use the feedback in future’ [2021]. It is important therefore that in response to an incorrect answer, students are not given the correct answer in isolation. They need to be provided with feedback that will help them the next time they tackle a similar task, either in the next homework quiz or in a lesson, as we know this helpful in making progress [Handel, Harder & Naujoks, 2022]. Forms is an ideal vehicle to do this as digital links can also be embedded into feedback responses. Pupils can be prompted to watch a digital video, or read a digital document (Figure 1). 

Figure 1

The forgotten necessity

The last thing I want to discuss is buy in – why it is important to communicate the value of completing the homework to students. This is crucial as the work will be completed outside of teacher supervision. Students need to be encouraged to engage with homework meaningfully, as one purpose of the homework is a diagnostic tool to see what knowledge students have retained. The other is to afford learners an opportunity to practise applying that knowledge. Before I set the homework for the first time each year, I spend a chunk of the lesson explaining or re-explaining the quiz approach and why it is important. The point is that it helps them improve and helps me to teach them better. One statement that always generates a gasp is when I announce to the class “I can see how long it takes you to complete the quiz”. If it has taken them 20 seconds to complete a 24-question quiz they have probably clicked through random answers. This will ultimately inform my assessment of their independent study for pupils’ school reports. I try to emphasise to students that the quiz is not an exam and that it is designed to help learners make progress, to make them better musicians. I also make it clear that it is important for me as a teacher to know if I have taught pupils well and what I may have to teach again. Explaining to students explicitly how the quiz links to their previous learning in class is important too. To this end, I created a short video explaining the nature of the test and give advice on what content to revise for each section. I encourage students to watch this video at the beginning of the academic year to promote this. 

Music homework at key stage 3

It is not perfect and will probably evolve and change, but I hope this system helps make an impact by capitalising on an area of teaching responsibility that I have struggled with. This quiz links to classwork, it provides feedback and is routinised. It gives an opportunity for cumulative testing and retrieval, which helps students access the skills needed in class and to make progress as a musician. Finally, it provides me as a teacher with data on how students are grappling with any area of the curriculum and allows me to be responsive in my teaching. This the point I would like to end on. Whilst embedding the homework system this year I noticed that the vocabulary used to describe the elements of music (MAD T SHIRT) was not being retained by most students. I was clearly not placing much importance on using this language in class when we discussed, listened, played and created music. To remedy this, I developed a ‘do now’ activity for students to complete whilst taking the register, allowing them to review and apply this key vocabulary. As a result, the score for the MAD T SHIRT section in most classes improved. This was a gap that was made apparent by the data from the quizzes and with this I was able to react and address this.

If you would like to duplicate the quiz we use you can find one version here which will provide you with a template to duplicate, providing you have an Office 365 account.  

Footnotes

  1. Notwithstanding that listening is a part of musiking and therefore music making and that you cannot separate listening from any other part of music.
  2. This can also be procedural knowledge. ‘Procedural knowledge usually requires sound instructional teaching, especially at a novice stage – but can be gained from reading and other forms of learning, followed up with lots of practice.  You can’t do too much practice’ [Sherrington, 2020]. We can provide most of the sound instructional teaching in the classroom. A homework quiz would simply provide another chance to practise. Hopefully then when student re-enters the classroom they have strengthen the necessary schema and will have to tools to execute a particular skill with more success.
  3. MAD T SHIRT stands for Melody, Articulation, Dynamics, Texture, Structure, Harmony, Instrumentation, Rhythm, Time and Tempo

Reference list

Boxer, A. (2022) ‘The four planks of an effective homework policy’, A Chemical Orthodoxy, 11th April. Available at: https://achemicalorthodoxy.wordpress.com/2022/04/11/the-four-planks-of-an-effective-homework-policy/ (Accessed: 9 July 2022) 

EEF (2021) Available at: https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/education-evidence/teaching-learning-toolkit/homework (Accessed: 9 July 2022) 

Handel, M. Harder, B. & Naujoks, N. (2022) ‘Testing pays off twice: Potentials of practice tests and feedback regarding exam performance and judgement accuracy’ Metacognition and Learning, doi: https://doi.org/10.1007/s11409-022-09295-x

ISM (2019) ‘ISM – The National Curriculum for Music: A revised framework for curriculum, pedagogy and assessment in key stage 3 music’, ISM. Available at: https://www.ism.org/professional-development/resources/nationalcurriculum (Accessed on: 9 July 2022) 

Lemov, D. (2020) ‘Virtual procedures and routines: how Alonzo Hall and Linda Fraser set students up to be successful’, Teach Like a Champion, 16th April. Available at: https://teachlikeachampion.com/blog/virtual-procedures-and-routines-how-alonzo-hall-and-linda-fraser-set-students-up-to-be-successful/ (Accessed on: 11 July 2022) 

McFahn, R. (2017) ‘Please don’t ask year 7 to answer GCSE exam questions’, History Resource Cupboard, 28th March. Available at: https://www.historyresourcecupboard.co.uk/please-dont-ask-year-7-to-answer-exam-questions/ (Accessed on: 9 July 2022) 

Myatt, M. & Tomsett, J. (2021) Huh: Curriculum conversations between subject and senior leaders. Woodbridge: John Catt Educational Ltd 

National curriculum in England: music programme of study – key stage 3 2013 Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/national-curriculum-in-england-music-programmes-of-study (Accessed on: 11 July 2022) 

Robbins, A. (2021) Middle Leadership Mastery. Carmarthen: Crown House Publishing Limited 

Sherrington, T (2020) ‘Schema-building: A blend of experiences and retrieval modes make for deep learning’, Teacher Head, 5th January. Available at: https://teacherhead.com/2020/01/05/schema-building-a-blend-of-experiences-and-retrieval-modes-make-for-deep-learning/ (Accessed on: 11 July 2022) 

Werry, J. (2017) ‘What’s going on in my classroom: spring 2017… quite a lot on assessment but other stuff too’, Werry Blog, 17th February. Available at: https://werryblog.com/2017/02/17/whats-going-on-in-my-classroom-spring-2017-quite-a-lot-on-assessment-but-other-stuff-too/ (Accessed on 9 July 2022) 

William, D. (2011) ‘What assessment can, and cannot, do’, Pedagogiska Magasinet, September. Available at: https://www.dylanwiliam.org/Dylan_Wiliams_website/Papers.html (Accessed on: 9 July 2022) 

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