Homework in a work-from-home world

Homework in a work-from-home world

What does homework look like when we are always at home? It cannot be the same. And it has to be more important than ever as work at home is all we have right now. So how can we use research insights to tweak our homework practice? 

Just posting a list of assignments for students to complete each week is a dubious approach to teaching. The wonderfully titled landmark paper, Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work, has a must-read 128 word abstract that begins, “Evidence for the superiority of guided instruction is explained…” 

We still need to guide instruction, even though this is now harder. The role homework plays will depend on our ability to guide instruction. Hence this table has three columns: one for pre-lockdown teaching, the second if all you have is the ability to post asynchronously, the third if you can also have synchronous online class. We hope this format makes sense to you.


Regular Classroom teaching

I only have asynchronous class — assignments, resources & lessons posted online

I can also have synchronous class — live face-to-face lessons with video and/or text chat

Quality has a greater impact on learning than quantity of minutes. Adjust assignments based on what you cover in class so that students are neither frustrated nor bored.

Resist the temptation to give lots of work to fill the minutes of your course. Quality is more important than quantity. Poorly designed assignments hurt learning because they decrease motivation and increase frustration. At times, no assignment may be better than a poorly designed one, or one that students are not quite ready for yet.

Quality is always more important than quantity of minutes, no matter what. You may cover less in class than anticipated as you get used to teaching in this format, so the point about adjusting assignments based on what you actually teach is even more relevant.

“Teaching lessons” needs to happen — students need guided instruction.


Then create assignments that move students along a structured path from guided practice, to independent practice, to using the knowledge and skills they just learned in a new context.


Add in lots of formative assessments throughout (for low or no points) to see what students are getting and what still needs more work or more teaching.


In the future, just as students are beginning to forget this material, bring it back with some spaced retrieval practice assignments.


Homework helps make space for points 2-4 to happen. It also helps prepare students for the next day’s lesson.

Homework is more effective when it practices and reinforces concepts that have been taught in a lesson where a teacher guides instruction, and less effective when it focuses on student-directed learning. So if asynchronous class is your only option you need to figure out how the “taught lessons” are going to take place, and not just send kids off with a list of questions and the internet to learn for themselves (as novice learners in the subject, this is not a good strategy for them).


“Taught lessons” could be screencast lectures by you, where you create some slides and talk over the top of them, using software like Loom of Quicktime.

You could make simple, short videos of yourself (just seeing your face is powerful – it does not have to be fancy). Create a bullet point list of ideas and stick it to the wall behind your camera as a low-tech autocue.


Use videos and lessons made by other people, from online sites like Edpuzzle and Khan Academy.


Other tools like Pear Deck and Nearpod are better for creating engaging synchronous classes, but can be used to create asynchronous experiences.

“Teaching lessons” can now happen synchronously online. It can be as simple as you speaking (with or without slides) or leading a discussion, just like in class.


Or you could use online tools like Pear Deck, Nearpod, PollEverywhere, Google Slide presenter tools or Mentimeter to add features to your online lessons — these do not automatically make lessons better, so find what works for you, play, and ask your students what works for them.


But even with synchronous online class, there will be an asynchronous not-online component. In this new world, let’s call this “homework.” The same principles of great homework, outlined in the first column, apply.


We believe that a good rhythm for distance learning will include monitored independent work, when some for the online time is set aside for students to work on “homework” while the teacher is still logged in online and available for help and to guide progress. It is the online equivalent of walking around the class, seeing how people are getting on, and gauging the mood of the room.

Homework should directly stem from and tie back into class work 

Intersperse (1) “homework” assignments where students work on practice of recent material, spaced practice of older material, or transferring knowledge to a new context by creating a piece of work in some medium; with (2) “taught lessons” where new knowledge and skills are introduced. Make sure the two are interwoven to create one coherent, ongoing story.

“Homework” assignments should be highly integrated with the story you are unfolding in your online class — so tee them up in class, and refer back to them afterwards. Have students work on practice of recent material, spaced practice of older material, or transferring knowledge to a new context by creating a piece of work in some medium (eg. paper, podcast, infographic, children’s story, video, work of art).

Purpose should be made very clear

Clearly knowing the purpose helps build motivation, and is especially important in distance learning. Make the purpose explicitly clear and understandable. Try writing on each assignment you post a sentence that starts “The purpose of this assignment is to…”

Take time in class to briefly explain the purpose of the homework you are going to set. It could be as simple as saying, “this will help you prepare for the test in nine days time,” or it could have connections to the real world, relevant things in the students’ lives, or their future learning.

Directions should be very clear

Not understanding directions is one of the major barriers to effective homework. Make sure the instructions you set are extremely clear, and err on the side of more structure and scaffolding than normal. This is in part because of the extra cognitive load and executive functioning challenges of distance learning. Set a clear routine for students to follow to contact you if they have questions, and make sure students buy into this and can actually do it. Students need more support from us up-front to make self-advocacy work in distance learning.

Try to create a rhythm for your online classes where students have 5-10 minutes to start “homework” assignments while you are still online and able to answer clarifying questions. Set up a clear routine for your students on how to contact you to arrange extra help outside of class. Consider setting regular online “office hours” times for this, and decide whether you will be logged in online during these times for students to drop in, or whether they need to schedule in advance. If scheduling, you can use an online system like Google Calendar or Calendly, or just have students email you.

Do not set homework on material that has not been covered in class yet

Make a schedule of “teaching lessons” and “homework assignments”, but keep re-adjusting it based on (1) what you actually get through; (2) what students get through in the allotted time; and (3) the insights you get from formative assessments that tell you what students seem to understand and what needs more practice or reteaching. Having homework for points on material that has not been taught yet is deeply demotivating, so make sure you adjust the schedule and/or objectives of the assignments you set.

Both online teaching and the speed at which students learn can move more slowly than you are used to. So be prepared to adjust or cancel homework if you did not get as far as you wanted in class. And just because you covered it in class, it does not mean students are ready for the homework. Use very short formative assessments during class to see what students know and can do and what they still need more practice on, or what needs more teaching. Apps like Socrative and Mentimeter can help you do this. 

Practice and review types of homework tend to be more effective than assignments that are more open-ended

There may be a temptation to assign lots of student-driven projects when asynchronous class is your only option. These more open-ended assignments have their place, but practice and review assignments have a greater impact on learning so make these your bread and butter. Set projects after core underpinning knowledge and skills have been taught, not as a means to first learn them (use “taught lessons” to do this instead). If setting a project as a summative assessment of learning, begin by first using formative assessment to see if students are ready for the project. Give more practice or reteach key ideas to those students who are not ready yet.

Practice of current material, spaced retrieval practice of older material, readings/viewings that prepare students for the next class, and short knowledge-transfer assignments should be the core of what you set. If setting a project as a summative assessment, use some class time to have students work on their project while you are there and able to answer questions that arise. Create a timeline that includes very short online progress-shares to you or to the whole class so students get feedback during the making stage. Err on the side of adding more structure, scaffolding, and examples of what students should be heading for than you normally would do with a regular class.


Creating knowledge and skills that are durable, usable and flexible





Engagement & motivation


We created this table as part of a supplemental resource for an exciting project, coming to you soon. We have put together a bundle of Neuroteach Global courses that we think would be most supportive of distance learning and teaching. Neuroteach Global is the CTTL’s solution to high quality research informed professional development. How can we use the science of teaching and learning to help teachers in these challenging times? And how can we get it into their hands in a digestible, usable, affordable way? It is about 8 hours of rich, highly interactive pd brought to you on the device of your choice in a story-based microcourse format. More details very soon. In the meantime, if you want to know more, please email: neuroteach@thecttl.org.