Getting homework done: timely nudges from behavioural psychology

Lucia’s students respond well in lessons but rarely complete homework or revision.  She wants them to act on their good intentions…

We can use behavioural psychology to nudge students in the right direction by making desired actions EAST: Easy, Attractive, Social and Timely.  I posed Lucia’s classroom challenge in a previous post; this post describes timely prompts Lucia can offer to help students revise or complete homework.  I’m very grateful to Alice, Charlotte Bell, E Wilson, Lucy and Susie Fraser for their suggestions.

1) Create a sense of urgency

Lucia’s students don’t prioritise homework: she could try making it feel more urgent.  Lucy suggested prompt deadlines: given longer than a week, students may neither prioritise the task immediately, nor remember it nearer the time.  Charlotte Bell gives low-stakes homework due the next day: students self-assess at the start of the next lesson; she describes small tasks with tight deadlines as “less intimidating”.  (Breaking down tasks also makes it easier to begin, turning big actions like ‘revision’ into manageable steps with rapid feedback).  Alice notes that a similar system (of homework tied to a test) helps teachers enforce deadlines: “You can’t hand it in tomorrow, the test is now”.  So Lucia can create urgency and encourage students to prioritise homework by:

  • Breaking homework and revision into manageable tasks
  • Setting prompt deadlines – generous enough for completion but soon enough to feel urgent
  • Checking/providing feedback rapidly, to show the task matters

2) Plan when it will happen

Lucia’s students are enthusiastic, she doesn’t face a lack of will, but a failure of execution.  Students are often vague about when they will act: a plan to revise ‘over the weekend’ is easily derailed by more tempting and immediate alternatives.  Charlotte Bell shares homework timetables at the start of each term, so students know what’s coming up and feel prepared and in control.  Lucy asks students to commit to a time they will do their homework each week (using implementation intentions); Susie Fraser takes this further, asking students to set a reminder on their phone: “This has improved submission slightly and it gets better each week.”  Social reinforcement might help here too: Lucia could ask students to share their plans with their parents; Susie Fraser plans to ask students to “share their commitment with a buddy, whose job it is to text or remind them on that day too.”  So Lucia can help students make – and stick to – plans by asking them to:

  • Specify when and where they will do their homework
  • Share their plans with others to remind them

3) Promote habits

Lucia wants students to complete homework routinely, without chasing them.  Habits form when people repeat actions in stable contexts: encouraging repetition or making the context stable should help students act consistently.  Charlotte Bell sets and receives homework tasks on the same day each week: “this sense of routine is helpful for all of us.”  Lucy gives similar homework each week (one knowledge learning task and one essay question), the tasks are in the same place in students’ booklets; Alice’s school sets homeworks as some form of review, and is looking to set a weekly ‘testing day’ for each subject, so that “working at home regularly becomes habit.”  There are many things Lucia might seek to keep stable to help build homework habits:

  • When she sets and collects it
  • The nature/medium/format of the task
  • Where students find the task

She might also build on students’ planning by encouraging them to set a consistent time to complete homework for the whole term.

4) Preempt barriers

Lucia’s students may want to do their homework, plan to do it, and still come unstuck: she can preempt barriers (or address those she encounters).  Students may forget the task: Lucy suggested displaying it on a ‘homework wall’, so they can check it in her absence (as Jess Dumbreck does, described here); alternatively, it could be online.  Alice’s school is working to provide a hard-copy booklet for each subject, covering a term or a year, for each subject, keeping everything in one place and avoiding ‘internet issues’.  Having started, they may still struggle: after setting homework, E Wilson goes through it with students, to “anticipate those areas where students will struggle… explain my expectations and even take suggestions from the class.” Lucia might preempt barriers by:

  • Preparing alternatives addressing reasons students have given her previously for not completing homework
  • Using any novel reason she hears more than twice as a trigger to create a new workaround for students

Other nudges: make it social; make it attractive

Having made homework seem timely, Lucia might add other nudges.  Charlotte Bell notes the value of visually recording who has submitted homework, showing students she’s serious about their efforts and making her conversations with parents about lack of homework easier.  Susie Fraser uses Google Classroom for most tasks, and encourages responses by replying to the first three immediately, nudging the others: “Really interesting response Callum, who is going to be next?”  She adds another message the day before the deadline: “I’ve Loved reading these so far, Tyler, Joel, looking forward to yours’.”  Finally, Lucy notes, “Give a detention if it isn’t done.”

Conclusion

Sometimes, students may not complete homework because they are not interested or motivated to do it.  Lucia’s experience seems more typical however: most students would do the homework, but they are busy and forgetful, or prioritise and plan poorly.  Students are more likely to complete homework or revision if a teacher:

  • Creates a sense of urgency
  • Ask students to plan when it will happen
  • Encourages consistency to promote habits
  • Preempts barriers
  • Uses social influences to reinforce these measures

If you found this interesting, you might like…

The guide I’m writing to using behavioural psychology for teachers: sign up here to learn more.

The previous post, which reviewed how to make a desired behaviour timely and includes the full comments used in this post.

The previous challenge: teacher suggestions to make it easy for students to focus in lessons.

Getting homework done: timely nudges from behavioural psychology