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The secret to getting students to work outside class

By Lauren Condon on 12 August 2017StrategyPedagogyNSWstaffroomUKstaffroom

You can lead a horse to water but you sure can’t make it drink and when it comes to giving students homework, it’s a pretty similar situation.

So, if we’re really looking to make learning beyond the classroom more effective then maybe we should be looking more closely at when and how students study outside of school.

Although measuring homework data might have once been a little difficult (unless you were willing to ask kids to keep a homework diary which they absolutely would not have done), we’re pretty lucky that new forms of digital learning give us new insights into how students work outside of class.

We’ve taken a look back through our own data to see when students are watching our videos and when students are actually studying. The results have a lot to say.

So yes, students are actually studying on weekends and yes, students also pretty much flatly refuse to work on Friday night. But we probably could have predicted that!

But how can we take this data and use it to make actionable insights about how we can manage out-of-class learning. Well, buckle in, here are three ways we can use homework effectively based on students’ natural study patterns.

1. Capitalise on students’ ability and willingness to work outside of class

The good news is that students really are willing to work outside of class hours. We can see that, particularly at the beginning of the week from Monday to Wednesday, students genuinely sit down for intense bouts of learning that, with the right direction and resources, can really enhance their whole learning experience.

So, the first step in effectively extending the learning experience beyond the classroom is having the confidence to set the crucial, fundamental work before the classroom using online resources and know students will actually do the pre-work. That way, you can capitalise on class time for application skills and complex understanding.

For example: before a class on creating theses for English essays, assign students a video explaining the definition and purpose of a thesis, asking them to bring a draft thesis for their essay to class. That way, the class time can be spent assessing and fine tuning each student’s thesis and they walk out of class with a solid, approved idea.

2. Play to the students’ study pattern

Now that you’ve got a decent idea of when students are willing to study - and more importantly, when they aren’t - you can use this information to get the most out of student’s motivation to study outside of class.

The Wall Street Journal investigated the peak time to complete different tasks based on the research of psychologists and biologists and the verdict? If there’s a natural rhythm, work with it not against it for maximum effectiveness.

Friday afternoons seem to be universally recognised as the time to mentally check out and begin the weekend. The great news is they aren’t checking out for the whole weekend, they just need a break after that intense Monday to Wednesday sprint. What this means, is that planning learning should be done with a healthy consideration of the cycle of the week and the need for varying pace.

When macro-planning, or laying out the broad structure of learning for a whole topic or term, alternate between the points that require some serious cognition and the lighter, more manageable aspects. If you have a particularly challenging topic to tackle like thesis development and you know students will need to really work beyond the classroom to grasp the complexity, bring that topic to the beginning of the week. We can see from the data that Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday are the times when most work gets done. Leverage that to set more complex tasks earlier rather than later and then you know students will actually work over the weekend if you want to set work to help them consolidate the topics.

3. Students need to be fully equipped for independent study

Finally, it’s pretty important to note that the study is happening later at night than we might have expected. The main takeaway here is the later students are studying, the less likely it is that teachers will be available to support them if they hit a roadblock or have a question. Even the most dedicated teacher can’t be checking emails up until 11pm each night and consistently over the weekend!

So our challenge is that students need to be fully equipped and supported so they can be successful in their study, even when it’s late at night or over a weekend. One answer is to pinpoint struggling students or particularly tricky subjects in class and preempt any roadblocks. (If you set some of the fundamental work before class, it’s much easier to catch any potential problems early on). Another answer is to be as clear and thorough as possible when setting tasks - the importance of examples can’t be stressed too much here!

Beyond the classroom, it’s important students are given access to resources they can use 24/7 such as a Google Classroom that has the task, sample answers, links to quality sources of evidence and even video lessons/lectures in one place. This way, students are able to work effectively and with minimal interruption and we aren’t asking teachers to be on call at all hours of the day and night.


Knowing when students are primed and motivated to study outside of the classroom is a serious opportunity to reflect on the way you set homework. Capitalise on their willingness to work outside of class by extending the learning environment beyond the classroom and then their study schedules and patterns so the homework is as effective as possible and no longer a nightmare for everyone!

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