TO GIVE OR NOT TO GIVE HOMEWORK…That is the question!
The amount of homework students are given differs greatly across grade levels and states. Some students are given hours of work while other students are assigned little or no work to be done at home.
So what’s appropriate? What is the purpose of homework? What are the advantages and disadvantages of homework? How much homework should be assigned? How important is the quality of the assignments? And most importantly: Does homework increase student achievement?
These questions represent the ongoing debate surrounding homework for the past two decades. According to a survey by the University of Michigan, homework has doubled over the last twenty years, especially in the younger grades, due to the school’s requirement to meet higher-than-ever achievement goals for children. Although homework has academic and non-academic advantages and disadvantages, the majority of studies conducted reveal inconclusive evidence that assigning homework increases student achievement. Most studies show positive effects for certain students, others suggest no effects, and some even suggest negative effects according to research by Alfie Kohn, an independent scholar (2006).
Let’s begin with the purpose of homework…
Educators assign homework for different reasons and purposes. Homework is assigned either as practice, preparation, extension, or integration of grade-level skills and concepts.
PRACTICE HOMEWORK reinforces learning from the skills and concepts already taught in the classroom. Practice homework promotes retention and automaticity of the concept, skill, and content taught. Examples include practicing multiplication facts or writing simple sentences in order to commit theses skills and concepts to long-term memory.
PREPARATION HOMEWORK is assigned to introduce content that will be addressed in future lessons. However, research suggests that homework is less effective if it is used to teach new or complex skills. For these types of assignments, students typically become stressed which can create a negative perspective towards learning and school.
EXTENSION HOMEWORK requires students to use previously taught skills and concepts and apply them to new situations or projects. For instance, students may use the concept of area and perimeter to build a flowerbed.
INTEGRATION HOMEWORK requires the student to apply learned skills and concepts to produce a single project like reading a book and writing a report on it.
Homework also serves other purposes not directly related to instruction. Homework can help establish communication between parents and children; it can be used as a form of discipline; and it can inform parents about school topics and activities.
The Homework Debate
The homework debate often focuses on how and why homework affects student learning and achievement. Harris Cooper, a professor of psychology, and colleagues (2006) found there are both positive and negative consequences of homework.
Homework provides practice with content, concepts, and skills taught at school by the teacher. It can foster retention and understanding of the academic content. Some studies suggest that homework correlates with student achievement. Cooper, Robinson, and Patall (2006) discovered a positive correlation between the amount of the homework students do and their achievement at the secondary level. Some studies also suggest that assigning homework improves the achievement of low-performing students and students in low-performing schools. However, the correlation between student achievement and homework given to elementary students is inconclusive. Most research only supports homework for middle and high school students (Cooper 1989a; Kohn 2006).
There are also non-academic reasons for assigning homework. Corno and Xu (2004) discovered that homework fosters independence, develops time-management skills, and teaches responsibility. Assigning homework to primary age students can establish better study habits and skills for secondary education (Bempechat, 2004). Homework promotes a positive attitude towards school and keeps families informed about their child’s learning.
The Potential Harm
Homework also has negative associations. It can lead to boredom if the student has already mastered the skills, and it can lead to loss of interest in school due to burnout. Cheating is involved with homework by either copying another student’s work or when help is received from adults in an attempt to finish all the assignments. Also, assigning excessive amounts of homework may result in unneeded stress and pressure on the child, which affects the student’s emotions, behaviors, thinking ability, and physical health.
The correlation between homework and student achievement is inconsistent. In TheBattle Over Homework, Cooper determined that the average correlation between the time primary children spent on homework and achievement was around zero. Not to mention, the amount of homework completed had no effect on test scores. David Baker and Gerald LeTendre, professors of education at Penn State, found that countries that assign minimal amounts of homework, like Japan, were the most successful school systems compared to Greece and Iran school systems where students are given a lot of work.
Another concern surrounding homework is its interference with the student’s time to relax and take their minds off work as well as family time. Students are spending too much time completing homework assignments instead of playing outside or enjoying leisure activities, which teach and enhance important life skills.
In addition, homework decreases the time spent with family. As Alfie Kohn states in The Homework Myth, “Why should children be asked to work a second shift? It’s unconscionable to send children to work for nearly eight hours a day, then have them go home and work for 2-5 more hours. Secondly, it reduces the amount of time that children could be spending with their families. Family time is especially important to a growing child and without it social problems can crop up and a family unit can be compromised by a lack of time being spent together.”
The Amount of Homework
The frequency and duration of each assignment does not necessarily suggest a correlation between homework and student achievement. “We found that for kids in elementary school there was hardly any relationship between how much homework young children did and how well they were doing in school, but in middle school the relationship is positive and increases until the kids were doing between an hour to two hours a night, which is right where the 10-minute rule says it’s going to be optimal,” stated Harris Cooper. The 10-minute rule was created by the National PTA which suggests 10 minutes per a grade should be assigned (e.g., 70 minutes for 7th grade). “After that it didn’t go up anymore. Kids that reported doing more than two hours of homework in middle school weren’t doing any better in school than kids who were doing between an hour to two hours,” said Harris Cooper.
Quantity Versus Quality
Effective homework is homework with a purpose. According to Cooper, some teachers assign ‘shotgunhomework’: blanket drills, questions, and problems. Students are given homework that is not furthering the concepts and skills. The homework is assigned because it has been drilled into our collective mind that homework produces higher performing students. However, homework is most effective when it covers material already taught, is given for review, or is used to reinforce skills previously learned. Students should not be assigned homework on concepts and skills they do not grasp.
DataWORKS Educational Research recommends assigning homework to provide additional repetitions of the content to promote retention and automaticity. The reason for homework is to practice the content, NOT to learn the content. Students learn the content (skills and concepts) from the lesson taught at school. Students need to be able to complete the work at home without assistance because some students do not have an English-speaking parents or guardians to help them.
In conclusion, research is inconsistent in determining if homework increases student achievement. As educators, the amount, frequency, and the purpose should be considered prior to assigning homework. Homework should be used effectively! Instead of the quantity of homework, educators should improve the quality of the assignments. Homework assignments must be well-designed. So, when assigning homework, please consider the effectiveness of it, homework should positively impact the student learning. Otherwise, the debate about homework will continue without an answer – to give or not to give!
Kohn, Alfie (2007). Rethinking Homework.
Kohn, Alfie. The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2006).
Cooper, H. (1989). Homework. White Plains, NY: Longman.
Cooper, H., Robinson, J. C., & Patall, E. A. (2006). Does homework improve academic achievement? A synthesis of research. 1987–2003. Review of Educational Research, 76(1), 1–62.
What is your stance on homework? What do you think is an appropriate amount of homework? Why do you assign homework? Please share your experiences in the comment section below.
Author: Patricia Bogdanovich
Patricia has held various positions with DataWORKS since 2002. She currently works as a Curriculum Specialist. Patricia helped develop and create many of the early resources and workshops designed by DataWORKS, and she is an expert in analysis of standards. Patricia plans to blog about curriculum and assessments for CCSS and NGSS, classroom strategies, and news and research from the world of education.
Do bulging backpacks mean learning? With his new book, The Homework Myth, expert Alfie Kohn says no. Here's why.
After spending most of the day in school, students are given additional assignments to be completed at home. This is a rather curious fact when you stop to think about it, but not as curious as the fact that few of us ever stop to think about it. It’s worth asking not only whether there are good reasons to support the nearly universal practice of assigning homework, but why it’s so often taken for granted—even by vast numbers of teachers and parents who are troubled by its impact on children.
The mystery deepens once you discover that widespread assumptions about the benefits of homework—higher achievement and the promotion of such virtues as self-discipline and responsibility—are not substantiated by the available evidence.
The Status Quo
Taking homework for granted would be understandable if most teachers decided from time to time that a certain lesson really needed to continue after school was over and, therefore, assigned students to read, write, figure out, or do something at home on those afternoons.
That scenario, however, bears no relation to what happens in most American schools. Rather, the point of departure seems to be, “We’ve decided ahead of time that children will have to do something every night (or several times a week). Later on, we’ll figure out what to make them do.” This commitment to the idea of homework in the abstract is accepted by the overwhelming majority of schools—public and private, elementary and secondary. And it really doesn’t make sense, in part because of what the research shows:
• There is no evidence to demonstrate that homework benefits students below high school age. Even if you regard standardized test results as a useful measure (which I don’t), more homework isn’t correlated with higher scores for children in elementary school. The only effect that does show up is less positive attitudes on the part of kids who get more assignments.
• In high school, some studies do find a relationship between homework and test scores, but it tends to be small. More important, there’s no reason to think that higher achievement is caused by the homework.
• No study has ever confirmed the widely accepted assumption that homework yields nonacademic benefits—self-discipline, independence, perseverance, or better time-management skills—for students of any age. The idea that homework builds character or improves study skills is basically a myth.
Overtime in First Grade
In short, there’s no reason to think that most students would be at a disadvantage if homework were reduced or even eliminated. Yet the most striking trend in the past two decades has been the tendency to pile more and more assignments on younger and younger children. (Remember, that’s the age at which the benefits are most questionable, if not absent!)
Even school districts that had an unofficial custom not so long ago of waiting until the third grade before giving homework have abandoned that restraint. A long-term national survey discovered that the proportion of six- to eight-year-old children who reported having homework on a given day had climbed from 34 percent in 1981 to 64 percent in 2002, and the weekly time they spent studying at home more than doubled.
In fact, homework is even “becoming a routine part of the kindergarten experience,” according to a 2004 report.
The Negative Effects
It’s hard to deny that an awful lot of homework is exceptionally trying for an awful lot of children. Some are better able than others to handle the pressure of keeping up with a continuous flow of work, getting it all done on time, and turning out products that will meet with approval. Likewise, some assignments are less unpleasant than others. But in general, as one parent put it, homework simultaneously “overwhelms struggling kids and removes joy for high achievers.” Even reading for pleasure loses its appeal when children are told how much, or for how long, they must do it.
Even as they accept homework as inevitable, parents consistently report that it intrudes on family life. Many mothers and fathers spend every evening serving as homework monitors, a position for which they never applied. One professor of education, Gary Natriello at Columbia University, believed in the value of homework until his “own children started bringing home assignments in elementary school.” Even “the routine tasks sometimes carry directions that are difficult for two parents with advanced graduate degrees to understand,” he discovered.
What’s bad for parents is generally worse for kids. “School for [my son] is work,” one mother writes, “and by the end of a seven-hour workday, he’s exhausted. But like a worker on a double shift, he has to keep going” once he gets home. Exhaustion is just part of the problem, though. The psychological costs can be substantial for a child who not only is confused by a worksheet on long vowels or subtraction but also finds it hard to accept the whole idea of sitting still after school to do more schoolwork.
Furthermore, every unpleasant adjective that could be attached to homework—time-consuming, disruptive, stressful, demoralizing—applies with greater force in the case of kids for whom academic learning doesn’t come easily. Curt Dudley-Marling, a former elementary school teacher who is now a professor at Boston College, interviewed some two dozen families that included at least one struggling learner. In describing his findings, he talked about how “the demands of homework disrupted...family relationships” and led to daily stress and conflict.
The “nearly intolerable burden” imposed by homework was partly a result of how defeated such children felt, he added—how they invested hours without much to show for it; how parents felt frustrated when they pushed the child but also when they didn’t push, when they helped with the homework but also when they refrained from helping. “You end up ruining the relationship that you have with your kid,” one father told him.
And don’t forget: The idea that it is all worth it because homework helps children learn better simply isn’t true. There’s little pro to weigh against the significant cons.
Play Time Matters
On top of causing stress, more homework means kids have less time for other activities. There’s less opportunity for the kind of learning that doesn’t involve traditional skills. There’s less chance to read for pleasure, make friends, play games, get some exercise, get some rest, or just be a child.
Decades ago, the American Educational Research Association released this statement: “Whenever homework crowds out social experience, outdoor recreation, and creative activities, and whenever it usurps time that should be devoted to sleep, it is not meeting the basic needs of children and adolescents.” It is the rare school that respects the value of those activities—to the point of making sure that its policies are informed by that respect. But some courageous teachers and innovative schools are taking up the challenge.
A New Approach
There is no traditional homework at the Bellwether School in Williston, Vermont, except when the children ask for it or “are so excited about a project that they continue to work on it at home,” says Marta Beede, the school’s top administrator. “We encourage children to read at home—books they have selected.” She and her colleagues figure that kids “work really hard when they’re at school. To then say that they’re going to have to work more when they get home doesn’t seem to honor how much energy they were expending during the day.”
Teachers ought to be able to exercise their judgment in determining how they want to deal with homework, taking account of the needs and preferences of the specific children in their classrooms, rather than having to conform to a fixed policy that has been imposed on them.
High school teacher Leslie Frothingham watched her own two children struggle with enormous quantities of homework in middle school. The value of it never seemed clear to her. “What other ‘job’ is there where you work all day, come home, have dinner, then work all night,” she asks, “unless you’re some type A attorney? It’s not a good way to live one’s life. You miss out on self-reflection, community.” Thus, when she became a teacher, she chose to have a no-homework policy.
And if her advanced chemistry students are thriving academically without homework, which they are, surely we can rethink our policies in the younger grades.
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