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.
At the start of the 2013-14 school year, the Fentress County School District in Tennessee announced that it would enforce a district-wide ban on graded homework assignments.
Administrators explained their decision by pointing to the large majority of students who lacked at-home resources to help them with their homework. Anywhere between 65%-75% of each school’s student body qualify for free or reduced lunch programs, so it was decided that students should not be singled out for failing to adequately complete take-home assignments.
“We don’t want kids to be unfairly penalized for their work because they don’t have the resources or support they need at home,” explained Randy Clark, Fentress County Schools’ Curriculum and Instruction Supervisor. “Our new motto for assignments is ‘review and preview.”
That means that homework in the district now constitutes an ungraded review or preview of current course work that’s the students’ responsibility to independently complete. Spelling words, vocabulary practice, and study guides for testing all fall under this purview.
The Great Homework Debate
Some educators aren’t fans of the new policy. Tammy Linder, a sixth grade teacher at Allardt Elementary School, is one of them.
“Students have not had that daily homework practice in any subject that keeps the concepts ‘alive’ and moving in their brains, so that means that much of the practice time and teaching time and testing time had to come during the class time each day,” Linder says.
Still, other districts across the country are taking second looks at the practice. The principal of Gaithersburg Elementary in Maryland decided to ask students to spend only 30 minutes in the evening reading. The decision was reached out of the realization that worksheets and other assignments had been assigned merely out of a sense of obligation to dole our homework to students.
Across the country, parents, teachers, and students are also voicing their opinions in the homework debate. On the issue of the actual educational value of homework, it may seem straightforward to many educators that reviewing lessons and practicing concepts after school would correlate to a greater retention of course material, but studies suggest that the link between assigned homework and academic achievement is drastically overinflated.
Researchers at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education found in a 2012 study that math and science homework didn’t correlate to better student grades, but it did lead to better performances on standardized tests. And when homework is assigned, the help provided by parents often mitigated any of the positive effects of the work. Critics of this type of parental involvement say it can be counterproductive because parents may assume too great a role and/or may not fully understand the lessons being taught.
In April, Denise Pope, a researcher at Stanford University, found that too much homework can negatively affect kids by increasing stress and sleep deprivation and generally leaving less time for family, friends, and activities. According to Pope, homework should not be simply assigned as a routine practice.
“Rather, any homework assigned should have a purpose and benefit, and it should be designed to cultivate learning and development.”
Video: Do Students Really Have Too Much Homework?
No Homework the New Norm?
“There are simply no compelling data to justify the practice of making kids work what amounts to a second shift when they get home from a full day of school,” says Alfie Kohn, an expert on child education, parenting, and human behavior, as well as the author of The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing.
Should schools then assign less homework or at least reevaluate what they assign? No, says Kohn, school shouldn’t assign any homework. Teachers who do assign it need to have a very compelling reason for extending a student’s school day.
“My general suggestion is to change the default: No homework should be the norm,” Kohn says, “Six hours of academics is enough—except on those occasions when teachers can show strong reason to infringe on family time and make these particular students do more of this particular schoolwork.”
Still, homework is so ingrained in the fabric of schooling that studies revealing its minimal positive benefits have been largely shrugged off or ignored altogether. For most educators, completely cutting homework out of schools isn’t a viable alternative – at least not yet. And many, if not most, teachers are unconvinced that gutting homework from their repertoire of learning tools is the best idea anyway.
Tammy Linder says that teachers haven’t had the amount of teaching time they usually need to enforce classroom lessons and concepts. With the heavy focus on standardized testing already in schools, losing precious out-of-school homework time drastically diminishes how long teachers can devote to thoroughly covering a given subject, as well as the depth and amount of topics they can cover in a school year.
“I have calculated that I have averaged only two to three ‘teaching’ days per week, depending upon re-teaching for those hard to conquer standards and testing,” Linder says. “My students have not covered as much material as students in the past have because of these factors. Nightly practice of any concept keeps the brain engaged in the topic and helps the student focus.”
Karen Spychala, a teacher in San Jose, believes homework has value, but is concerned about its potential to consume too much time outside the school day.
“Homework has its place: to practice skills and most importantly to involve families in their child’s learning” Spychala explains. “But too much homework that takes over everyone’s lives should never happen. There should be agreed upon standard homework times per grade level.”
Are there ways to deemphasize the overreliance on standard homework assignments and allow students to learn through other conducive means?
One option is changing the paradigm of assigned homework to infuse hands-on, student-led engagement with class lessons as a way of piquing student interest in the material. And instead of simply limiting homework to the teacher/student/parent sphere, allowing students the opportunity to show off exceptional homework to a larger audience can give them a further incentive to put in their best effort.
Angela Downing, an elementary school teacher in Newton, Massachusetts, has found great success in displaying excellent student homework on the walls inside and outside of her classroom. By doing so, homework becomes disassociated from the standard teacher-student relationship and gains a whole new level of importance that draws students into the assignment.
“This practice sends the message to students that their work and their learning are important and valued,” Downing says. “Students take special care to do their best work when they know that the final piece will be displayed in the hall or on the classroom bulletin board.”
But for Bonnie Stone, an elementary school teacher in Tulsa, too much homework is too much homework. She saw the impact on her own children and vowed to curtail what she assigned her students.
“As a result of their experience, I vowed never to assign more than 30 minutes of outside reading enrichment for my students,” Stone recalls. “They work hard in class all day. After that, they need to be kids and teens. And I’ve seen no change in the achievement level of my students since I stopped assigning homework.”