After decades of debate, researchers are still sorting out the truth about homework’s pros and cons. One point they can agree on: Quality assignments matter.
Homework battles have raged for decades. For as long as kids have been whining about doing their homework, parents and education reformers have complained that homework’s benefits are dubious. Meanwhile many teachers argue that take-home lessons are key to helping students learn. Now, as schools are shifting to the new (and hotly debated) Common Core curriculum standards, educators, administrators and researchers are turning a fresh eye toward the question of homework’s value.
But when it comes to deciphering the research literature on the subject, homework is anything but an open book.
In many ways, homework seems like common sense. Spend more time practicing multiplication or studying Spanish vocabulary and you should get better at math or Spanish. But it may not be that simple.
Homework can indeed produce academic benefits, such as increased understanding and retention of the material, says Duke University social psychologist Harris Cooper, PhD, one of the nation’s leading homework researchers. But not all students benefit. In a review of studies published from 1987 to 2003, Cooper and his colleagues found that homework was linked to better test scores in high school and, to a lesser degree, in middle school. Yet they found only faint evidence that homework provided academic benefit in elementary school (Review of Educational Research, 2006).
Then again, test scores aren’t everything. Homework proponents also cite the nonacademic advantages it might confer, such as the development of personal responsibility, good study habits and time-management skills. But as to hard evidence of those benefits, “the jury is still out,” says Mollie Galloway, PhD, associate professor of educational leadership at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon. “I think there’s a focus on assigning homework because [teachers] think it has these positive outcomes for study skills and habits. But we don’t know for sure that’s the case.”
Even when homework is helpful, there can be too much of a good thing. “There is a limit to how much kids can benefit from home study,” Cooper says. He agrees with an oft-cited rule of thumb that students should do no more than 10 minutes a night per grade level — from about 10 minutes in first grade up to a maximum of about two hours in high school. Both the National Education Association and National Parent Teacher Association support that limit.
Beyond that point, kids don’t absorb much useful information, Cooper says. In fact, too much homework can do more harm than good. Researchers have cited drawbacks, including boredom and burnout toward academic material, less time for family and extracurricular activities, lack of sleep and increased stress.
In a recent study of Spanish students, Rubén Fernández-Alonso, PhD, and colleagues found that students who were regularly assigned math and science homework scored higher on standardized tests. But when kids reported having more than 90 to 100 minutes of homework per day, scores declined (Journal of Educational Psychology, 2015).
“At all grade levels, doing other things after school can have positive effects,” Cooper says. “To the extent that homework denies access to other leisure and community activities, it’s not serving the child’s best interest.”
Children of all ages need down time in order to thrive, says Denise Pope, PhD, a professor of education at Stanford University and a co-founder of Challenge Success, a program that partners with secondary schools to implement policies that improve students’ academic engagement and well-being.
“Little kids and big kids need unstructured time for play each day,” she says. Certainly, time for physical activity is important for kids’ health and well-being. But even time spent on social media can help give busy kids’ brains a break, she says.
But are teachers sticking to the 10-minute rule? Studies attempting to quantify time spent on homework are all over the map, in part because of wide variations in methodology, Pope says.
A 2014 report by the Brookings Institution examined the question of homework, comparing data from a variety of sources. That report cited findings from a 2012 survey of first-year college students in which 38.4 percent reported spending six hours or more per week on homework during their last year of high school. That was down from 49.5 percent in 1986 (The Brown Center Report on American Education, 2014).
The Brookings report also explored survey data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which asked 9-, 13- and 17-year-old students how much homework they’d done the previous night. They found that between 1984 and 2012, there was a slight increase in homework for 9-year-olds, but homework amounts for 13- and 17-year-olds stayed roughly the same, or even decreased slightly.
Yet other evidence suggests that some kids might be taking home much more work than they can handle. Robert Pressman, PhD, and colleagues recently investigated the 10-minute rule among more than 1,100 students, and found that elementary-school kids were receiving up to three times as much homework as recommended. As homework load increased, so did family stress, the researchers found (American Journal of Family Therapy, 2015).
Many high school students also seem to be exceeding the recommended amounts of homework. Pope and Galloway recently surveyed more than 4,300 students from 10 high-achieving high schools. Students reported bringing home an average of just over three hours of homework nightly (Journal of Experiential Education, 2013).
On the positive side, students who spent more time on homework in that study did report being more behaviorally engaged in school — for instance, giving more effort and paying more attention in class, Galloway says. But they were not more invested in the homework itself. They also reported greater academic stress and less time to balance family, friends and extracurricular activities. They experienced more physical health problems as well, such as headaches, stomach troubles and sleep deprivation. “Three hours per night is too much,” Galloway says.
In the high-achieving schools Pope and Galloway studied, more than 90 percent of the students go on to college. There’s often intense pressure to succeed academically, from both parents and peers. On top of that, kids in these communities are often overloaded with extracurricular activities, including sports and clubs. “They’re very busy,” Pope says. “Some kids have up to 40 hours a week — a full-time job’s worth — of extracurricular activities.” And homework is yet one more commitment on top of all the others.
“Homework has perennially acted as a source of stress for students, so that piece of it is not new,” Galloway says. “But especially in upper-middle-class communities, where the focus is on getting ahead, I think the pressure on students has been ratcheted up.”
Yet homework can be a problem at the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum as well. Kids from wealthier homes are more likely to have resources such as computers, Internet connections, dedicated areas to do schoolwork and parents who tend to be more educated and more available to help them with tricky assignments. Kids from disadvantaged homes are more likely to work at afterschool jobs, or to be home without supervision in the evenings while their parents work multiple jobs, says Lea Theodore, PhD, a professor of school psychology at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. They are less likely to have computers or a quiet place to do homework in peace.
“Homework can highlight those inequities,” she says.
One point researchers agree on is that for all students, homework quality matters. But too many kids are feeling a lack of engagement with their take-home assignments, many experts say. In Pope and Galloway’s research, only 20 percent to 30 percent of students said they felt their homework was useful or meaningful.
“Students are assigned a lot of busywork. They’re naming it as a primary stressor, but they don’t feel it’s supporting their learning,” Galloway says.
“Homework that’s busywork is not good for anyone,” Cooper agrees. Still, he says, different subjects call for different kinds of assignments. “Things like vocabulary and spelling are learned through practice. Other kinds of courses require more integration of material and drawing on different skills.”
But critics say those skills can be developed with many fewer hours of homework each week. Why assign 50 math problems, Pope asks, when 10 would be just as constructive? One Advanced Placement biology teacher she worked with through Challenge Success experimented with cutting his homework assignments by a third, and then by half. “Test scores didn’t go down,” she says. “You can have a rigorous course and not have a crazy homework load.”
Still, changing the culture of homework won’t be easy. Teachers-to-be get little instruction in homework during their training, Pope says. And despite some vocal parents arguing that kids bring home too much homework, many others get nervous if they think their child doesn’t have enough. “Teachers feel pressured to give homework because parents expect it to come home,” says Galloway. “When it doesn’t, there’s this idea that the school might not be doing its job.”
Galloway argues teachers and school administrators need to set clear goals when it comes to homework — and parents and students should be in on the discussion, too. “It should be a broader conversation within the community, asking what’s the purpose of homework? Why are we giving it? Who is it serving? Who is it not serving?”
Until schools and communities agree to take a hard look at those questions, those backpacks full of take-home assignments will probably keep stirring up more feelings than facts.
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