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Does homework help student learning

Homework: No Proven Benefits

It may surprise you, as it did me, to learn that no study has ever demonstrated any academic benefit to assigning homework before children are in high school. In fact, even in high school, the association between homework and achievement is weak — and the data don’t show that homework is responsible for higher achievement. (Correlation doesn’t imply causation.)

Finally, there isn’t a shred of evidence to support the folk wisdom that homework provides nonacademic benefits at any age — for example, that it builds character, promotes self-discipline, or teaches good work habits. We’re all familiar with the downside of homework: the frustration and exhaustion, the family conflict, time lost for other activities, and possible diminution of children’s interest in learning. But the stubborn belief that all of this must be worth it, that the gain must outweigh the pain, relies on faith rather than evidence.

So why does homework continue to be assigned and accepted? Possible reasons include a lack of respect for research, a lack of respect for children (implicit in a determination to keep them busy after school), a lack of understanding about the nature of learning (implicit in the emphasis on practicing skills and the assertion that homework “reinforces” school lessons), or the top-down pressures to teach more stuff faster in order to pump up test scores so we can chant “We’re number one!”

All of these explanations are plausible, but I think there’s also something else responsible for our continuing to feed children this latter-day cod-liver oil. We don’t ask challenging questions about homework because we don’t ask challenging questions about most things. Too many of us sound like Robert Frost’s neighbor, the man who “will not go behind his father’s saying.” Too many of us, when pressed about some habit or belief we’ve adopted, are apt to reply, “Well, that’s just the way I was raised” — as if it were impossible to critically examine the values one was taught. Too many of us, including some who work in the field of education, seem to have lost our capacity to be outraged by the outrageous; when handed foolish and destructive mandates, we respond by asking for guidance on how best to carry them out.

Passivity is a habit acquired early. From our first days in school we are carefully instructed in what has been called the “hidden curriculum”: how to do what one is told and stay out of trouble. There are rewards, both tangible and symbolic, for those who behave properly and penalties for those who don’t. As students, we’re trained to sit still, listen to what the teacher says, run our highlighters across whatever words in the book we’ll be required to commit to memory. Pretty soon, we become less likely to ask (or even wonder) whether what we’re being taught really makes sense. We just want to know whether it’s going to be on the test.

When we find ourselves unhappy with some practice or policy, we’re encouraged to focus on incidental aspects of what’s going on, to ask questions about the details of implementation — how something will get done, or by whom, or on what schedule — but not whether it should be done at all. The more that we attend to secondary concerns, the more the primary issues — the overarching structures and underlying premises — are strengthened. We’re led to avoid the radical questions — and I use that adjective in its original sense: Radical comes from the Latin word for “root.” It’s partly because we spend our time worrying about the tendrils that the weed continues to grow. Noam Chomsky put it this way: “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum — even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.”

Parents have already been conditioned to accept most of what is done to their children at school, for example, and so their critical energies are confined to the periphery. Sometimes I entertain myself by speculating about how ingrained this pattern really is. If a school administrator were to announce that, starting next week, students will be made to stand outside in the rain and memorize the phone book, I suspect we parents would promptly speak up . . . to ask whether the Yellow Pages will be included. Or perhaps we’d want to know how much of their grade this activity will count for. One of the more outspoken moms might even demand to know whether her child will be permitted to wear a raincoat.

Our education system, meanwhile, is busily avoiding important topics in its own right. For every question that’s asked in this field, there are other, more vital questions that are never raised. Educators weigh different techniques of “behavior management” but rarely examine the imperative to focus on behavior — that is, observable actions — rather than on reasons and needs and the children who have them. Teachers think about what classroom rules they ought to introduce but are unlikely to ask why they’re doing so unilaterally, why students aren’t participating in such decisions. It’s probably not a coincidence that most schools of education require prospective teachers to take a course called Methods, but there is no course called Goals.

And so we return to the question of homework. Parents anxiously grill teachers about their policies on this topic, but they mostly ask about the details of the assignments their children will be made to do. If homework is a given, it’s certainly understandable that one would want to make sure it’s being done “correctly.” But this begs the question of whether, and why, it should be a given. The willingness not to ask provides another explanation for how a practice can persist even if it hurts more than helps.

For their part, teachers regularly witness how many children are made miserable by homework and how many resist doing it. Some respond with sympathy and respect. Others reach for bribes and threats to compel students to turn in the assignments; indeed, they may insist these inducements are necessary: “If the kids weren’t being graded, they’d never do it!” Even if true, this is less an argument for grades and other coercive tactics than an invitation to reconsider the value of those assignments. Or so one might think. However, teachers had to do homework when they were students, and they’ve likely been expected to give it at every school where they’ve worked. The idea that homework must be assigned is the premise, not the conclusion — and it’s a premise that’s rarely examined by educators.

Unlike parents and teachers, scholars are a step removed from the classroom and therefore have the luxury of pursuing potentially uncomfortable areas of investigation. But few do. Instead, they are more likely to ask, “How much time should students spend on homework?” or “Which strategies will succeed in improving homework completion rates?,” which is simply assumed to be desirable.

Policy groups, too, are more likely to act as cheerleaders than as thoughtful critics. The major document on the subject issued jointly by the National PTA and the National Education Association, for example, concedes that children often complain about homework, but never considers the possibility that their complaints may be justified. Parents are exhorted to “show your children that you think homework is important” — regardless of whether it is, or even whether one really believes this is true — and to praise them for compliance.

Health professionals, meanwhile, have begun raising concerns about the weight of children’s backpacks and then recommending . . . exercises to strengthen their backs! This was also the tack taken by People magazine: An article about families struggling to cope with excessive homework was accompanied by a sidebar that offered some “ways to minimize the strain on young backs” — for example, “pick a [back]pack with padded shoulder straps.”

The People article reminds us that the popular press does occasionally — cyclically — take note of how much homework children have to do, and how varied and virulent are its effects. But such inquiries are rarely penetrating and their conclusions almost never rock the boat. Time magazine published a cover essay in 2003 entitled “The Homework Ate My Family.” It opened with affecting and even alarming stories of homework’s harms. Several pages later, however, it closed with a finger-wagging declaration that “both parents and students must be willing to embrace the ‘work’ component of homework — to recognize the quiet satisfaction that comes from practice and drill.” Likewise, an essay on the Family Education Network’s Web site: “Yes, homework is sometimes dull, or too easy, or too difficult. That doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be taken seriously.” (One wonders what would have to be true before we’d be justified in not taking something seriously.)

Nor, apparently, are these questions seen as appropriate by most medical and mental health professionals. When a child resists doing homework — or complying with other demands — their job is to get the child back on track. Very rarely is there any inquiry into the value of the homework or the reasonableness of the demands.

Sometimes parents are invited to talk to teachers about homework — providing that their concerns are “appropriate.” The same is true of formal opportunities for offering feedback. A list of sample survey questions offered to principals by the central office in one Colorado school district is typical. Parents were asked to indicate whether they agree or disagree with the following statements: “My child understands how to do his/her homework”; “Teachers at this school give me useful suggestions about how to help my child with schoolwork”; “Homework assignments allow me to see what my student is being taught and how he/she is learning”; and “The amount of homework my child receives is (choose one): too much/just right/too little.”

The most striking feature of such a list is what isn’t on it. Such a questionnaire seems to have been designed to illustrate Chomsky’s point about encouraging lively discussion within a narrow spectrum of acceptable opinion, the better to reinforce the key presuppositions of the system. Parents’ feedback is earnestly sought — on these questions only. So, too, for the popular articles that criticize homework, or the parents who speak out: The focus is generally limited to how much is being assigned. I’m sympathetic to this concern, but I’m more struck by how it misses much of what matters. We sometimes forget that not everything that’s destructive when done to excess is innocuous when done in moderation. Sometimes the problem is with what’s being done, or at least the way it’s being done, rather than just with how much of it is being done.

The more we are invited to think in Goldilocks terms (too much, too little, or just right?), the less likely we become to step back and ask the questions that count: What reason is there to think that any quantity of the kind of homework our kids are getting is really worth doing? What evidence exists to show that daily homework, regardless of its nature, is necessary for children to become better thinkers? Why did the students have no chance to participate in deciding which of their assignments ought to be taken home?

Should Students Have Homework?

Look before you leap at giving to much or to little homework.

It used to be that students were the only ones complaining about the practice of assigning homework. For years, teachers and parents thought that homework was a necessary tool when educating children. But studies about the effectiveness of homework have been conflicting and inconclusive, leading some adults to argue that homework should become a thing of the past.

What Research Says about Homework

According to Duke professor Harris Cooper, it’s important that students have homework. His meta-analysis of homework studies showed a correlation between completing homework and academic success, at least in older grades. He recommends following a “10 minute rule”: students should receive 10 minutes of homework per day in first grade, and 10 additional minutes each subsequent year, so that by twelfth grade they are completing 120 minutes of homework daily.

But his analysis didn’t prove that students did better because they did homework; it simply showed a correlation. This could simply mean that kids who do homework are more committed to doing well in school. Cooper also found that some research showed that homework caused physical and emotional stress, and created negative attitudes about learning. He suggested that more research needed to be done on homework’s effect on kids.

Some researchers say that the question isn’t whether kids should have homework. It’s more about what kind of homework students have and how much. To be effective, homework has to meet students’ needs. For example, some middle school teachers have found success with online math homework that’s adapted to each student’s level of understanding. But when middle school students were assigned more than an hour and a half of homework, their math and science test scores went down.

Researchers at Indiana University discovered that math and science homework may improve standardized test grades, but they found no difference in course grades between students who did homework and those who didn’t. These researchers theorize that homework doesn’t result in more content mastery, but in greater familiarity with the kinds of questions that appear on standardized tests. According to Professor Adam Maltese, one of the study’s authors, “Our results hint that maybe homework is not being used as well as it could be.”

So while many teachers and parents support daily homework, it’s hard to find strong evidence that the long-held practice produces positive results.

Problems with Homework

In an article in Education Week Teacher, teacher Samantha Hulsman said she’s frequently heard parents complain that a 30-minute homework assignment turns into a three-hour battle with their kids. Now, she’s facing the same problem with her own kids, which has her rethinking her former beliefs about homework. “I think parents expect their children to have homework nightly, and teachers assign daily homework because it’s what we’ve always done,” she explained. Today, Hulsman said, it’s more important to know how to collaborate and solve problems than it is to know specific facts.

Child psychologist Kenneth Barish wrote in Psychology Today that battles over homework rarely result in a child’s improvement in school. Children who don’t do their homework are not lazy, he said, but they may be frustrated, discouraged, or anxious. And for kids with learning disabilities, homework is like “running with a sprained ankle. It’s doable, but painful.”

Barish suggests that parents and kids have a “homework plan” that limits the time spent on homework. The plan should include turning off all devices—not just the student’s, but those belonging to all family members.

One of the best-known critics of homework, Alfie Kohn, says that some people wrongly believe “kids are like vending machines—put in an assignment, get out learning.” Kohn points to the lack of evidence that homework is an effective learning tool; in fact, he calls it “the greatest single extinguisher of children’s curiosity that we have yet invented.”

Homework Bans

Last year, the public schools in Marion County, Florida, decided on a no-homework policy for all of their elementary students. Instead, kids read nightly for 20 minutes. Superintendent Heidi Maier said the decision was based on Cooper’s research showing that elementary students gain little from homework, but a lot from reading.

Orchard Elementary School in South Burlington, Vermont, followed the same path, substituting reading for homework. The homework policy has four parts: read nightly, go outside and play, have dinner with your family, and get a good night’s sleep. Principal Mark Trifilio says that his staff and parents support the idea.

But while many elementary schools are considering no-homework policies, middle schools and high schools have been reluctant to abandon homework. Schools say parents support homework and teachers know it can be helpful when it is specific and follows certain guidelines. For example, practicing solving word problems can be helpful, but there’s no reason to assign 50 problems when 10 will do. Recognizing that not all kids have the time, space, and home support to do homework is important, so it shouldn’t be counted as part of a student’s grade.

So Should Students Have Homework?

Should you ban homework in your classroom? If you teach lower grades, it’s possible. If you teach middle or high school, probably not. But all teachers should think carefully about their homework policies. By limiting the amount of homework and improving the quality of assignments, you can improve learning outcomes for your students.

Does homework really work?

After decades spent trying to assess the value of homework, researchers still argue over the simplest findings.

You know the drill. It’s 10:15 p.m., and the cardboard-and-toothpick Golden Gate Bridge is collapsing. The pages of polynomials have been abandoned. The paper on the Battle of Waterloo seems to have frozen in time with Napoleon lingering eternally over his breakfast at Le Caillou. Then come the tears and tantrums — while we parents wonder, Does the gain merit all this pain?

However the drama unfolds night after night, year after year, most parents hold on to the hope that homework (after soccer games, dinner, flute practice, and, oh yes, that childhood pastime of yore known as playing) advances their children academically.

But what does homework really do for kids? Is the forest’s worth of book reports and math and spelling sheets the average American student completes in her 12 years of primary schooling making a difference? Or is it just busywork?

Homework haterz

Whether or not homework helps, or even hurts, depends on who you ask. If you ask my 12-year-old son, Sam, he’ll say, “Homework doesn’t help anything. It makes kids stressed-out and tired and makes them hate school more.”

Nothing more than common kid bellyaching?

Maybe, but in the fractious field of homework studies, it’s worth noting that Sam’s sentiments nicely synopsize one side of the ivory tower debate. Books like The End of Homework, The Homework Myth, and The Case Against Homework and the film Race to Nowhere make the case that homework, by taking away precious family time and putting kids under unneeded pressure, is an ineffective way to help children become better learners and thinkers.

One Canadian couple recently took their homework apostasy all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. After arguing that there was no evidence that it improved academic performance, they won a ruling that exempted their two children from all homework.

So what’s the real relationship between homework and academic achievement?

From the homework laboratories

The good news: In an effort to answer this question, researchers have been doing their homework on homework, conducting hundreds of studies over the past several decades. The bad news? Despite scores of studies, definitive conclusions remain a matter of some debate.

“A few studies can always be found to buttress whatever position is desired, while the counter-evidence is ignored,” writes the nation’s top homework scholar, Harris Cooper, in his 2006 homework meta-study at Duke University’s Department of Psychology and Neuroscience.

How much is too much?

If you’re not ready to make a national case out of your child’s nightly worksheets, it’s worth knowing that she may be complaining for good reason. For better or worse, homework is on the rise in the United States. A survey done through the University of Michigan found that by the 2002-’03 school year, students ages 6 to 17 were doing twice as much homework as in 1981-’82. The homework ante has been upped as school administrators respond to increasing pressure for their students to perform better on state-mandated tests.

So how can you know if your child is doing the right amount? Who came up with that 10-minutes-per-grade rule that’s become the accepted norm? (And if that is the magic number, why is my neighbor’s 8-year-old daughter doing two-plus hours a night?)

The oft-bandied rule on homework quantity — 10 minutes a night per grade (starting from between 10 to 20 minutes in first grade) — is ubiquitous. Indeed, go to the National Education Association’s website or the national Parent Teacher Association’s website, and 10 minutes per grade is the recommended amount for first through 12th grade.

But where did it come from? “The source [of that figure] was a teacher who walked up to me after a workshop I did about 25 years ago,” says Cooper. “I’d put up a chart showing middle school kids who reported doing an hour to an hour and a half were doing just as well as high schoolers doing two hours a night. The teacher said, ‘That sounds like the 10-minute rule.’” He adds with a laugh, “I stole the idea.”

If you think your child is doing too much homework, Cooper recommends talking with her teacher. “Often there is a miscommunication about the goals of homework assignments,” he says. “What appears to be problematic for kids, why they are doing an assignment, can be cleared up with a conversation.” Also, Cooper suggests taking a careful look at how your child is doing her assignments. It may seem like they’re taking two hours, but maybe she’s wandering off frequently to get a snack or listening to her iPod.

Less is often more

If your child is dutifully doing her work but still burning the midnight oil, it’s worth intervening to make sure she gets enough sleep. Recent studies suggest that proper sleep may be far more essential to brain and body development.

In fact, for elementary school-age children, there is no measureable academic advantage to homework. For middle-schoolers, there is a direct correlation between homework and achievement if assignments last between one to two hours per night. After two hours, however, achievement doesn’t improve. For high schoolers, two hours appears optimal. As with middle-schoolers, give teens more than two hours a night, and academic success flatlines.

Not all homework is created equal

Just as revealing, it appears that grade level has a direct impact on homework’s effectiveness.

In a previous meta-study conducted in 1989, Cooper’s team at Duke University found that grade level heavily influences how much homework helps with academic advancement (as measured by standardized and class test scores.) It appears middle- and high schoolers have much to gain academically by doing their homework. The average high school student doing homework outperformed 69% of the students in a class with no homework. Homework in middle school was half as effective. In elementary school, there is no measurable correlation between homework and achievement.

Despite all the research, homework remains something of a mystery. Until Cooper and other researchers discover the best homework practices at every stage of a student’s development, parents will need to use their own best judgment.