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Will homework help students

Why Homework Doesn’t Seem To Boost Learning–And How It Could

Some schools are eliminating homework, citing research showing it doesn’t do much to boost achievement. But maybe teachers just need to assign a different kind of homework.

In 2016, a second-grade teacher in Texas delighted her students—and at least some of their parents—by announcing she would no longer assign homework. “Research has been unable to prove that homework improves student performance,” she explained.

The following year, the superintendent of a Florida school district serving 42,000 students eliminated homework for all elementary students and replaced it with twenty minutes of nightly reading, saying she was basing her decision on “solid research about what works best in improving academic achievement in students.”

Many other elementary schools seem to have quietly adopted similar policies. Critics have objected that even if homework doesn’t increase grades or test scores, it has other benefits, like fostering good study habits and providing parents with a window into what kids are doing in school.

Those arguments have merit, but why doesn’t homework boost academic achievement? The research cited by educators just doesn’t seem to make sense. If a child wants to learn to play the violin, it’s obvious she needs to practice at home between lessons (at least, it’s obvious to an adult). And psychologists have identified a range of strategies that help students learn, many of which seem ideally suited for homework assignments.

For example, there’s something called “retrieval practice,” which means trying to recall information you’ve already learned. The optimal time to engage in retrieval practice is not immediately after you’ve acquired information but after you’ve forgotten it a bit—like, perhaps, after school. A homework assignment could require students to answer questions about what was covered in class that day without consulting their notes. Research has found that retrieval practice and similar learning strategies are far more powerful than simply rereading or reviewing material.

One possible explanation for the general lack of a boost from homework is that few teachers know about this research. And most have gotten little training in how and why to assign homework. These are things that schools of education and teacher-prep programs typically don’t teach. So it’s quite possible that much of the homework teachers assign just isn’t particularly effective for many students.

Even if teachers do manage to assign effective homework, it may not show up on the measures of achievement used by researchers—for example, standardized reading test scores. Those tests are designed to measure general reading comprehension skills, not to assess how much students have learned in specific classes. Good homework assignments might have helped a student learn a lot about, say, Ancient Egypt. But if the reading passages on a test cover topics like life in the Arctic or the habits of the dormouse, that student’s test score may well not reflect what she’s learned.

The research relied on by those who oppose homework has actually found it has a modest positive effect at the middle and high school levels—just not in elementary school. But for the most part, the studies haven’t looked at whether it matters what kind of homework is assigned or whether there are different effects for different demographic student groups. Focusing on those distinctions could be illuminating.

A study that looked specifically at math homework, for example, found it boosted achievement more in elementary school than in middle school—just the opposite of the findings on homework in general. And while one study found that parental help with homework generally doesn’t boost students’ achievement—and can even have a negative effect— another concluded that economically disadvantaged students whose parents help with homework improve their performance significantly.

That seems to run counter to another frequent objection to homework, which is that it privileges kids who are already advantaged. Well-educated parents are better able to provide help, the argument goes, and it’s easier for affluent parents to provide a quiet space for kids to work in—along with a computer and internet access. While those things may be true, not assigning homework—or assigning ineffective homework—can end up privileging advantaged students even more.

Students from less educated families are most in need of the boost that effective homework can provide, because they’re less likely to acquire academic knowledge and vocabulary at home. And homework can provide a way for lower-income parents—who often don’t have time to volunteer in class or participate in parents’ organizations—to forge connections to their children’s schools. Rather than giving up on homework because of social inequities, schools could help parents support homework in ways that don’t depend on their own knowledge—for example, by recruiting others to help, as some low-income demographic groups have been able to do. Schools could also provide quiet study areas at the end of the day, and teachers could assign homework that doesn’t rely on technology.

Another argument against homework is that it causes students to feel overburdened and stressed. While that may be true at schools serving affluent populations, students at low-performing ones often don’t get much homework at all—even in high school. One study found that lower-income ninth-graders “consistently described receiving minimal homework—perhaps one or two worksheets or textbook pages, the occasional project, and 30 minutes of reading per night.” And if they didn’t complete assignments, there were few consequences. I discovered this myself when trying to tutor students in writing at a high-poverty high school. After I expressed surprise that none of the kids I was working with had completed a brief writing assignment, a teacher told me, “Oh yeah—I should have told you. Our students don’t really do homework.”

If and when disadvantaged students get to college, their relative lack of study skills and good homework habits can present a serious handicap. After noticing that black and Hispanic students were failing her course in disproportionate numbers, a professor at the University of North Carolina decided to make some changes, including giving homework assignments that required students to quiz themselves without consulting their notes. Performance improved across the board, but especially for students of color and the disadvantaged. The gap between black and white students was cut in half, and the gaps between Hispanic and white students—along with that between first-generation college students and others—closed completely.

There’s no reason this kind of support should wait until students get to college. To be most effective—both in terms of instilling good study habits and building students’ knowledge—homework assignments that boost learning should start in elementary school.

Some argue that young children just need time to chill after a long day at school. But the “ten-minute rule”—recommended by homework researchers—would have first graders doing ten minutes of homework, second graders twenty minutes, and so on. That leaves plenty of time for chilling, and even brief assignments could have a significant impact if they were well-designed.

But a fundamental problem with homework at the elementary level has to do with the curriculum, which—partly because of standardized testing—has narrowed to reading and math. Social studies and science have been marginalized or eliminated, especially in schools where test scores are low. Students spend hours every week practicing supposed reading comprehension skills like “making inferences” or identifying “author’s purpose”—the kinds of skills that the tests try to measure—with little or no attention paid to content.

But as research has established, the most important component in reading comprehension is knowledge of the topic you’re reading about. Classroom time—or homework time—spent on illusory comprehension “skills” would be far better spent building knowledge of the very subjects schools have eliminated. Even if teachers try to take advantage of retrieval practice—say, by asking students to recall what they’ve learned that day about “making comparisons” or “sequence of events”—it won’t have much impact.

If we want to harness the potential power of homework—particularly for disadvantaged students—we’ll need to educate teachers about what kind of assignments actually work. But first, we’ll need to start teaching kids something substantive about the world, beginning as early as possible.

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.

Kids are onto something: Homework might actually be bad

Do kids actually need homework? Even with increasing amounts of data, it’s hard to know if homework is helping or hurting students.

By Stan Horaczek | Published Sep 23, 2021 8:00 AM

When you’re a kid, your stance on homework is generally pretty simple: It’s the worst. When it comes to educators, parents, and school administrators, however, the topic gets a lot more complicated.

Collective educational enthusiasm toward homework has ebbed and flowed throughout the 20th century in the US. School districts began abolishing homework in the ‘30s and ‘40s, only for it to come roaring back as the space race kicked off in the late ‘50s and drove a desire for sharper math and science skills. It fell out of fashion again during the Vietnam War era before it came back strong in the ‘80s.

As the country mostly transitions back to full-time, in-person schooling, the available research on homework and its efficacy is still messy at best.

How much homework are kids doing?

There’s a fundamental issue at the very start of this discussion: we’re not entirely sure how much homework kids are actually doing. A 2019 Pew survey found that teens were spending considerably more time doing schoolwork at home than they had in the past—an hour a day, on average, compared to 44 minutes a decade ago and just 30 in the mid-1990s.

But other data disagrees, instead suggesting that homework expansion primarily affects children in lower grades. But it’s worth noting that such arguments typically refer to data from more than a decade ago.

How much homework are kids supposed to be doing?

Many schools subscribe to a “rule of thumb” that suggests students should get 10 minutes of homework for each grade level. So, first graders should get just 10 minutes of work to do at home while high schoolers should be cracking the books for up to two hours each night.

This once served as the official guidance for educators from the National Education Association, as well as the National PTA. It also serves as the official homework policy for many school districts, even though the NEA’s outline of the policy now leads to an error page. The National PTA also now relies on a less-specific resolution on homework which encourages districts and educators to focus on “quality over quantity.”

The PTA’s resolution effectively sums up the current dominant perspective on homework. “The National PTA and its constituent associations advocate that teachers, schools, and districts follow evidence-based guidelines regarding the use of homework assignments and its impact on children’s lives and family interactions.”

Even with these well-known standards, a study from researchers at Brown University, Brandeis University, Rhode Island College, Dean College, the Children’s National Medical Center, and the New England Center for Pediatric Psychology, found that younger children were still getting more than the recommended amount of homework by two or three times. First and second graders were doing roughly 30 minutes of homework every night.

Does homework make kids smarter?

In the mid-2000s, a Duke researcher named Harris Cooper led up one of the most comprehensive looks at homework efficacy to-date. The research set out to explore the perceived correlation between homework and achievement. The results showed a general correlation between homework and achievement. Cooper reported, “No strong evidence was found for an association between the homework–achievement link and the outcome measure (grades as opposed to standardized tests) or the subject matter (reading as opposed to math).”

The paper does suggest that the correlation strengthens after 7th grade—but it’s likely not a causal relationship. In an interview with the NEA, Cooper explains, “It’s also worth noting that these correlations with older students are likely caused, not only by homework helping achievement but also by kids who have higher achievement levels doing more homework.”

A 2012 study looked at more than 18,000 10th-grade students and concluded that increasing homework loads could be the result of too much material with insufficient instructional time in the classroom. “The overflow typically results in more homework assignments,” the lead researcher said in a statement from the University. “However, students spending more time on something that is not easy to understand or needs to be explained by a teacher does not help these students learn and, in fact, may confuse them.”

Even in that case, however, the research provided somewhat conflicting results that are hard to reconcile. While the study found a positive association between time spent on homework and scores on standardized tests, students who did homework didn’t generally get better grades than kids who didn’t.

Can homework hurt kids?

It seems antithetical, but some research suggests that homework can actually hinder achievement and, in some cases, students’ overall health.

A 2013 study looked at a sample of 4,317 students from 10 high-performing high schools in upper middle class communities. The results showed that “students who did more hours of homework experienced greater behavioral engagement in school but also more academic stress, physical health problems, and lack of balance in their lives.” And that’s in affluent districts.

When you add economic inequity into the equation, homework’s prognosis looks even worse. Research suggests that increased homework can help widen the achievement gap between low-income and economically advantaged students; the latter group is more likely to have a safe and appropriate place to do schoolwork at night, as well as to have caregivers with the time and academic experience to encourage them to get it done.

That doesn’t mean financially privileged kids are guaranteed to benefit from hours of worksheets and essays. Literature supporting homework often suggests that it gives parents an opportunity to participate in the educational process as well as monitor a child’s progress and learning. Opponents, however, contest that parental involvement can actually hurt achievement. A 2014 research survey showed that help from parents who have forgotten the material (or who never really understood it) can actually harm a student’s ability to learn.

The digital homework divide

Access to reliable high-speed internet also presents an unfortunate opportunity for inequity when it comes to at-home learning. Even with COVID-era initiatives expanding programs to provide broadband to underserved areas, millions of households still lack access to fast, reliable internet.

As more homework assignments migrate to online environments instead of paper, those students without reliable home internet have to make other arrangements to complete their assignments in school or somewhere else outside the home.

How do we make homework work?

Some experts suggest decoupling homework from students’ overall grades. A 2009 paper suggests that, while homework can be an effective tool for monitoring progress, assigning a grade can actually undercut the main purpose of the work by encouraging students to focus on their scores instead of mastering the material. The study recommends nuanced feedback instead of numbered grades to keep the emphasis on learning—which has the added benefit of minimizing consequences for kids with tougher at-home circumstances.

Making homework more useful for kids may also come down to picking the right types of assignments. There’s a well-worn concept in psychology known as the spacing effect, which suggests it’s easier to learn material revisited several times in short bursts rather than during long study sessions. This supports the idea that shorter assignments can be more beneficial than heavy workloads.
Many homework opponents add that at-home assignments should appeal to a child’s innate curiosity. It’s easy to find anecdotal evidence from educators who have stopped assigning homework only to find that their students end up participating in more self-guided learning. As kids head back into physical school buildings, the homework debate will no doubt continue on. Hopefully, the research will go with it.

Is your head constantly spinning with outlandish, mind-burning questions? If you’ve ever wondered what the universe is made of, what would happen if you fell into a black hole, or even why not everyone can touch their toes, then you should be sure to listen and subscribe to Ask Us Anything, a brand new podcast from the editors of Popular Science. Ask Us Anything hits Apple, Anchor, Spotify, and everywhere else you listen to podcasts every Tuesday and Thursday. Each episode takes a deep dive into a single query we know you’ll want to stick around for.

Stan Horaczek is the senior gear editor at Popular Science. He oversees a team of gear-obsessed writers and editors dedicated to finding and featuring the newest, best, and most innovative gadgets on the market and beyond.