If you’re confused about homework, you’re forgiven. In a single day, you might hear a story about how U.S. education lacks rigor and another about how students are overburdened and stressed. Some children are taking admittance tests for preschools, and others are being “unschooled” by their parents. Clearly, the importance of homework is an ongoing debate.
Rather than following the latest fad, we’re going to look at the data. We’ll consider whether you should give homework, when you should give it, and how to make homework assignments meaningful. Then, if you do give homework, you will know that you are making the best use of your students’ time — and your own.
Researchers are divided on the benefits of homework, but most agree that homework is least effective for elementary students. Harris Cooper, a Duke University researcher, found that homework did not correlate to achievement for elementary students, though it did for older students. There are multiple explanations for this. Younger students are more easily distracted, and they are also more reliant on parents to assist them with homework.
Both the National Education Association and the National PTA recommend that students receive about ten minutes of additional homework per night with each grade level, so ten minutes for a first grader, and up to 120 minutes for a high school senior. In recent years, homework has increased mainly for young students, according to an NEA article. Those are the students least likely to benefit from homework.
Another concern about homework is that it perpetuates inequality. Data from the Program for International Student Assessment have shown that high school students from high-income families tend to spend two or three hours more on homework each week than students from low-income families. Students from high-income families are more likely to have a quiet place to study and to have parents who are highly involved in their education. Teachers with students whose families are from higher socioeconomic statuses might also assign more homework because they expect that their students can and will complete it.
You might think that students would never choose to have homework, but Alfie Kohn, author of “The Homework Myth,” argues that isn’t the case. Students dislike homework because they see it as tedious busy work, but most will enjoy the challenge of a meaningful assignment that they helped select, he says. Start a discussion with your students about homework. Find out how long they are spending on homework and which assignments they have found most useful. Offer options for homework assignments and take a class vote, or let students choose for themselves.
Sometimes parents dislike homework more than students. Some argue that it interferes with family time and prevents children from playing and sleeping as much as they should. Others worry that a lack of homework indicates their children aren’t being challenged. Be clear with parents, particularly those of elementary students, about how much time homework should take. Also, let them know how much parental involvement you expect. Are children on their own when writing that essay? Or should parents help with grammar?
Homework assignments that merely repeat classwork set up students for disappointment. Students who understood the lesson will breeze through the assignment. Students who didn’t understand will become more frustrated when left to tackle the lesson on their own. The best homework assignments should be an extension of classroom learning, whether that is researching a topic to share with the class or talking to parents about how they create a family budget.
If your students struggle to complete homework, look for a better method. If students don’t have a good place to do homework, is there an after-school program or someplace quiet at your school where they can work? One Michigan high school began using a flipped classroom because its low-income students weren’t completing their homework. Students now watch short videos or read at home and do the meaty work, such as writing essays and completing math sets, at school. The school’s failure rate has decreased significantly. Other schools have eliminated grades for homework so that students with a troubled home life aren’t penalized.
More schools are trying homework bans. The Chicago Public Schools dropped the requirement that students have homework a few years ago, and one elementary school enacted a ban. Parents were still asked to read at home with their children, but they said this was easy compared to the homework struggle. While researchers disagree about the effectiveness of homework, nearly everyone agrees that good classroom instruction is the key to education. If your students are learning what they should in the classroom, don’t feel that you have to assign homework. Make homework the exception rather than the rule.
Researchers aren’t likely to reach a consensus on homework anytime soon. On the PISA tests, students who did more homework scored significantly higher on the mathematics test, but homework did not affect scores in English, science, and history. Given that the students who do the most homework also tend to have a lot of economic and social advantages, it’s hard to determine how much of their success is derived from homework. You are in the best position to say whether homework is needed for your students. Get feedback from students, and use assessments to determine whether homework is aiding learning. The progress that your students make, not the time they spend on homework, is the true measure of success.
Editor’s note: This piece was originally written by Katie Lepi and ran on June 12, 2014. A lot has changed since then, so we’ve had author Sarah Muthler update this piece with the latest techniques and innovations.