Few educational topics have generated as much school “parking lot debate” over the past century than the subject of homework. A brief history of the use and emphasis on homework as a learning strategy in the USA reveals that it has ebbed and flowed ever since the organization of systemized schooling. During a time when the majority of families lived and worked around an agricultural environment, homework was deemphasized. Then, during a time of urbanization and emphasizing college preparation for all students, homework levels increased. This was followed by a season of recognizing the value of individual learning styles and emphasizing what has been referred to as “soft skills” and again the employment of homework as a learning strategy waned. Now, over the recent decades as the USA is trailing behind other nations on educational performance ratings, the emphasis has returned.
There is a wide variance of opinions as to what degree student work assigned outside of the classroom actually supports learning. However, there has been a large amount of research conducted on the subject of homework to inform our opinions. What does the research say and what have we learned? Is there any significant correlation between the amount and type of homework with learning and achievement? Is the value of homework found in developing personal responsibility and self-discipline, even if there is minimal academic value? How much homework is appropriate? What kind of homework results in academic achievement?
What we have learned over the last century is that homework can be an effective learning tool. However, according to a meta-analysis of more than 180 studies on homework and its effects, we learn there is no correlation between the amount of homework and achievement in elementary school (except for reading) and only a moderate correlation in middle school. In high school, “too much homework diminishes its effectiveness or may even become counter-productive” (Cooper, 2006).
Many countries with the highest-scoring students on achievement tests, such as Finland, Japan, Denmark, and the Czech Republic, utilize instructional strategies that involve the assignment of little to no homework. Meanwhile, countries such as Greece, Thailand, and Iran, where student performance levels are at their worst, teachers assign large amounts of homework (Baker & LeTendre, 2005).
Less than 1% of teachers and school administrators have received any formal training on the use of homework as an instructional strategy (Bennett & Kalish, 2012).
The National Sleep Foundation states that students need an average of 9.25 hours of sleep. According to the foundation’s polling, 80% of teens do not receive the recommended amount of sleep, and at least 28% of students fall asleep in school and 22% fall asleep doing homework.
According to the World Health Organization, children should get at least one hour of moderate-to-vigorous exercise per day. A study published in Preventive Medicine reveals that the average teen today is as sedentary as a senior adult is. The 2017 study showed that among children between the ages 6-11, 25% of boys, and 50% of girls did not meet the W.H.O. physical activity recommendation. Teenagers showed even lower results with 50% of adolescent boys and 75% of girls reporting physical activity of less than an hour a day.
Where are students spending their time? The average 8 to 18-year-old in the USA is spending over 7 hours a day on screen time (Nielsen, 2018). The American Heart Association recommends parents limit that time to a maximum of two hours per day, and for children ages 2 to 5, the recommendation is less than one hour. In addition, a University of Phoenix College of Education commissioned survey revealed that teachers are typically assigning homework at the following levels: K through 5th grade – 3 hours per week; 6-8th grade – 3.2 hours per class per week; and from 9-12th grade – 3.5 hours per class per week. Thus, on average, high school students are being assigned 17.5 hours of homework per week.
Now, start doing some math for an average middle or high school student:
- 9 hours – Sleep Time
- 6 hours – School Time
- 7 hours – Screen Time
- 1 hour – Physical Activity
- 3.5 hours – Homework
- ? hours – Meals / Family Time
This already exceeds the number of hours available to students during a single day on planet Earth. Yet, many would also argue that other categories are important to supporting the physical, emotional, and spiritual health of our children (e.g. time for recreational reading, church, service groups, hobbies, athletics, and more).
A national Scholastic/Yankelovich study found that reading for pleasure declines sharply after age eight. What is the number one reason for the decline? Too much homework (Flood, 2015).
To wrap up the research, education expert, Alphie Kohn, provides the following synthesis:
“There is no evidence to demonstrate that homework benefits students below high school age… The only effect that does show up is less positive attitudes on the part of kids who get more assignments.
“In high school, some studies do find a relationship between homework and test scores, but it tends to be small. More important, there’s no reason to think that higher achievement is caused by the homework.
“No study has ever confirmed the widely accepted assumption that homework yields nonacademic benefits—self-discipline, independence, perseverance, or better time-management skills—for students of any age. The idea that homework builds character or improves study skills is basically a myth” (Kohn, 2007).
So has any major study shown that homework has a direct link and correlation to a significant increase in academic achievement? Yes – but you may be surprised as to what that “homework” looks like.
According to several studies involving tens of thousands of participants, family meals are the single strongest predictor of better achievement scores and fewer behavioral problems for students. The amount and use of homework were not identified as a predictor of achievement, but regular, consistent, and ample time set aside each day for a family to talk around a meal in their homes did (Waldfogel, 2012, Columbia University, 2012, University of Michigan, 2002).
The vast majority of us have grown up with the expectation that our students will have homework. Our expectation is based on our cultural experience, rather than on meeting the learning needs of our students. So, in light of our cultural expectations and the realities of the research findings, what are valid goals for homework?
First and foremost, homework can be very effective in developing and refining specific intellectual skills of our students.
Secondly, homework can be an effective tool for developing independent learners. The effectiveness, however, fully depends on the type of homework. The work must require the student to engage in higher-order thinking (e.g. analyzing, contrasting, and applying).
HOMEWORK LEARNING PRINCIPLES:
Here are five learning principles that should drive the use of homework as an instructional strategy:
- Genuine learning requires some independent, unguided learning opportunities.
- All learners learn differently and at different paces.
- The more we practice something the better we are likely to understand it or do it.
- Feedback on the homework is an essential ingredient for learning. (Note: assigning a grade does not constitute “feedback.”)
- Students must be provided an opportunity to incorporate the feedback for learning to occur.
Feedback for learning requires teachers to provide timely, individualized, and specific feedback on the student’s work. Without that type of feedback, then there is little to no value in assigning the homework (Bartlett, 2011).
Homework is best defined as those assignments that seek the above goals and principles and support the following instructional purposes:
- Practicing and reinforcing what is presented in the classroom.
- Checking for understanding.
- Providing formative information to guide further instruction.
- Processing new knowledge and pre-learning.
In light of the above foundational goals, principles, and purposes, the following practices have proven to be effective in the support of authentic student learning and have been adopted by those schools producing some of the highest achievement ratings:
- Homework should not require a parent or adult assistance; but rather be work the student can confidently complete on his or her own. (Parents are encouraged to help facilitate the student completing the work without doing the work for their student.)
- Homework may never be issued as a punishment.
- Homework should be focused on supporting learning, rather than earning a grade. Thus, homework should only receive a completion “grade.”
- Differentiation of homework must be provided to the greatest extent possible to address individualized student’s learning needs.
- Homework must receive feedback from the teacher in a timely, individualized, and specific manner.
- Students should be assigned no more than ten minutes of homework per grade level four nights per week in the Elementary School, in addition to assigned reading time. Daily homework from all classes in the Secondary School should on average be able to be completed within the following guidelines:
- Grades 7-8: 0-75 minutes
- Grades 9-12: 0-120 minutes
The average Secondary student is enrolled in seven courses, thus a maximum of 10-15 minutes of work for each class should be assigned per day – four days per week.
These estimated times are approximate based upon completion time by the average student. Teachers are encouraged to complete the assignments themselves prior to giving the assignment; time themselves; and then double the time for students to be able to complete the assignment.
There is much more to be considered regarding the value, significance, and effectiveness of homework as an instructional strategy to support student learning. In fact, it is highly recommended that schools establish a Philosophy of Assessment (including homework) so that there is clarity, consistency, and a unified approach throughout every classroom of the school to support student success.
© Toby A. Travis, Ed.D.
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