I Assign my Students Homework Despite Scant Research It Does Any Good

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In academic circles the debate over homework rages on.

Does it actually help students learn or does it just cause undue stress and frustration for children and parents?

As a teacher and a parent, I see both sides of the issue.

In class, I assign my students homework every week – Monday through Thursday. Never on the weekends.

My daughter’s teacher does the same. So at home, I’m on the receiving end, spending hours with my little munchkin helping her get through mountains of assignments for her classes the next day.

Perhaps this is what they mean by the proverb – you reap what you sow. Except my daughter isn’t doing the homework I assigned. She isn’t in my class and we don’t even live in the district where I teach.

But it sometimes does feel like payback plodding through seemingly endless elementary worksheets, spelling words and vocabulary.

After a while, even I begin to question whether any of this junk does any good.

As a teacher, I know the research on the subject provides slim support at best.

In fact, the closest we have ever come to an answer is a reformulation of the question.

It really comes down to a matter of causality – a chicken and the egg conundrum with a side of sharpened pencil and crumpled paper.

If we look really hard, we can find a correlation between students who do their homework and those who get good grades.

The problem is we can’t PROVE it’s the homework that’s causing the grades.

It could just be that kids who excel academically also happen to do their homework. If we removed the homework, these kids might still get good grades.

So which comes first – the homework or the grades?

There has been surprisingly little research that goes this deep. And almost all of it is anecdotal.

Even the investigations that found a correlation did so in tight parameters – only in secondary grades and usually just for math.

Some wealthy districts have even reduced the amount of homework without seeing a subsequent drop in learning.

But nothing has been tested across socioeconomic divides or with any consistency and very little has been proven definitively.

This doesn’t mean that there’s no consensus on the matter.

Both the National Education Association (NEA) and the National Parent Teacher Association (NPTA) suggest educators assign no more than a standard of “10 minutes of homework per grade level” per night.

In other words, a first grader should have no more than 10 minutes of homework on a given evening, a second grader no more than 20 minutes, etc.

However, it appears that students – especially in the primary grades – are getting more work than these recommended maximums.

A 2015 study published in The American Journal of Family Therapy surveyed more than 1,100 Rhode Island parents with school age children.

Researchers found that first and second graders received 28 and 29 minutes of homework per night – almost double the recommended maximums. Even more shocking, Kindergarteners – who according to the guideline should receive no homework at all – actually were assigned an average of 25 minutes per night.

That’s a lot of extra time sitting and slogging through practice problems instead of spending time with friends or family.

Though I live in western Pennsylvania, this study is certainly consistent with what I see in my own home. My daughter is in 4th grade but has been assigned between 30 minutes and two hours of homework almost every weekday since she was in Kindergarten.

It’s one of the reasons I try to abide by the guidelines religiously in my own classroom. I give about an hours worth of homework every week – 15 minutes per day for four days. If you add in cumulative assignments like book reports, that number may go up slightly but not beyond the recommended maximums.

I teach 8th graders, so they should not be receiving more than 80 minutes of homework a night. If the teachers in the other three core classes give the same amount of homework as I do, we’d still be below the maximum.

I’m well aware that the consequences of giving too much homework can be severe.

A 2014 Stanford study published in the Journal of Experimental Education found that giving too much homework can have extremely damaging effects on children.

Still this isn’t exactly hard science.

The researchers used survey data to examine perceptions about homework, student well-being and behavioral engagement in a sample of 4,317 students from 10 high-performing high schools in upper-middle-class California neighborhoods. They also used open-ended answers to gauge the students’ views on homework.

They concluded that too much homework was associated with greater stress, reductions in health, and less quality time with friends and family.

So where does that leave us?

We have anecdotal evidence that excessive homework is harmful. And limited evidence that homework may increase academic outcomes in the higher grades in math.

Frankly, if that was all I had to go on, I would never assign another piece of homework ever again.

But I’m a classroom teacher. I don’t have to rely solely on psychological and sociological studies. Everyday in school is an opportunity for action research.

My classroom is a laboratory. I am a scientist. Nearly every decision I make is based on empiricism, hypothesis and testing the results.

Maybe X will help students understand Y – that sort of thing.

This applies to homework, too.

I’ve had more than 15 years to test what works with my students. I’m not saying my results would necessarily be reproducible everywhere, but they’re at least as scientific as the body of research we have on homework. In fact, within these parameters they’re even more rigorous.

So why do I give homework?

For several reasons:

1)  It prepares students for the higher grades.

Most of my career has been spent in the middle school teaching 7th and 8th grade. In my district, high school teachers give a lot of homework. I need my students to get used to that rhythm – homework being assigned and handed in – so that they’ll have a chance at being successful in the upper secondary grades. Too many students go no further academically than 9th grade. Giving homework is my way to help provide the skills necessary to avoid that pitfall.

However, this isn’t a sufficient reason to give homework all by itself. If high school teachers stopped assigning it – and maybe they should if we have no further reason to do so – then I’d have no reason to assign it either.

2)  It makes kids responsible.

There’s something to be said for getting kids used to deadlines. You need to know what work you’re responsible for turning in, getting it done on your own and then handing it in on time. This is an important skill that I won’t apologize for reinforcing. I’m well aware that some students have extended support systems at home that can help them get their assignments done and done correctly, but I design the work so that even if they aren’t so privileged, it should be easily accessible on an individual level. Plus I’m available, myself, as a resource if necessary.

3)  It’s good practice.

In school, we learn. At home, we practice. That pattern is necessary to reinforce almost any skill acquisition. I know it’s trendy to flip the classroom a la Khan Academy with learning done through videos watched on-line at home and practice done in school. But when Internet access in not guaranteed, and home environments often are the least stable places in my students’ lives, it makes little sense to try to move the most essential part of the lesson outside of the classroom. After all, it’s easier to find a place to do some low tech practice than it is to find space, silence and infrastructure for high tech learning.

Don’t get me wrong. We practice in school, too. But there’s only so many hours in the school day. I use homework in my language arts classes for a few select things: increased vocabulary, word manipulation, grammar, self-selected reading and the ability to do work on your own. I think it’s important for my students to increase their vocabularies. Having kids read a self-selected book (both inside and outside of class) helps do that. It’s also a benefit to be able to play with words and language, find words in a puzzle, recognize synonyms and antonyms, etc. Grammar may not be essential, but a rough knowledge of it is certainly useful to increase recognition of context clues and better writing skills. Finally, some students benefit from the simple opportunity to do an assignment by themselves without an adult or even a peer looking over their shoulder.

That being said, I think it is important that the homework I give be seen as something students can achieve.

I’ve had numerous co-workers tell me they don’t assign homework for the simple reason that their students won’t do it.

This isn’t a big problem in my class. Almost all of my students do the homework. Why? Because we go over it and they know it’s something they can do without too much difficulty.

I scaffold assignments building the difficulty progressively as we proceed through the year (or years). I make myself available for extra help. I accept late work (with a penalty).

And most of all – I stress that I’m not expecting anyone to be a genius. I’m looking for hard work.

I tell my students explicitly that anyone who puts in their best effort will pass my class – probably with a B or an A. And that’s exactly what happens.

Homework is a part of that equation. It demonstrates effort. And effort is the first step (the key, in fact) to accomplishment.

Do students complain about the homework?

Sure! They’re children!

I’d probably complain, too, if I were them. No one really wants to be given extra work to do. But it’s all part of the pattern of my classroom.

Students know what to expect and how to meet those expectations.

None of this makes me a super teacher. It certainly doesn’t put me on anyone’s cutting edge.

I’m just doing what educators have done for decades. I’m attempting to use best practices in my classroom with a full knowledge of the academic research and the pitfalls ahead.

I may assign homework, but I made sure to do my own before coming to that decision.


 

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15 thoughts on “I Assign my Students Homework Despite Scant Research It Does Any Good

  1. I didn’t assign textbook homework. I assigned reading as homework. I wanted my students to read books they enjoyed reading and then turn a monthly book report about that book as the evidence/proof that they were reading. That book report was the homework and if a student turned in a book report that earned a poor grade, they were allowed to do it over as many times as they wanted to so they could improve the grade — well, up to the deadline for turning work in before a report card grade.

    I told my students to read from that book they checked out of the library because they wanted to read it for at least 30 minutes every night and then to make sure they finished the monthly book report in time to turn it in. If they didn’t enjoy the book, return it and check out another one they would enjoy reading.

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    • Lloyd, I do almost the same thing. Your assignment sounds a lot like my Book of the Month work. I also let students read in class for 15-minutes every other day. But I also include other assignments in addition to this.

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  2. My homework is to read every night for 30 minutes. I found when I gave other homework, that there were lots of children who would do the all the homework incorrectly and I felt that all I was doing was reinforcing bad habits! I find it very sad that some teachers assign page after page of Math or reading or social studies. I do not think that assigning homework is beneficial at all!

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    • Even your reading homework is not beneficial? I doubt that. Certainly teachers can and often do assign too much homework and to kids who are too young. But it can be beneficial. I go over assignments in class before students take them home to help remove misunderstandings. Plus I think there’s a benefit in trying something independently even if students end up getting it wrong. A wrong answer today may lead to a correct one tomorrow – especially if your assignments are scaffolded and logical.

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      • As long as the child enjoys what they are reading at home after school, when reading is homework, then it will be beneficial.

        Reading is the gateway to learning, opening doors to faraway adventures, new possibilities and promising futures. Reading is the most important subject in school. A child needs reading in order to master most of the other subjects but the time a child reads at school isn’t enough.

        Reading at home is also important. It works best if the entire family reads together at the same time. Research shows that just 20 minutes a day spent reading with a child helps him/her develop critical reading skills.

        And when no one is reading at home, the only recourse for teachers is to assign reading as homework and hope the child actually reads for that much time.

        In thirty years of teaching, I had only one mother make an appointment to ask me what she could do at home to help her child catch up. I told her to turn off the TV every night and read for at least thirty minutes at the same time her daughter was reading. I told her the more you read, the faster your daughter will catch up and be reading on grade level. And before you turn on that TV, after reading, sit down with your daughter and have her tell you about the story she was reading and then tell her about the story you are reading. The key to make this work, I said, is to make sure you are both reading stories you enjoy.

        A year later, her daughter caught up and was reading above grade level. The mother wrote a letter to the school board to let them know that the advice she got from me worked.

        It’s sad that only one parent out of thousands over thirty years asked for my advice and then followed through. A few others asked the same question but did not follow through and their children stayed behind and did not catch up.

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  3. Yes, homework is good; but there has to be limits to it. There are some teachers who do overdo it. The human mind does seem to benefit from the practice of doing work after school ends. The discipline itself is of value since people get to do work they would not have assigned themselves.
    In mathematics practice in vital and the necessary practice will not be had in class. A number of kids cannot use signs properly, because they have not been asked to practice enough.
    Reading also is a meaningful thing to do, and again doing so after school keeps the mind in tune. According to the old saying, ‘and idle mind is the devil’s workshop.’ The mind will always be dong something, better it is used doing something which produces order and discipline.

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  4. I think a lot of it depends on the type and purpose of the homework and whether or not the student is doing the work or their brother/sister/parents etc. I hate worksheets. spelling lists etc. But like when we get ready for a science fair, or science units, and the homework is fun like go out and make observations in your yard, what plants are growing, what are the first blooms you see, do your trees have buds coming out. You make it more like that and it can be fun, engaging and beneficial. If they are making something and they get to bring it in like a show and tell. It doesn’t work for every kid but education has this tendency still to do a one size fits all. If homework is ineffective for some, then we can’t give it to anyone. Reading same thing. If its making them read a book they have no interest in. it loses its benefits. But studies show that reading in and of itself is beneficial. It increases vocabulary and so many other benefits.

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  5. All your reasons for giving homework boil down to what Alfie Kohn puts simply as “BGUTI: Better Get Used To It.” You give a lot of homework because high schools give a lot of homework. In turn, because you give a lot of homework, elementary schools have to give a lot of homework so their kids will get used to it. In turn, preschools should give a lot of homework so *those* kids will get used to it. How about if we give babies a lot of homework the day they’re born so they get used to it?

    Look, schools have my kid over 6 hours a day – nearly a full adult working day (adults, incidentally, get paid for their work). That’s not enough for you to cram everything in their heads that you want to cram? (Notice the emphasis on what you want, not what the students want.) Sorry, but after school time is my chlld’s free time and our family time. No stupid school busy work is worth losing the time we all need to decompress and connect. Given the known harms of homework (student stress, family strife, loss of time for other pursuits, etc.), it is incumbent on those who give it to provide a really good reason for it, not just a bunch of BGUTI baloney.

    If you haven’t already, please read THE HOMEWORK MYTH by Alfie Kohn. He refutes all your arguments, including the “responsibility” argument. How can you say you’re teaching responsibility when what you’re really teaching is obedience? Responsibility is learning how to spend one’s own time, so in order to learn that, kids need to have their own time to learn how to spend.

    I’d also suggest you visit a progressive school sometime that doesn’t give homework. What you’ll find is likely to be a lot of kids who love school and learning because it’s not a bunch of assigned drudgery. My kids have been in progressive schools all along (except the younger one who chose a year of public school). They voluntarily spend their free time reading, exploring, learning and discovering because that’s what play is.

    Sorry if this comes across as an angry rant. I just can’t believe that you yourself plod through drudgery with your own daughter that you yourself admit it practically meaningless, and then you turn around and inflict the same on your own students. Keep in mind that your daughter has a supportive, knowledgeable teacher for a father. Not all of your students have that kind of support (many probably don’t have any), so imagine what homework must be like for them. (Incidentally, how do you know how many minutes of homework you assign? Because that’s how long it takes you? Some kids can probably zip it off in five minutes (in which case, they probably don’t need it at all. Others probably take an hour (in which case it’s still not helping because it’s just too overwhelming.))

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    • Dienne, let me clarify a few things.

      1) I don’t think we should be giving homework in elementary school at all. The research is stronger on this. It does little good. Kids would be much better served by playing, spending time with family, etc.

      2) I think homework should start in middle school following NEA and NPTA guidelines.

      3) pay close attention to how much homework I assign: 15 minutes a night for four nights a week. In my school there are only three core classes who meet on any given day. That means if they all do like me, my students would only have 45 minutes of homework a night. That’s well below the NEA and NPTA guidelines of 80 minutes per night for 8th graders.

      4) You have to be mighty privileged to be able to ignore the dictates of your school board, administrators, state and federal government. I’ve read Alfie Kohn and others who talk about getting rid of homework. I might even give it a try if I could. But I’d be doing a terrible disservice to my students. They’ll still be pounded with homework in the high school. I can;t stop that. I’ve already tried to convince them to give less. No one listens to me. So I’d be cruel to stop giving homework.

      5) Even if I didn’t have to assign it, I think it does some limited good. In almost every other endeavor, practice is good. The same goes for Language Arts, Math, etc.

      Sorry I’m not radical enough for some people. We’re engaged in a long fight against the forces of privatization, colonization and control. I think we can still do that even if we don’t all think exactly the same way. Don’t you?

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