Like all teachers, I’ve spent many hours correcting homework. Yet there’s a debate over whether we should be setting it at all.
I teach both primary and secondary, and regularly find myself drawn into the argument on the reasoning behind it – parents, and sometimes colleagues, question its validity. Parent-teacher interviews can become consumed by how much trouble students have completing assignments. All of which has led me to question the neuroscience behind setting homework. Is it worth it?
Increasingly, there’s a divide between those who support the need for homework and those who suggest the time would be better spent with family and developing relationships. The anxiety related to homework is frequently reviewed.
A survey of high-performing high schools by the Stanford Graduate School of Education, for example, found that 56% of students considered homework a primary source of stress. These same students reported that the demands of homework caused sleep deprivation and other health problems, as well as less time for friends, family and extracurricular pursuits.
When students learn in the classroom, they are using their short-term or working memory. This information is continually updated during the class. On leaving the classroom, the information in the working memory is replaced by the topic in the next class.
Adults experience a similar reaction when they walk into a new room and forget why they are there. The new set of sensory information – lighting, odours, temperature – enters their working memory and any pre-existing information is displaced. It’s only when the person returns to the same environment that they remember the key information.
But education is about more than memorising facts. Students need to access the information in ways that are relevant to their world, and to transfer knowledge to new situations.
Many of us will have struggled to remember someone’s name when we meet them in an unexpected environment (a workmate at the gym, maybe), and we are more likely to remember them again once we’ve seen them multiple times in different places. Similarly, students must practise their skills in different environments.
Revising the key skills learned in the classroom during homework increases the likelihood of a student remembering and being able to use those skills in a variety of situations in the future, contributing to their overall education.
The link between homework and educational achievement is supported by research: a meta-analysis of studies between 1987 and 2003 found that: “With only rare exceptions, the relationship between the amount of homework students do and their achievement outcomes was found to be positive and statistically significant.”
The right type of work
The homework debate is often split along the lines of primary school compared with secondary school. Education researcher Professor John Hattie, who has ranked various influences on student learning and achievement, found that homework in primary schools has a negligible effect (most homework set has little to no impact on a student’s overall learning). However, it makes a bigger difference in secondary schools.
His explanation is that students in secondary schools are often given tasks that reinforce key skills learned in the classroom that day, whereas primary students may be asked to complete separate assignments. “The worst thing you can do with homework is give kids projects; the best thing you can do is reinforce something you’ve already learned,” he told the BBC in 2014.
So homework can be effective when it’s the right type of homework. In my own practice, the primary students I teach will often be asked to find real-life examples of the concept taught instead of traditional homework tasks, while homework for secondary students consolidates the key concepts covered in the classroom. For secondary in particular, I find a general set of rules useful:
- Set work that’s relevant. This includes elaborating on information addressed in the class or opportunities for students to explore the key concept in areas of their own interest.
- Make sure students can complete the homework. Pitch it to a student’s age and skills – anxiety will only limit their cognitive abilities in that topic. A high chance of success will increase the reward stimulation in the brain.
- Get parents involved, without the homework being a point of conflict with students. Make it a sharing of information, rather than a battle.
- Check the homework with the students afterwards. This offers a chance to review the key concepts and allow the working memory to become part of the long-term memory.
While there is no data on the effectiveness of homework in different subjects, these general rules could be applied equally to languages, mathematics or humanities. And by setting the right type of homework, you’ll help to reinforce key concepts in a new environment, allowing the information you teach to be used in a variety of contexts in the future.
At the start of the 2013-14 school year, the Fentress County School District in Tennessee announced that it would enforce a district-wide ban on graded homework assignments.
Administrators explained their decision by pointing to the large majority of students who lacked at-home resources to help them with their homework. Anywhere between 65%-75% of each school’s student body qualify for free or reduced lunch programs, so it was decided that students should not be singled out for failing to adequately complete take-home assignments.
“We don’t want kids to be unfairly penalized for their work because they don’t have the resources or support they need at home,” explained Randy Clark, Fentress County Schools’ Curriculum and Instruction Supervisor. “Our new motto for assignments is ‘review and preview.”
That means that homework in the district now constitutes an ungraded review or preview of current course work that’s the students’ responsibility to independently complete. Spelling words, vocabulary practice, and study guides for testing all fall under this purview.
The Great Homework Debate
Some educators aren’t fans of the new policy. Tammy Linder, a sixth grade teacher at Allardt Elementary School, is one of them.
“Students have not had that daily homework practice in any subject that keeps the concepts ‘alive’ and moving in their brains, so that means that much of the practice time and teaching time and testing time had to come during the class time each day,” Linder says.
Still, other districts across the country are taking second looks at the practice. The principal of Gaithersburg Elementary in Maryland decided to ask students to spend only 30 minutes in the evening reading. The decision was reached out of the realization that worksheets and other assignments had been assigned merely out of a sense of obligation to dole our homework to students.
Across the country, parents, teachers, and students are also voicing their opinions in the homework debate. On the issue of the actual educational value of homework, it may seem straightforward to many educators that reviewing lessons and practicing concepts after school would correlate to a greater retention of course material, but studies suggest that the link between assigned homework and academic achievement is drastically overinflated.
Researchers at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education found in a 2012 study that math and science homework didn’t correlate to better student grades, but it did lead to better performances on standardized tests. And when homework is assigned, the help provided by parents often mitigated any of the positive effects of the work. Critics of this type of parental involvement say it can be counterproductive because parents may assume too great a role and/or may not fully understand the lessons being taught.
In April, Denise Pope, a researcher at Stanford University, found that too much homework can negatively affect kids by increasing stress and sleep deprivation and generally leaving less time for family, friends, and activities. According to Pope, homework should not be simply assigned as a routine practice.
“Rather, any homework assigned should have a purpose and benefit, and it should be designed to cultivate learning and development.”
Video: Do Students Really Have Too Much Homework?
No Homework the New Norm?
“There are simply no compelling data to justify the practice of making kids work what amounts to a second shift when they get home from a full day of school,” says Alfie Kohn, an expert on child education, parenting, and human behavior, as well as the author of The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing.
Should schools then assign less homework or at least reevaluate what they assign? No, says Kohn, school shouldn’t assign any homework. Teachers who do assign it need to have a very compelling reason for extending a student’s school day.
“My general suggestion is to change the default: No homework should be the norm,” Kohn says, “Six hours of academics is enough—except on those occasions when teachers can show strong reason to infringe on family time and make these particular students do more of this particular schoolwork.”
Still, homework is so ingrained in the fabric of schooling that studies revealing its minimal positive benefits have been largely shrugged off or ignored altogether. For most educators, completely cutting homework out of schools isn’t a viable alternative – at least not yet. And many, if not most, teachers are unconvinced that gutting homework from their repertoire of learning tools is the best idea anyway.
Tammy Linder says that teachers haven’t had the amount of teaching time they usually need to enforce classroom lessons and concepts. With the heavy focus on standardized testing already in schools, losing precious out-of-school homework time drastically diminishes how long teachers can devote to thoroughly covering a given subject, as well as the depth and amount of topics they can cover in a school year.
“I have calculated that I have averaged only two to three ‘teaching’ days per week, depending upon re-teaching for those hard to conquer standards and testing,” Linder says. “My students have not covered as much material as students in the past have because of these factors. Nightly practice of any concept keeps the brain engaged in the topic and helps the student focus.”
Karen Spychala, a teacher in San Jose, believes homework has value, but is concerned about its potential to consume too much time outside the school day.
“Homework has its place: to practice skills and most importantly to involve families in their child’s learning” Spychala explains. “But too much homework that takes over everyone’s lives should never happen. There should be agreed upon standard homework times per grade level.”
Are there ways to deemphasize the overreliance on standard homework assignments and allow students to learn through other conducive means?
One option is changing the paradigm of assigned homework to infuse hands-on, student-led engagement with class lessons as a way of piquing student interest in the material. And instead of simply limiting homework to the teacher/student/parent sphere, allowing students the opportunity to show off exceptional homework to a larger audience can give them a further incentive to put in their best effort.
Angela Downing, an elementary school teacher in Newton, Massachusetts, has found great success in displaying excellent student homework on the walls inside and outside of her classroom. By doing so, homework becomes disassociated from the standard teacher-student relationship and gains a whole new level of importance that draws students into the assignment.
“This practice sends the message to students that their work and their learning are important and valued,” Downing says. “Students take special care to do their best work when they know that the final piece will be displayed in the hall or on the classroom bulletin board.”
But for Bonnie Stone, an elementary school teacher in Tulsa, too much homework is too much homework. She saw the impact on her own children and vowed to curtail what she assigned her students.
“As a result of their experience, I vowed never to assign more than 30 minutes of outside reading enrichment for my students,” Stone recalls. “They work hard in class all day. After that, they need to be kids and teens. And I’ve seen no change in the achievement level of my students since I stopped assigning homework.”