Gadfly on the Wall Blog: I Assign My Students Homework Despite Scant Research It Does Any Good
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.
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?
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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