This year my daughter is in a class where she does not receive homework. There were a variety of reactions to this. The most visible and immediate was the parent who shouted out “Awesome! Yes!” throwing her hands up in relief. Some parents seemed indifferent. Maybe I was in the minority, but I have to admit to feeling a bit disappointed.
I wondered if at least a part of my desire for homework was actually just a need for information. Without a newsletter or homework, how would I know what they are working on in class? How would they get enough practice of new skills in an already packed school day? Since my daughter already enjoys doing homework, I asked myself “Would she lose this work ethic?”
Until now, her elementary homework has been pretty flexible. It was assigned at the beginning of the week and not checked until the end. I also know that I have been lucky in several regards:
1 | My daughter sits down and does the homework on her own with very little resistance, and
2 | The assignments have been relatively open-ended and, for her, not very labor intensive (e.g., a sound sort; read something and write a sentence about the beginning, middle, and end; or play a math game on the computer).
But I knew from my experience as a teacher that I might feel very differently if completing homework each night was a struggle or a battle of wills. I may also feel differently if I did not have the time, education, or experience to be able to help.
I wondered if there might not be some middle ground. Didn’t the value of homework depend on what was assigned? Wasn’t there some research that existed that defined once and for all whether homework was linked to academic outcomes?
I partially found my answer in a review of the research from 1987 to 2003 by Duke University social psychologist, Harris Cooper, one of the nation’s leading researchers on the topic of homework. He found that homework can in fact produce academic benefits. For high school students, and to a lesser degree middle school students, homework is linked to better test scores.
However, the link between academic achievement and homework in elementary school is slight. Researchers speculated that perhaps they were more susceptible to distractions or have less well-developed study skills. They also mentioned that in elementary school, homework is assigned for purposes other than improving academic achievement, including the hope that it will help with the development of time-management or study habits. But I wonder, are study habits really developed for a student who experiences homework as a time of stress and failure or just for students like my daughter who have a positive homework experience?
Also, in order for homework to be a good use of time, the content must matter. According to the National Education Association, homework tends to fall into three categories: practice, preparation, or extension. If students perceive that the homework they are assigned is busywork, they are less likely to see value in it and it is more likely to cause stress.
The magic formula
Often 10 problems instead of 50 will do the job. As it turns out, the National Education Association, the National Parent Teacher Association, and many experts agree, recommending 10 minutes of homework per grade level starting in 1st grade with a maximum of around two hours of homework per night in high school.
Using the guidelines above, it does seem that, in some cases, too much homework is being given. A study done in 2015 by Robert M. Pressman and his colleagues found that elementary students receive up to three times the amount of homework recommended by the 10 minute rule. Many high school students also receive much more than the recommended two hours a night.
Although moderate homework can have academic benefits for older students, too much homework can cause negative attitudes toward school, burnout, and unnecessary stress that takes valuable time away from extracurricular activities and family time. The importance of downtime activities like these should not be underestimated. Children and teens need unstructured time to play, take a break, explore interests, and get in some physical activity. Additionally, free play has been shown to increase creativity and executive functioning skills which are both valuable to school success.
So, perhaps the key to homework, at least in the younger grades, is choice. Instead of one assignment for all students, providing options that allow students to practice in a way that does not become burdensome and lead to burnout – something different than the typical one-size-fits-all approach.
Not having homework (other than a reading log) has provided one very surprising outcome: My daughter probably does more homework. She gets on her computer and practices math facts and reading passages recommended by her teacher. After school she plans academic activities and holds a “preschool” for her younger sister. On top of this, she asks to look up things she learned in school or read about topics of interest.
So this year, inspired by the idea of a “genius hour,” we have decided to use our traditional homework time to explore things that my daughter is interested in but does not get to spend much time on at school. This grading period she has chosen parrots. Soon we will be visiting the library and the zoo. After she has all of the facts, she wants to use them in a children’s book for her little sister (her idea). When she tells me this, I smile and think to myself "maybe this freedom to choose has provided opportunities for learning that are more interesting and challenging than typical homework anyway."