The Ongoing Homework Debate

By Scott Sterling

Recently, a Texas teacher made some headlines by outlining a laissez-faire approach to homework – she won’t be assigning any.

For this school year, any work done at home from Brandy Young’s class will consist only of in-class work that the student did not finish. Instead, Mrs. Young advocates for homework time to be spent on activities “proven to correlate to student success”, such as eating dinner as a family, playing outside, reading together, and going to bed at a reasonable time.

According to her note, Mrs. Young did a lot of research on the topic over the summer and came to the conclusion that “research has been unable to prove that homework improves student performance”.

Needless to say, she’s a big hit among her students. But is she right about research showing the inefficacy of homework on student performance?

First, almost universally across the country, people can agree that there is too much homework assigned – especially to younger students. The rule of thumb for more than a decade has been 10 minutes of homework per night per grade level, starting in kindergarten. But it doesn’t take much searching to find anecdotes of 1st graders having an hour’s worth of homework to do. That negative research that Mrs. Young cites usually comes from the lower grades. Mrs. Young teaches 2nd grade.

“Any student who is doing more than 3 1/2 hours of homework a night is actually at risk for higher stress levels and poor mental and physical health,” Stanford Professor Denise Pope said in a recent article. In other words, those teachers are doing more harm than good.

Now that we’ve covered amount, what should homework actually consist of?

First off, it needs to be meaningful. Homework tends to come in three flavors: practice of new skills, extension of learning, or applying in-class learning to outside situations. Students should never be asked to complete homework that requires them to learn new skills. There’s no support. Students will often struggle, which will lead to a lack of engagement and negative feelings about the learning process as a whole.

In the younger grades, homework should be about practice and establishing good study habits, preparing them for the more in-depth work they’ll be ask to do at home as they progress through school. The goal of homework for a younger student: to show them that the learning process doesn’t stop at the front door of the school.

But another goal for homework in the younger grades can be considered training – for parents. Parents are often looking forward to the opportunity to help their young children with homework, but don’t know how to do that effectively. They may provide too many answers themselves or get frustrated if it takes the student too long to “get it”. Neither are optimal results for homework time.

Instead, consider hosting a parents’ night at the beginning of the school year and model what responsible homework assistance looks like. Show parents how to ask guiding questions and explain why this work is important. In other words, skills that teachers use in the classroom every day. Not only will this help the students in their work, but it will also foster more of a parent-school connection.

In any case, at any grade level, a student should be able to answer why they are doing a particular assignment for homework. Even if the answer is just “to practice my multiplication”, the student needs to see the value in it. This is necessary for buy-in, not just for homework but for what’s going on in the classroom as well. Chances are that if students don’t know why they’re doing something at home, they don’t know why they’re doing it in the classroom, either.