The Homework Myth

How to fix schools so kids really learn

Homework: An Unnecessary Evil?

A new study offers further reason to doubt that kids benefit from being made to work a "second shift" of academics when they get home from school. No research has ever found any link between homework and achievement in elementary school. Now it appears that homework may not offer a boost even in high school - and certainly not enough to compensate for its disadvantages. Read More

My perspective

I am currently 24, living in Massachusetts. I grew up in Medway and attended Medway High School and middle schools. I continued to University of Massachusetts Amherst, with a BS in Mathematics. My opinions are based on my middle-class suburban childhood, and are likely not broadly relevant, but I think they might be useful in discussions about education reform for this demographic.

I don't find a study that compares time spent on homework to test scores a good test, because it does not control for the people involved. Personally, I spent about 15-30 minutes per day on homework in high school. I completed most of it, unless I thought it was a bogus assignment that wasn't worth doing, in which case I would try to finish as much as possible in the 5 minutes before class started on the next day, in order to maximize my grade vs time spent on homework.

I mean, if a student already knows how to do an assignment because he learned it fairly well in class and from the textbook, he will spend perhaps 20 minutes to finish the assignment. On the other hand, a student who did not learn the material as well during the class period might spend 2 hours on his own trying to complete the same assignment. This could lead to the first student spending 20 minutes and getting an A on the test, and the second student spending 120 minutes and getting a C on the test, which would lead to a statistical set of data showing no correlation. So time spent on homework is not a good measure of success, but it does not mean that homework is not valuable.

In mathematics and physics, one of the great benefits of homework is it teaches you practically how to solve a problem. While you might learn all the theory in class, that knowledge will usually last a day or two in your head. If you actually use it to do problems, the knowledge is broadened and will likely last weeks. Further use and repetition will make the knowledge last longer, and be much easier to re-learn. I believe that lecturing "primes" you to learn from the textbook and homework, which is where the real, individual learning takes place. It covers the big ideas, but there's a bunch of small stuff such as "do I need a minus sign here, and why?" or "can I cancel out these two things" that isn't adequately explained in lecture, because it's nitty-gritty detail stuff that is boring to talk about but essential to learn in order to achieve highly on tests and in practical applications.

Homework is very good at exposing areas of difficulty which must be corrected (and not ignored) after the assignment is turned in. A grading system that requires homework to be re-done until completed satisfactorily might be in order (A Mastery approach), at least in the case of mathematics and physics. Ie, re-do just the problems that were not completed correctly (repeating everything is too much busy work). Having a back-up problem to assign with a similar idea of the original problem would be valuable.

This does differ from most high school homework, which covers ideas from class, attempting to reinforce them, but usually it was really just busy work that insulted your intelligence. Harder classes such as AP level tend to be exceptions to this, as Biology, Mathematics, Physics, and History are so densely packed with knowledge it is very difficult to learn it all just during class.

On the other hand, more basic and slower-paced classes do not benefit as much from homework, since the time spent in class per unit of material is greater. English classes in particular are usually interpretation based, so every class helps refine a single skill (reading comprehension), which results in a large amount of time spent this one thing (in this case, homework is redundant, and only serves the purpose of learning specific knowledge about specific books that is usually irrelevant to each individual's education goals). Skill at writing is the other key goal, and should be the main focus of English classes. Of course, grading is always an issue.

Homework for the Sake of Homework

This is not surprising. Most homework given by teachers (especially traditional teachers) is meaningless and irrelevent and only supports rote memorization. Not much thought goes into the type and quality of homework that the teachers give that relate to supporting their curriculums or daily lesson plans and it's easy to just refer to textbook and worksheets. Homework that is interesting, project-driven and applies to real-world problem solving, includng methods for both students and parents as to "how to study" - to develop strong study skills (that will benefit them in college as wel) - and healthy habits that become intrinsic, might otherwise benefit increasing grades, standarized test scores, and overall learning. Otherwise, the amount of thoughtless homework, especially given in elementary school is a waste of valuable family time and interferes with other beneficial after-school enrichment opportunities , the need for physical play, activties, exercising imagination, as well as down time for relaxation that everone needs. How many parents are frustrated with an abundance of homework that is not making much of a difference and frustrating both you and your child? The following has been known for years and is really nothing new. If you are unhappy with this situation, join forces with you PTA and share this latest research with your school
Administration and School Board -be prepared to come up with alternatives or assessments of needs, especially for the children who continue to struggle and get behind because tutoring may not be delivered any better. Not all kids learn in the same way!!!
Homework for the sake of homework, blah!

In regards to re-doing

In regards to re-doing homework, I spent substantial time doing online homework, usually using the OWL system. This used the approach I suggest, requiring problems to be re-done until completed satisfactorily.

Of course OWL has its own problems, such as an annoying format that is sometimes difficult to use, a system easy to cheat, and problems that are generally far too easy and do not teach new information (as opposed to problems from textbooks, which I consider to be of higher quality).

If a system like OWL could be perfected (standardized??), it could be very useful.

Homework for the Sake of Homework

This research study and findings is not surprising. Most homework given by teachers (especially traditional teachers) is meaningless and irrelevent and only supports rote memorization. Not much thought goes into the type and quality of homework that the teachers give that relate to supporting their curriculums or daily lesson plans and it's easy to just refer to textbook and worksheets. Givig homework for the sake of giving homework. Homework that is interesting, project-driven and applies to real-world problem solving, includng methods for both students and parents as to "how to study" - to develop strong study skills (that will benefit them in college as wel) - and healthy habits that become intrinsic, might otherwise benefit increasing grades, standarized test scores, and overall learning. Otherwise, the amount of thoughtless homework, especially given in elementary school is a waste of valuable family time and interferes with other beneficial after-school enrichment opportunities , the need for physical play, activties, exercising imagination, as well as down time for relaxation that everone needs. How many parents are frustrated with an abundance of homework that is not making much of a difference and frustrating both you and your child? The following has been known for years and is really nothing new. Parents- have a voice through our PTA - If you are unhappy with this situation, join forces with you PTA and share this latest research with your school Administration and School Board -be prepared to come up with alternatives and needs assessments, especially for the children who continue to struggle and get behind because tutoring may not be delivered any better. Not all kids learn in the same way!!! Parents, if you continue to only focus on your own child/students and not fight for what's right for all children/student related to quality and meaningful teaching/learning nothing will change and so then you have no right to complain either. Homework for the sake of homework, blah!

Homework for the Sake of Homework

This research study and findings is not surprising. Most homework given by teachers (especially traditional teachers) is meaningless and irrelevent and only supports rote memorization. Not much thought goes into the type and quality of homework that the teachers give that relate to supporting their curriculums or daily lesson plans and it's easy to just refer to textbook and worksheets. Givig homework for the sake of giving homework. Homework that is interesting, project-driven and applies to real-world problem solving, includng methods for both students and parents as to "how to study" - to develop strong study skills (that will benefit them in college as wel) - and healthy habits that become intrinsic, might otherwise benefit increasing grades, standarized test scores, and overall learning. Otherwise, the amount of thoughtless homework, especially given in elementary school is a waste of valuable family time and interferes with other beneficial after-school enrichment opportunities , the need for physical play, activties, exercising imagination, as well as down time for relaxation that everone needs. How many parents are frustrated with an abundance of homework that is not making much of a difference and frustrating both you and your child? The following has been known for years and is really nothing new. Parents- have a voice through our PTA - If you are unhappy with this situation, join forces with you PTA and share this latest research with your school Administration and School Board -be prepared to come up with alternatives and needs assessments, especially for the children who continue to struggle and get behind because tutoring may not be delivered any better. Not all kids learn in the same way!!! Parents, if you continue to only focus on your own child/students and not fight for what's right for all children/student related to quality and meaningful teaching/learning nothing will change and so then you have no right to complain either. Homework for the sake of homework, blah!

Measuring Homework Time Accurately

As it is clear that self-reporting of time spent on homework is highly suspect, I wonder if anyone has thought to use an LMS (Learning Management System, such as MyLabs or WebAssign), which tracks actual time spent on the homework assignments, instead of using self-reporting? Note that these systems can easily support a mastery approach, which is how I use them.
While my evidence is only anecdotal, I can tell you that I have seen students who started at the same level (based on course pretests) finish with radically different course grades, and the strongest factor showing a positive correlation with the grades was the amount of time spent on homework/practice problems. The correlation between homework time and course grade showed only a very slight positive correlation for the class in general, but my belief is that the small correlation is tied to the mastery approach. Students who picked up the concepts quickly and easily did not need to spend much time to complete the homework correctly, while weaker students needed more time to answer all of the problems correctly. Hence, a lesser amount of time spent on homework could either mean that a student already understood the material, or that he or she had given up without mastering the topic.

Two thoughts . . .

I have two thoughts on your post, one methodological, as a developmental psychologist, and one as a parent and former student.

From a methodological perspective, there is no reason that time on homework should be correlated with performance because it is not time, but process that people supporting homework are positing to be beneficial. It is my students who are good at stats who spend little time on their stats homework and those who have trouble who spend hours on it. The same is true of my middle school son - when he understands something he flies through it. When he is lost, confused or not concentrating it takes him forever. However, this INVERSE relationship that I'm positing is confounded by things like conscientiousness, with better students spending more time getting things perfect and less motivated students just skipping homework entirely.

As a parent of son who is completely overburdened with homework and one who skipped all her homework all through high school, I have two contradictory thoughts on the findings you report.

On the one hand, doing projects that require serious time writing and doing research (Social Studies or English or Science) when given lots of time in class to get support on said project allows sustained activity that I think is great. It's those projects I loved to do in school and think of as good learning experiences. Because different kids work at different speeds, doing some of that work at home makes those types of learning activities possible. That's homework. Time spent shouldn't be correlated with grades or test performance, but it sounds, nonetheless, like good learning may be going on for all kids at different levels.

Similarly, my son doing math work at home has allowed me to work with him one on one and teach him things he obviously hasn't learned in school. There's lots a ways to learn and even with fewer than 20 students in class, every kid can't have every question answered every day. That's a good thing.

On the other hand, I think my son's homework is destructive. He leaves for school at 7:45, returns at 3:45, and has 2-3 hours every night on top of that. That is TOO MUCH TIME and keeps him from other, more developmentally useful activities, like playing, or playing his violin, and just reading and hanging out with friends.

Reading books and answering silly questions about them to prove you've read them is busywork. I thought it was dumb as a kid and I think it's a waste of time now.

Having 40% of his grade tied to homework means that disorganized kids who lose homework are always failing. I can't even imagine what it means for kids with disorganized, unsupportive homes. I could get away with not doing daily homework because it chagned my grade from As to Bs. It changes my son's to Ds and Fs.

So, methodologically, I'm not surprised. Personally, I wonder how practicing an instrument - which is completely necessary for progress - differs from practicing a skill learned in school in terms of when it fosters learning and when it undermines it. Perhaps a promising area for research.

Homework a necessary evil

I believe these things:
1. Some students work faster than others. Talented and skillful students usually require less time to do a given assignment. Practice, repetition, and drilling enable a student to complete future, similar tasks faster and with less mental effort.
2. Some children have difficulty concentrating. If a student isn't concentrating, homework time is unproductive.
3. Self-reporting leads to measurement errors, which, as pointed out above, can lead to incorrect conclusions.
4. Practice is necessary to become good in mathematics, computer programming, chess, reading, writing, and basketball. For a given individual, practice time is positively correlated with skill attained. Of course, there are other factors such as talent or aptitude, good instruction, adequate rest, level of desire and interest, parental support,self-confidence, freedom from distractions such as anxiety, and various other factors.
5. Students from countries that spend more time doing mathematics homework, such as China, Korea, and Singapore, do better on standardized mathematics tests than American students.

Whoops! The ball is under a different cup!

You're right that there is a lesson on reading studies here, but not the lesson you purport to give. Much educational "research" is like stage sleight-of-hand, wherein much attention is paid to the mechanics of the study whereas conclusions are passed off flippantly as if they were clear and obvious inferences from data, but the connection can be illusory.

I was a pretty good student back in the 70s. I lived a long distance (5 mi) from school, and walked. Highly motivated, I used my spares to complete all my homework, and consistently did well. Many of my peers who struggled a lot would take that same work home and agonize over it for hours. It is perfectly clear that, had there been no homework, my outcomes would have suffered, but I had momentum and would have survived. My struggling peers, however, were slower on the uptake, would have made no progress and failed catastrophically. Anyone correlating time spent on homework in our cohort would have seen those with lower grades spending far more hours on it than the stronger students. The reason they spent that time was that they NEEDED that time to get through, absorb and master the material.

There is no straight line from any correlation (or lack thereof) between homework and outcomes and the conclusion that homework has little or no effect, or a negative effect, on outcomes. In fact the opposite conclusion may be true.

You might as well point out that people who are sick a lot use a lot more medicine than those who are generally well; therefore medicine doesn't help people get well. If poor mastery of material is an illness, homework is medicine. Those doing well will complete it quickly and report spending little time on it. Those doing more poorly will spend much more time ... much NEEDED time ... on it. It is ludicrous to conclude that spending that time is of no value. If all that's being measured is time spend on homework (ELS and NELS studies) it is correlating the wrong thing to outcomes.

I now teach university math. When I get the struggling students crowding into my office in the pre-exam panic they'll ask me how to do this or that question. I ask them to show me their attempts. Or what they did on this or that similar question. And they stare at me blankly: Were we supposed to be "practicing"? Uh, yes -- what do you think all those "recommended homework questions" were all about? I continually see the effects of not doing homework, in an environment where students are expected to organize their own study habits. Those that don't do any ... are lost. They're stuck in the second week of classes. Those who survive learn to keep up with regular exercises, and by term's end, they've mastered the lot. With university math, it's pretty straightforward. Do the homework, it's a snap. Don't do the homework, and you're set up for failure.

Your analysis reminds me of an old study of apparent gender preferences in teacher behavior toward primary-grade students. Observers were able to determine that teachers gave approximately (I don't recall the exact figures) 3x as much time paying attention to boys than to girls. The conclusion of the study? That teachers were predisposed to favour boys, creating a classroom environment that was hostile to girls. Serious policy proposals were put forth to make primary classrooms more "girl-friendly".

Years later the observational data sets were revisited, and from the comments of the observers it became clear that the REASON the boys were receiving much more of the teachers' time and attention was that they did not cope well with the classroom environment (which is organized around simple social structures; girls, being more skilled than boys at that age in the social domain, adapted more easily to it than boys). Far more teacher intervention was required simply because of the resulting behavioral issues. The point is that the intervention signalled precisely the OPPOSITE thing the study purported to prove. In fact, the classrooms observed were intrinsically less hostile to girls than to boys. Any proper reading of the observational data would have borne this out.

The effect of homework

Listen to John Hatties comments to the effect of homework at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sng4p3Vsu7Y at approx 9:30

homework

kids are tired after school and my son says he never gets a rest

Practice makes progress

I have noticed if I go to my guitar lesson without doing any practice I do not make any progress. On the weeks I do my homework however, I seem to improve.

What is 'homework'?

Some good comments by Peter T. And some stupid comments by the psychologist. Just because something is difficult to measure does not mean it is not relevent.

What is 'homework'anyway? I had to laugh when I read the comment from Nancy Darling above:

"Similarly, my son doing math work at home has allowed me to work with him one on one and teach him things he obviously hasn't learned in school. There's lots a ways to learn and even with fewer than 20 students in class, every kid can't have every question answered every day. That's a good thing."

I am guessing that is not the experience of homework that most people have. This to my mind is extra tuition. (And why does she describe it as 'a good thing'. Because it gives her son an advantage that the other 19 children in the class do not have, or what?)

Another factor, is that the people estimating how much homework they do, or their children do, come up with very wide ranging estimates.

So there is a parameter that is poorly estimated, that has completely different meanings to different people and has a non-linear relationship with effectivity (as pointed out above, the people spending longer on the homework, may be struggling more). It is maybe not surprising that the correlations in the study are not strong - but that does not tell us anything about homework or which parts of it are effective.

The problem is not with homework

I completely agree to many of your arguments, they are certainly valid under most cases. However, I have this apprehension that the failure of homework is essentially because of the wrong teacher mentality. Currently the homework given is based off the teaching and not off the learning expectations. This conflict causes a dissonance, and the entire intent of homework fails.

There's a lot more that one worm in the can

Homework is not the only wasted drain on students patience, focus and stamina resources. Due to limits, on pinpoint specifics, let just talk about the most "homework worthy" subject, math. Since it is math, let's put it this way:

Statement - Arithmetic other than the times table and one-day for concept modeling and historical note, has no place in a 21st Century Grammar school. No more than a section on Roman numerals. [BTW, such had the same cultural entrenchment issues in Europe for about 500 years after Fibonacci introduced the Hindu-Arabic system, the zero, and its arithmetic.]

Proofs:
1 - The $1 calculator, and pencil points also break. [Your car and the bus can break down too, so practice for years to be an Olympic runner.]
2 - Excel, and the fate of engineers, accountants, and any one who deals with numbers in the real world who tries to do math without such tools, even as a check. [I almost cost me my job once (and that was about 1990!)--it did cause me lots of needless work and some redo "the right way."]
3 - Less error, faster, near automatic verification and errors a snap to trace, easily verified by others, easily communicated and already prepared for reports.

There are, again, many more details of the double-demon of the crushing of creativity in a manner simultaneously damaging the efficiency of the practical that like arithmetic and homework, desperately need a modernization wake up call.

But the worst thing for the children reaching adulthood into the 2020's and 30's, is the continuing catastrophic emphasis on individual "primadonna" competition rather that in true brilliance and creativity of full collaboration. In short, not just subject matter AND students need to become full integrated to match the system nature and integration of our ever-globalizing world.

And above all, a sense of mutual responsibility must be cultivated--the key to the intrinsic power of diverse-group-decision-making/"crowdsourcing"/general-"wisdom-of-the-crowd." [The quoted terms are an easy Google/Wikipedia search.]

Arithmetic is Still Very Much Needed

While you are correct that calculators and computers can perform arithmetic computations faster and more accurately than a human can, that does not obviate the need for students to learn arithmetic.

Students who don't have a thorough grasp of arithmetic will not be able to understand algebra, or any mathematics beyond algebra (calculus, analysis, etc.). While there are many careers that do not require these skills, there are many that do require them. Why on earth would we limit a child's career choices so early in life, by failing to give him or her a proper foundation?

Mathematics, starting with arithmetic, teaches a system of logic and problem solving skills that help develop the student's ability to think critically. Other topics also teach critical thinking (or should), but mathematics approaches it in a way that no other field can match, since the whole structure of mathematics is entirely logical.

Calculators and computers do exactly what we tell them to do, through our input; if we input the wrong command, the computer does what we programmed it to do, not what we meant it to do. Students who have no grasp of mathematics, and who always rely on technology to provide the right answer, will not recognize situations where the computer's answer is nonsensical. Those who learn how to do it themselves and develop a feel for numbers and mathematical operations can catch those errors and fix them.

Arithmetic is Still Very Much Needed

While you are correct that calculators and computers can perform arithmetic computations faster and more accurately than a human can, that does not obviate the need for students to learn arithmetic.

Students who don't have a thorough grasp of arithmetic will not be able to understand algebra, or any mathematics beyond algebra (calculus, analysis, etc.). While there are many careers that do not require these skills, there are many that do require them. Why on earth would we limit a child's career choices so early in life, by failing to give him or her a proper foundation?

Mathematics, starting with arithmetic, teaches a system of logic and problem solving skills that help develop the student's ability to think critically. Other topics also teach critical thinking (or should), but mathematics approaches it in a way that no other field can match, since the whole structure of mathematics is entirely logical.

Calculators and computers do exactly what we tell them to do, through our input; if we input the wrong command, the computer does what we programmed it to do, not what we meant it to do. Students who have no grasp of mathematics, and who always rely on technology to provide the right answer, will not recognize situations where the computer's answer is nonsensical. Those who learn how to do it themselves and develop a feel for numbers and mathematical operations can catch those errors and fix them.

Maybe the wrong homework

As someone whose son is mired in tedious homework that eats his life, I can agree homework can be problematic.

As someone who teaches statistics and has students who can follow any algorithm but who can't use numbers or tell when their calculators or spreadsheets spit out the wrong numbers, I think project based creative homework in math would be a help. As would flexible assignments where you're given a set of problems. If you can do one at the beginning, middle, and end, you're done. If you can't, keep working through them until you can solve the tough ones at the end. The idea is mastery, not repetition.

It could be home or at school. But it can take time and practice to learn some skills.

Similarly writing papers or designing projects in other subjects.

It's the long hours of drill that are a waste for kids who already know the material.

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Alfie Kohn writes about behavior and education. His books include Feel-Bad Education, The Homework Myth, and What Does It Mean To Be Well Educated?

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