What’s the Purpose of Homework?

Finding the right balance between school and home

Posted Nov 04, 2014

Remember the days of sitting in class waiting eagerly for the bell to ring before the teacher said that dreaded word…“homework”? Sighs, rolling eyes and grunts quickly filled the quiet classroom at the mention of “that” word. Well, not much has changed today except for the fact that many teachers post assignments electronically. I have yet to see a student jump for joy when the word homework is mentioned, nor have I seen students eager to get home to do their homework (maybe finish it, but not to do it). This brings up the question, “what’s the purpose of homework?”

Research shows mixed results when it comes to homework. Some research has shown that students aren’t doing any more homework than their parents did at their age. In a study school-aged children and parents completed surveys about how much homework youth have. The results showed that the typical elementary student has 30-45 minutes of homework each night. The average high-school student has about 60 minutes per night. Interestingly, these numbers have remained consistent since 1984! 

As an educator, I would like to see a replication of this study. Today's teens are taking college level courses as early as ninth and tenth grade. With the push of programs such as Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, and Dual Enrollment, it is amazing that teens are not completely burnt out. No wonder 8% of teen's age 13-18 years meet the criteria for an anxiety disorder. Too many teens are spending a lot of time on schoolwork outside of the classroom. Ask today's teen what has him/her so stressed and you'll find that about 80% of them will say school. 

There are those who argue that homework does serve a purpose. For example, it helps to prepare students for national and statewide exams and tests. It helps to reinforce what’s being taught in the classroom. It enables parents to actively engage in their child’s education. Plus, it helps teach fundamental skills such as time management, organization, task completion, as well as responsibility. What’s more important is students get to demonstrate mastery of material without the assistance of a teacher.

How much homework should your child do each night? Organizations such as the National Parent Teacher Association support giving students about 10 minutes of homework each night, per grade level starting in first grade. So a middle school student would have a full day in school and then an additional 60 minutes of homework after school. Is that too much? Are these guidelines being followed? I would recommend speaking with high achieving teens and let them share how much of their time is consumed with homework. Many will tell you that they spend hours upon hours each night studying for tests, and preparing for papers and projects, etc. 

According to Stanford University more than a couple of hours of homework a night may be counterproductive. Researchers looked at students in high achieving communities, defined as a median household income exceeding $90,000, and 93% of the students attended post-secondary institutions. Students in these areas spent an average of three plus hours on homework every night. So imagine a teen spending an entire day at school, going to work or extracurricular activities, then going home to do three or more hours of homework each night; only to get up the next day to do it all again. 

Researchers have found that students who spend too much time on homework experience more levels of stress and physical health problems. Too much homework has also been shown to have a negative impact on students’ social lives. This is no surprise to the parents who rarely see their child because he/she is too busy working on homework, or to the parent who gets up at 12:30am to check to see if their child has made it to bed yet. Overall, high school students shouldn’t be spending over two hours on homework each night.

According to the Stanford study too much homework leads to:

•Stress: 56% of the students surveyed considered homework a primary source of stress. Less than 1% of the students said homework was not a stressor.

•Poor health: Many students reported sleep deprivation, headaches, stomach problems, weight loss, and exhaustion.

•Less time for a social life: Students reported that spending too much time on homework led to pulling out of enjoyable activities, quitting extracurricular activities, and not spending much time with family and friends.

Okay, I know not all students spend a lot of time doing homework. According to a survey by the U.S. Dept. of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, the majority of youth spend an average of 7 hours of homework outside of school each week. So while that doesn't seem like an unreasonable amount, what about the student who spends 3 plus hours per night? Where is the happy medium?

There are definitely pros and cons to doing homework. I think the bigger question that educators need to address is “what’s the purpose of the assignment?” Is it merely a way to show parents and administration what's going on in the class? Is it a means to help keep the grades up? Is the homework being graded for accuracy or completion? If so, then what if the assignment is wrong? Have the necessary skills been taught so the student can master the material on his or her own? I read an article once that stated teachers underestimate the amount of homework they assign by 50%. If that's accurate then there is definitely cause for concern.

In summary, there seems to be no clear answer on the homework debate. I started the blog with a question “What’s the purpose of homework?” I’ll end with the same question. If a teacher who is assigning the homework can’t provide a clear rationale behind this question then maybe the homework shouldn’t be assigned.

I welcome you to weigh in with your thoughts. Do you think students have too much homework? If you are a teen reading this, how much homework do you have on an average night?