By Teachers, For Teachers
Homework is an age-old classroom management tradition in schools. It is almost assumed that a typical day’s lesson will be supplemented with the expectation that students practice the task and prepare for the next day all on their own time out of the classroom.
As Cathy Vatterott states in her book “Rethinking Homework,” “Homework is a long-standing education tradition that, until recently, has seldom been questioned. The concept of homework has become so ingrained in U.S. culture that the word homework is part of the common vernacular.”
We say things like, “I did my homework before buying a house,” or “The preacher gave us homework to do before next Sunday.” The conception of individual effort expended outside of a specific learning environment is referred to as homework, and evolved when rote memorization dominated the education system and homework was perceived as a way to reinforce this learning.
But times are different, and as Vattergott explains, “As the culture has changed, and as schools and families have changed, homework has become problematic for more and more students, parents, and teachers.” The assigning and completing of homework has come under scrutiny, and many teachers and education advocates are beginning to recommend abandoning this educational fixture.
There is a contradiction inherent to homework. On the one hand, we want to support student learning and reinforce lessons with practice and rigor. On the other hand, homework cuts into time available outside of school when students could be engaging in activities, spending time with families, and pursuing other interests.
There are certain beliefs we have about homework that guide our tendency to assign it. We believe homework extends learning, teaches responsibility, provides guided learning for students who may just go home and play video games, and increases expectations. But how much of these believes are founded in reality and how much are due to an antiquated tradition?
Alfie Kohn, author and longtime anti-homework advocate, notes, “There is absolutely no evidence of any academic benefit from assigning homework in elementary or middle school … Meanwhile, no study has ever substantiated the belief that homework builds character or teaches good study habits.” Our beliefs about homework may not match the reality. In fact, our adherence to the tradition of homework may in fact be counteractive.
Homework can certainly be abused. The common critiques of homework – particularly the over-assigning of it – are as follows:
University of Virginia educational researchers also point out that, “There is no consistent significant relationship between time spent on homework and grades.” The amount of time students spend doing homework may be significant, but it does not seem like homework does not yield equally significant results.
So in light of all these detriments to homework, do we have any business assigning homework to our students at all?
Homework does have advantages. Homework has advantages when it’s done right. This means that due caution and calculation needs to be employed when teachers are considering assigning it. The cons listed above are powerful, so we must become more cognizant of homework’s advantages and how to realize them.
Denise Pope, a senior lecturer at the Stanford Graduate School of Education and a co-author of a study published in the Journal of Experimental Education, says the research calls into question the value of assigning large amounts of homework. Homework should not be simply assigned as a routine practice. “Rather, any homework assigned should have a purpose and benefit, and it should be designed to cultivate learning and development.”
When homework is properly designed, it can yield advantages. The same University of Virginia researchers note there exists, “A consistently positive significant relationship between homework and performance on standardized exams.” While many debate whether or not schools should focus more on standardized test results, properly designed homework can lead to worthwhile benefits for such tests.
Perhaps one of the reasons homework remains such a sizeable fixture in education is due to the seeming obviousness of its purpose: Students who practice more will understand and retain more. Duke University social psychologist and educational researcher Harris Cooper, PhD, does note that homework can produce increased understanding and retention.
Homework also serves as a useful – indeed, required – component of the flipped classroom. For teachers seeking to maximize the class time devoted to practice, clarification, and collaboration, student homework is the preparation in advance of class. In other cases, homework seems obvious when the task – like reading a novel – if done in class would monopolize the majority of the time. Jonathan Bergmann, author of “Solving the Homework Problem by Flipping the Learning,” remarks, “A growing number of teachers have made homework more meaningful and effective by flipping their classrooms” and explains how new tools in technology allow for recreating the paradigms for homework.
When I first started teaching, the awesome power and meaning of homework hit me. I realized: “Wow, I’m assigning students to think about my class and practice these skills on their own time outside of school. I better make sure I’m making their time spent worthwhile!” How tragic to demand students think about my class only to have that time be poorly squandered on busy work!
How do we make sure our homework assignments are meaningful? We can start by understanding whom homework benefits the most. Research tends to indicate that high school students have the most to gain, while elementary and middle school students are more likely to be negatively impacted by homework. Educational researcher Robert Marzano found a correlation between the age of the student and the effectiveness of homework: The older the student, the greater the effect homework has on achievement.
But we cannot just assign older students any homework and call it effective. We have to assign an appropriate amount. Marzano recommends no more than 10 minutes of homework per grade level as a general rule of thumb. Others recommend no more than two hours total for high school students. Too much homework – even well-designed homework – becomes detrimental as it wears on students, cuts into time for rest or other activities, and eventually becomes a bore that counteracts the intent of learning.
Next, we must make sure our homework is strategically designed. Alfie Kohn, who is largely against homework, still suggests “Students should be asked to do only what teachers are willing to create themselves, as opposed to prefabricated worksheets or generic exercises photocopied from textbooks.” Assignments must fit the intended learning. If we are going to make a demand on students’ time, we must spend time ourselves crafting the task so as to accomplish our objective of reinforcing understanding and retention. Kohn suggests, “Teachers should create several assignments fitted to different interests and capabilities.”
Harris Cooper agrees, stating that "Homework that's busywork is not good for anyone … Things like vocabulary and spelling are learned through practice. Other kinds of courses require more integration of material and drawing on different skills." Teachers should ask themselves, “What is the specific skill or concept I want students to better understand and retain, and how can their time outside of class best be spent towards this aim?”
Finally, homework requires feedback from the teacher. Penn State’s Gerald LeTendre in the Education Policy Studies department points out that, “If there’s no feedback and no monitoring, the homework is probably not effective.” Homework that is merely “Checked off” feels like busywork, without much value. When teachers themselves take time to evaluate the quality of student work accomplished outside of class, students will see there is more value to that work. This provides students with important reinforcement of the practice and equips them with formative feedback to move forward more effectively.
Homework is a dicey area, posing potential gains but also significant detriments for students. Teachers and schools need to take a hard look at how they go about assigning homework. They must make certain they are striking the balance where they are maximizing the gains and limiting the negatives homework poses.
It’s time for teachers, students, leaders, and families to get on the same page regarding homework, working together to genuinely improve learning. This happens when we put our heads together, examine the research, and craft the most strategically designed homework that is cognizant of the goals we hope to accomplish.
Homework can in fact yield the advantages we want it to, but we have to do our own homework first and make sure we wield this responsibility with wisdom.
What are your experiences with positive homework practices? We hope you share your classroom management thoughts and advice with our TeachHUB community in a comment below!
Jordan Catapano taught English for 12 years in a Chicago suburban high school, where he is now an Assistant Principal. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website www.jordancatapano.us.