Homework: How beneficial is it for your child?

Posted on December, 2022

Homework – Introduction

Homework is one of the most controversial subjects. Parents often ask us how much homework should a student receive, or whether they can indeed, receive more.

This blog explores the subject in detail and reveals my thoughts on the subject as well as the approach that is probably most beneficial for the parent, student and educator.

The Purpose of Homework

Homework is a complex issue, not least as there are many reasons, in theory, why it could be valuable. For us, as educators, homework provides further practice of a concept that has been discussed in class, additional information on how the student performs on tasks independently and informs us of how dedicated the student is to complete tasks (to a small extent).

Further to this, there are some possible additional benefits to completing homework tasks:

  1.  The student may find out about gaps in his/her knowledge base or that there is a lack of depth in knowledge
  2. The parent/s may gain some understanding of the subject matter discussed in the classroom
  3. The student may gain confidence in completing a homework task successfully
  4. The student may learn how to manage their time efficiently as a result of taking homework

Limits in Academic Knowledge

Generally, we have noticed a positive correlation between homework completion and the amount of effort the student exerts to complete it, and improved educational attainment over time. This is, however, anecdotal evidence, and as there are so many variables involved in the allocation of homework; any study would have to account for many variables from the individual differences in students’ capabilities to complete tasks to the differences in a home environment. As we cannot, ethically or practically, “experiment” on school-aged children to determine the exact factors that affect the effectiveness of homework.

In terms of academic research on the subject, homework’s role in enhancing student achievement was said to be an area that was “at best, only partially understood” (Trautwein & Köller, 2003: 115). Most studies have reached seemingly unsatisfactory conclusions on the subject.

Alfie Kohn (2006), the prominent, albeit controversial educational commentator has argued that most studies on homework are flawed as there are too many inconsistencies present across studies, and actually is generally more detrimental to a student’s progress. He also argues that the levels of homework received by students have generally increased over time. However, these observations may be incorrect. Although students seem to be receiving more homework, it is mostly the case that because students have received so little homework in the past, the amount has seemed to increase by a great deal (Gill & Schlossman, 2003).

Our Perceptions Matter

We also have to remember, that we live in a world that has changed a lot over the past 30-40 years. There are so many activities that compete for our time in the modern age, that our perception of how much homework is received may have also altered.

If a student has several after-school activities, and parents are stretched to breaking point by working responsibilities (even though the data suggests that working hours have actually decreased over time), it may appear that children have more homework, as the amount of time left to dedicate to it has shrunk.

Less Leisure Time

Perhaps the key factor is that our leisure time has actually shrunk. In an FT article, Sarah Connor argues that since the 1970s, there has been a shift in attitudes to childcare. In the 70s, children would usually play outside, often unsupervised, and this would increase the possibility of parents enjoying leisure time. Another factor is that as technology has proliferated, the lines between work and play have been blurred; if you are watching Netflix, and simultaneously answer a work email, are you at leisure or on the job?

I suspect that something similar is happening with students. As the lines blur between work and leisure activities, they feel that their leisure time is greatly decreased; whilst scrolling on TikTok, they are completing their latest assignment. This multitasking habit could increase the perceived time that is spent on home assignments.

Furthermore, it could be the case that homework is taking an excess proportion of students’ enrichment time. Below is a breakdown of how children in the US spend their time (Hall & Nielsen, 2020, figure 1).

How children spend their time

Certainly, something that I found as a student was that I spent a great deal of time doing homework, and as a result, significantly less time reading and engaging in other educational pursuits. That was especially evident as I moved from a state primary where I received little homework, to Forest School, a selective independent school. My parents actually thought I received far too much work as I did a lot of extra-curricular activities, which made it challenging for me to balance my time. I suppose they were in the minority in this respect. You can read about my other experiences at Forest here.

Stress from Homework

The well-being of every student is an important issue. Excessive levels of homework have certainly been shown in the academic literature to contribute significantly to higher levels of stress (Mollie, Conner, & Pope, 2013). It is fairly clear from most of the research that setting too much homework can certainly have a detrimental effect on well-being, and even attainment. There appears to be a consensus in this regard. Yet at many of the most high-performing schools, three hours of homework per night is not unheard of.

One of the significant issues in properly understanding the effectiveness of homework is the issue of causation vs correlation. Even if we are able to establish a trend that children who complete more homework have better results than those who do not, it is nigh impossible to separate cause from effect as there are many factors involved.

A student who is performing well in school, and achieving top grades, will find it easier to complete homework efficiently, and perhaps more likely to regard homework positively. On the other hand, a student who is struggling will take far longer to finish any work (compounding their misery), are likely to give up when a task is difficult and will regard homework in a negative manner.

If we accept this reality, giving homework to a struggling student is potentially counterproductive.

Has Homework Become Pointless?

As giving homework has become such an automatic action for the educator, perhaps that has made it grow stale.

It has become clear to me in working closely with students, that homework needs to have meaning. It needs to be something that they can actually attempt, and it has to be possible for the student to complete alongside their schedules.

An Anecdote

When I was in primary school in year 6, I once had an assignment that I didn’t truly understand at the time. We had to measure round objects at home and divide their circumferences by the diameter.

Now, the first challenge was to measure the distance around a curved object. Back then, we did not have the Superflex ruler! I had to puzzle over that for a while and then decided to use a piece of string.

Then I created a table where I listed the item’s circumferences and diameters, reserving a final column for the answer for the division. I started to notice that the numbers were all clustering around 3.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was investigating pi. Furthermore, I was engaging in something that involved a little practical problem-solving.

I have never forgotten this particular task, even though I was slightly bemused about why I was doing it.

In my opinion, homework should:

  1. Be possible to complete in a “reasonable” time
  2. Serve a specific purpose
  3. Be clearly set out
  4. Have a set deadline
  5. Not just fill the time
  6. Follow on from classroom material
  7. Be reviewed by the teacher
  8. Take into account the circumstances of the student
  9. Suit the student’s level
  10. Involve either drilling or critical thinking

Most students are eager for me to read their work or look through it, as long as they know they have spent time and effort on it. I usually give a helpful comment on the quality or something to that effect.

A teacher’s view on the subject

I sat down with a primary teacher who works with us and asked her a few questions about assignments set at home. During the short interview, she said a few things that stood out in particular:

  1. The class  needs to be interesting, as children tend not to work enthusiastically on a homework task if there is a lack of engagement in class
  2. The homework task needs to be relevant to something that they have studied in class, but can also involve getting them to think critically
  3. The homework task needs to be seen by the teacher so some feedback can be provided

I found myself agreeing with all three of these salient points.

Conclusion

In summary, homework is neither beneficial nor useless to students as its effectiveness is dependent on many factors.

If a student is completely disengaged at school, setting more work after school can actually further disengage him or her. On the other hand, if a student is really engaged and is keen to build his/her understanding, homework can be valuable.

Balance is also critical as there is certainly the danger of setting too much work. If more and more work is set without adequate consideration of a student’s personal circumstances, it can also result in disengagement.

Rather than ask “How beneficial is homework for your child?”, we need to focus on how we can make it beneficial, and relevant; better quality homework, rather than more.

To find out more about homework, or anything else, feel free to contact us.

References

  • Connor, S, ‘The mysterious decline of our leisure time‘ Financial Times (5 October 2021)
  • Giatino, C., Ortix-Ospina, E., and Roser M. (2020) – “Working Hours”. Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: ‘https://ourworldindata.org/working-hours‘ [Online Resource]
  • Gill, B. P., & Schlossman, S. L. (2003). “A Nation at Rest”: The American Way of Homework. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 25(3), 319–337. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3699498
  • Hall, Hannah, and Eric Nielsen (2020). “How do children spend their time? Time use and skill development in the PSID,” FEDS Notes. Washington: Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, May 26, 2020, https://doi.org/10.17016/2380-7172.2577.
  • Kohn, A. (2006, September). Abusing research: The study of homework and other examples. Phi Delta Kappan, 8-22.
  • Mollie Galloway, Jerusha Conner & Denise Pope (2013) Nonacademic Effects of Homework in Privileged, High-Performing High Schools, The Journal of Experimental Education, 81:4, 490-510, DOI: 10.1080/00220973.2012.745469
  • Trautwein, U., & Köller, O. (2003). The Relationship Between Homework and Achievement—Still Much of a Mystery. Educational Psychology Review, 15(2), 115–145. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23361516

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