Monday, August 22, 2011

Is Homework Worth the Hassle?

Sarah's too cool for school, while JJ needs a lesson on how to wear
a backpack without attracting the attention of bullies.

I can't believe that summer is over and the kids are back to school.  Yep, back to the cold, hard grind of first and third grades.  All right, I'm exaggerating; aren't you allowed to do that in a blog?  But what I dread most about returning to school is forcing my son to do his homework, and to do it well.  (My 6-year-old daughter obviously reads and hews to the research showing that girls have a more positive attitude about homework.)  You wouldn't think that 10 measly worksheets a week could provoke such angst, but how could they possibly lure my son away from the siren call of the Wii?  Some of my friends send their kids to private schools that refuse to assign homework, and a couple of my more EBM-minded pals have even pointed out, "You know, there's no evidence that homework is effective."  Could that be true? 

The amount of research on homework is vast and generally crappy.  One literature search on the topic found over 4,000 papers, which I was planning to summarize for you, until I was fortunate enough to run across a 2006 systematic review on the subject ("Does homework improve academic achievement?").

The authors found only four trials that randomized either students or classrooms to homework vs. no homework.  All of the trials were small, and not one was published, which speaks to their quality.  Most used as their outcome measure a test of the specific subject material.  All four studies showed that students who were assigned homework performed better on the tests than those who did not.  For example, in one randomized trial of high school students who were studying Macbeth, those who got the homework were able to correctly identify that MacDuff was a Scottish nobleman and not a Simpsons beer company mascot.  ("Student and parental homework practices and the effect of English homework on student test scores.")  The reviewers tried to inject a note of optimism into their summary of the meager evidence, stating, "While each set of studies is flawed, in general the studies tend not to share the same flaws.”

Despite the lack of experimental data, there are multiple large observational studies looking at the effect of homework on academic achievement.  Many were based upon the National Education Longitudinal Study, which gathered achievement test scores, school grades and surveys filled out by tens of thousands of high school students, teachers and parents.  It turns out that in this age group, there is indeed a strong positive correlation between homework and test scores and grades.  And what was the optimal amount of homework for high school students?  One study found it to be 7 to 12 hours a week, or about 1-2 hours per night.  Spending over 20 hours a week (oh, the horror!) was no better than spending only 1-6 hours a week.  Of course, the most obvious flaw in these studies is that it is impossible prove causality.  Does homework lead to good test scores and grades, and by inference, improved learning?  Or do better teachers in upper-income schools, where there is more parental involvement, tend to assign more homework?

And what about elementary school students?  Here's where the evidence is at its shakiest.  This paper's meta-analysis of cross-sectional studies on students in grades K-6 found that there was no correlation between the amount of time spent on homework and academic achievement.  This latest review agrees with an analysis published 17 years prior that also showed no increasing benefit with increased amount of homework in this age group -- 15 minutes a week is as good as 15 hours.

So what are we left with?  I would have to agree with the authors' conclusion that more experimental research is needed, particularly in elementary school, though who would fund such a study, or whether teachers and parents would find it acceptable, is unclear.  Interestingly, in the past couple of decades, the average amount of homework assigned to the youngest age group, 6 to 8 years old, has doubled from 1 to 2 hours a week.  I know an extra hour isn't much.  But I suppose if I were a purist, I would demand that a randomized, controlled study be done comparing 2 hours a week of homework to 2 hours a week of Super Mario Brothers.  

Nintendo, are you listening?


  1. Another shortcoming of these studies is that they appear to focus on the hours of homework (quantity). I would argue that the nature and appropriateness (quality) of the homework assigned has as much impact if not more. For example, contrast the assignment of pages and pages of repetitive math problems versus fewer but progressively more difficult problems that challenge the student to extend their application of the concepts taught in class.

  2. Also, something that struck me as I was reading this, is that having elementary school kids do homework acclimatizes them to the routine and discipline of homework. It may not affect their current performance, but if it makes it easier for them to do homework later, then it may be worth it in the long run.

  3. As a parent of a child on the autism spectrum, homework is a constant struggle. Our son has worked extremely hard and has been able to maintain a 3.5 GPA without any assistance. He is completely overwhelmed by the end of the day because he works so hard during school day. It ends up being a huge punishment (for both of us) to have 5+ hours of homework on top of that. I finally called an IEP to ask for modified hw which is something that we have never asked for. I was surprised with the amount of resistance we met.. My son is extremely smart, doing well socially but absolutely crumbling under the pressure of doing school work all darn day. We eventually got our way and I am happy to report that his grades haven't suffered a bit. I do agree that hw is necessary practice for college years and I believe that he would have a hard time later if he did not have a chance to develop and practice good study habits. I just think it is easy to lose sight of the whole picture. Having an accomplished child doesn't mean a whole lot to me if he is an emotional basketcase. I enjoyed your post and love your blog! Thank you for sharing :)

  4. IKR? As a school counselor, budding BCBA, and mom of a special education student in a system poorly equipped to even call him autistic (much less thereafter provide him with the subsequent services he requires), I too have toyed with the idea of ditching the whole homework hassle via the IEP. I get the preparation for higher learning pitch and have kept homework in the past bc I really wasn't always sure of what he was learning in school and what he was learning at home. However, when writing a response recently to a teacher who was standing her ground on the whole "this student will write their own homework assignment down" ground, the only evidence I felt increasing is the evidence HW is simply a battle of the wills. All through my son's elementary years, I was bound and determined to see he sit through all the homework of every other child in his class because I was caught up in the same battle. We don't know exactly what all makes it so difficult for some children to get their homework assignments down in a planner and home for mommy to cram down their throats! I am not thoroughly convinced my child doesn't have some visual discrimination issues complicating this matter, and many of our students have difficulties with the fine motor processes involved in writing. The bottom line is this, is this the battle we, as special educators and mommys of special education students need to be banging our heads up against the wall to fight? Furthermore, when you look at the increased time required for some special education students to complete the same amount of homework as his neuro-typical peers, shouldn't there be some accommodations made to ensure our kids aren't using all of the time they might otherwise incorporate for quality family time, or (God forbid) time to socialize with peers in the neighborhood or on the telephone to do the same thing they spent the whole day at school doing? I'll tell you, I was really angry with myself when I realized how those elementary years were spent with my child. I have to forgive myself, bc I know I was only doing what I felt I was expected to do with my child. The question remains, however, should the school be expecting my child to do this? When looking at the current evidence base, perhaps not.