Like all teachers, I’ve spent many hours correcting homework. Yet there’s a debate over whether we should be setting it at all.
I teach both primary and secondary, and regularly find myself drawn into the argument on the reasoning behind it – parents, and sometimes colleagues, question its validity. Parent-teacher interviews can become consumed by how much trouble students have completing assignments. All of which has led me to question the neuroscience behind setting homework. Is it worth it?
'My son works until midnight': parents around the world on homework
Increasingly, there’s a divide between those who support the need for homework and those who suggest the time would be better spent with family and developing relationships. The anxiety related to homework is frequently reviewed.
A survey of high-performing high schools by the Stanford Graduate School of Education, for example, found that 56% of students considered homework a primary source of stress. These same students reported that the demands of homework caused sleep deprivation and other health problems, as well as less time for friends, family and extracurricular pursuits.
When students learn in the classroom, they are using their short-term or working memory. This information is continually updated during the class. On leaving the classroom, the information in the working memory is replaced by the topic in the next class.
Adults experience a similar reaction when they walk into a new room and forget why they are there. The new set of sensory information – lighting, odours, temperature – enters their working memory and any pre-existing information is displaced. It’s only when the person returns to the same environment that they remember the key information.
But education is about more than memorising facts. Students need to access the information in ways that are relevant to their world, and to transfer knowledge to new situations.
Many of us will have struggled to remember someone’s name when we meet them in an unexpected environment (a workmate at the gym, maybe), and we are more likely to remember them again once we’ve seen them multiple times in different places. Similarly, students must practise their skills in different environments.
Revising the key skills learned in the classroom during homework increases the likelihood of a student remembering and being able to use those skills in a variety of situations in the future, contributing to their overall education.
The link between homework and educational achievement is supported by research: a meta-analysis of studies between 1987 and 2003 found that: “With only rare exceptions, the relationship between the amount of homework students do and their achievement outcomes was found to be positive and statistically significant.”
The right type of work
The homework debate is often split along the lines of primary school compared with secondary school. Education researcher Professor John Hattie, who has ranked various influences on student learning and achievement, found that homework in primary schools has a negligible effect (most homework set has little to no impact on a student’s overall learning). However, it makes a bigger difference in secondary schools.
His explanation is that students in secondary schools are often given tasks that reinforce key skills learned in the classroom that day, whereas primary students may be asked to complete separate assignments. “The worst thing you can do with homework is give kids projects; the best thing you can do is reinforce something you’ve already learned,” he told the BBC in 2014.
The science of homework: tips to engage students' brains
So homework can be effective when it’s the right type of homework. In my own practice, the primary students I teach will often be asked to find real-life examples of the concept taught instead of traditional homework tasks, while homework for secondary students consolidates the key concepts covered in the classroom. For secondary in particular, I find a general set of rules useful:
- Set work that’s relevant. This includes elaborating on information addressed in the class or opportunities for students to explore the key concept in areas of their own interest.
- Make sure students can complete the homework. Pitch it to a student’s age and skills – anxiety will only limit their cognitive abilities in that topic. A high chance of success will increase the reward stimulation in the brain.
- Get parents involved, without the homework being a point of conflict with students. Make it a sharing of information, rather than a battle.
- Check the homework with the students afterwards. This offers a chance to review the key concepts and allow the working memory to become part of the long-term memory.
While there is no data on the effectiveness of homework in different subjects, these general rules could be applied equally to languages, mathematics or humanities. And by setting the right type of homework, you’ll help to reinforce key concepts in a new environment, allowing the information you teach to be used in a variety of contexts in the future.
Helen Silvester is a writer for npj Science of Learning Community
Follow us on Twitter via @GuardianTeach. Join the Guardian Teacher Network for lesson resources, comment and job opportunities, direct to your inbox.
The Homework Debate: How Homework Benefits StudentsBy Monica Fuglei • November 21, 2013
This post has been updated for accuracy and relevance as of December 2017.
In another of our blog posts, The Case Against Homework, we articulated several points of view against homework as standard practice for teachers. However, a variety of lessons, content-related and beyond, can be taught or reinforced through homework and are worth exploring. Read on!
Four ways homework aids students’ academic achievement
Homework provides an opportunity for parents to interact with and understand the content their students are learning so they can provide another means of academic support for students. Memphis Parent writer Glenda Faye Pryor-Johnson says that, “When your child does homework, you do homework,” and notes that this is an opportunity for parents to model good behavior for their children.
Pryor-Johnson also identifies four qualities children develop when they complete homework that can help them become high-achieving students:
- Time management
While these cannot be measured on standardized tests, perseverance has garnered a lot of attention as an essential skill for successful students. Regular accomplishments like finishing homework build self-esteem, which aids students’ mental and physical health. Responsibility and time management are highly desirable qualities that benefit students long after they graduate.
NYU and Duke professors refute the idea that homework is unrelated to student success
In response to the National School Board Association’s Center for Public Education’s findings that homework was not conclusively related to student success, historian and NYU professor Diane Ravitch contends that the study’s true discovery was that students who did not complete homework or who lacked the resources to do so suffered poor outcomes.
Ravitch believes the study’s data only supports the idea that those who complete homework benefit from homework. She also cites additional benefits of homework: when else would students be allowed to engage thoughtfully with a text or write a complete essay? Constraints on class time require that such activities are given as outside assignments.
5 studies support a significant relationship between homework completion and academic success
Duke University professor Harris Cooper supports Ravitch’s assessment, saying that, “Across five studies, the average student who did homework had a higher unit test score than the students not doing homework.” Dr. Cooper and his colleagues analyzed dozens of studies on whether homework is beneficial in a 2006 publication, “Does Homework Improve Academic Achievement? A Synthesis of Research, 1987–2003.”
This analysis found 12 less-authoritative studies that link achievement to time spent on homework, but control for many other factors that could influence the outcome. Finally, the research team identified 35 studies that found a positive correlation between homework and achievement, but only after elementary school. Dr. Cooper concluded that younger students might be less capable of benefiting from homework due to undeveloped study habits or other factors.
Recommended amount of homework varies by grade level
“Does Homework Improve Academic Achievement?” also identifies the amount homework that serves as a learning tool for students. While practice improves test scores at all grade levels, “Homework for junior high students appears to reach the point of diminishing returns after about 90 minutes a night. For high school students, the positive line continues to climb until between 90 minutes and 2.5 hours of homework a night, after which returns diminish.”
Dr. Cooper’s conclusion—homework is important, but discretion can and should be used when assigning it—addresses the valid concerns of homework critics. While the act of completing homework has benefits in terms of developing good habits in students, homework must prove useful for students so that they buy in to the process and complete their assignments. If students (or their parents) feel homework is a useless component of their learning, they will skip it—and miss out on the major benefits, content and otherwise, that homework has to offer.
Continue reading: Ending the Homework Debate: Expert Advice on What Works
Monica Fuglei is a graduate of the University of Nebraska in Omaha and a current adjunct faculty member of Arapahoe Community College in Colorado, where she teaches composition and creative writing.Tags: Leadership and Administration, Pros and Cons, Teacher-Parent Relationships