Research Trends: Why Homework Should Be Balanced

The following article is from Edutopia.

Since the average high school student spends almost seven hours each week doing homework, it’s surprising that there’s no clear answer. Homework is generally recognized as an effective way to reinforce what students learn in class, but claims that it may cause more harm than good, especially for younger students, are common.

Here’s what the research says:

  • In general, homework has substantial benefits at the high school level, with decreased benefits for middle school students and little benefit for elementary students (Cooper, 1989; Cooper et al., 2006).
  • While assigning homework may have academic benefits, it can also cut into important personal and family time (Cooper et al., 2006).
  • Assigning too much homework can result in poor performance (Fernández-Alonso et al., 2015).
  • A student’s ability to complete homework may depend on factors that are outside their control (Cooper et al., 2006; OECD, 2014; Eren & Henderson, 2011).
  • The goal shouldn’t be to eliminate homework, but to make it authentic, meaningful, and engaging (Darling-Hammond & Ifill-Lynch, 2006).

Homework can boost learning, but doing too much can be detrimental The National PTA and National Education Association support the “ten-minute homework rule,” which recommends ten minutes of homework per grade level, per night (ten minutes for first grade, 20 minutes for second grade, and so on, up to two hours for 12th grade) (Cooper, 2010). A recent study found that when middle school students were assigned more than 90-100 minutes of homework per day, their math and science scores began to decline (Fernández-Alonso, Suárez-Álvarez, & Muñiz, 2015). Giving students too much homework can lead to fatigue, stress, and a loss of interest in academics — something that we all want to avoid.


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Have You Got Your Homework?

Our wonderful consultants make this job amazing. We sat down with Big Ides Learning Consultant, Mary Quadrini to have a go on the topic that every teacher deals with – homework. Mary offered some great advice:

Mention math class and invariably the subject of homework will surface. In no other course in school is homework assigned as regularly as in mathematics. If you Google “Math Homework Help”, you will get more than 27 million hits! Parents, students, and teachers all have strong opinions about it.


Does Homework Help Student Achievement?

Research studies are divided on this matter, but generally, students in grades 6-12 benefit the most from completing homework assignments. A good deal of that achievement is tied to the type of assignment students are given and how they feel about their ability to complete it. For students in grades K-6, student achievement gains are less reliable because it is often difficult to determine who is doing the work. A recent study on math homework in the Journal of Advanced Academics provides some new guidance for math teachers: It’s not the amount of time students spend on homework that is important in raising achievement, but the sense of self-efficacy they develop while carrying out assignments


What Homework Should Teachers Assign?

The most important thing to remember when choosing a homework assignment is to assign what students can do.  Homework is practice of the skills and concepts that students have learned in class, under your instruction.  Your classroom is where the productive struggle with math concepts should be done, not at home, where both parents and students become frustrated.  Keep the assignment short and sweet. Homework should never compensate for a poorly planned lesson (“finish this for homework”).  Sending students home with an assignment they fail to understand only starts the cycle of spending too much precious class time reteaching the concepts students never mastered in the first place.

Most teachers rely on the exercises in their textbook or practice pages for homework.  Some teachers are adamant about not assigning odd-exercises from the text as they usually provide the answers, while others insist that students have access to the answers.  One such teacher is Marlo Warburton, from Longfellow Middle School in Berkeley, CA.  She assigns only a handful of questions, with a mix of skills, conceptual understanding and application and requires her students to check the answers.  Then they must work to justify the answers given in the book, showing the process needed to get to the answer.  She has them self-assess their success on answering the questions, noting whether they got the answer correct before checking the answer, after checking the answer or not at all.  I like this process as it puts the onus of learning, not completing, on to the students.  Students have a period of time during which they may “fix” their homework, once they have understood the process of obtaining the solution.  You may read more about Marlo’s technique for homework in the March 2014 issue of NCTM’s Mathematics Teacher.

Another teacher used the concept of a course syllabus to issue a week’s worth of differentiated homework assignments to students.  Assignments categories were Basic, On Level and Advanced.  She gave students choices and suggested they work with other students on the assignments.  Often, when given a choice, students remarkably aim higher than we would have thought they would, especially when encouraged.

It is important that the homework assigned to students be perceived by students as attainable and relevant to what they are learning.  Incorporating the use of technology can be especially useful.  One Big Ideas Math teacher gave her middle school students an assignment to pick a game from our Game Closet to teach to his/her family and write a paragraph about why they liked the game.  Another teacher asked students to read the next lesson in the textbook online and take advantage of the video tutorials built into the online text.

One of my colleagues always had students write a short paragraph about their homework experience during the week.  She asked them if they were able to catch any mistakes they made.  She asked them to describe what they do when they were stuck on a problem (study buddy, using tutorials, family friends, etc.)  This self-reflection helps students develop good study habits that will support them beyond your class.


What Should Teachers Do With Homework?

Remember, homework is practice on what students have learned in class.  Putting high grading values on homework only asks for trouble (copying, struggling to write anything on the HW paper.)  Students should have their homework ready at the start of class.  I always collected it just to get it off their desks and to help students focus on the lesson’s work.  Homework reflects students’ efforts to learn and to acquire fluency.

Having students check each other’s work in class provides an added benefit to students in that they must defend the processes they chose to solve problems.  The more they talk to each other about the mathematics they are doing, the better they will retain it.

Homework is an integral part of learning.  The more confident students are about being able to complete a homework assignment, the more likely they will complete it.  Making assignments accessible, relevant and engaging will help students achieve in mathematics.  The more students do, the less the dog has to eat!


What do you think about Homework and what Mary had to say? Let us know in the comments below.


Homework Matters

There is little doubt in the minds of most math teachers that homework is an integral part of learning in mathematics. Among the questions that arise are:

  • What is the purpose of homework?
  • How much homework should be given?
  • How can we get students to do their homework?

What is the purpose of homework?

Homework can have a variety of purposes.

1. For some situations homework can be used to prepare students for class the following day. Perhaps students need to read the upcoming section or lesson or there may be a video that students need to watch. There could be materials that need to be gathered together or a survey that needs to be conducted among family members.

Whatever the “pre-class” assignment might be, it needs to be meaningful and structured. Asking students to read a section in their math book will more often than not result in a 1 minute glance just before class. However, if students are given a few specific questions to answer concerning the lesson and then held accountable for them, there is a better chance the pre-work will be attempted. The questions should not just be problems to answer but questions that require thought processes such as comparing the methods used in the lesson to determine which method is best used in which situation. When students enter class they can then share their ideas with their small group or the entire class. They should be required to provide insight into the lesson or possibly additional questions that they could not answer as they did their reading.

All students need to be held accountable. As class time does not usually allow for reports from every student every day, the teacher may randomly select a couple of students each time. Students that have not done the pre-work cannot be “let off the hook” or the next time no one will be prepared.

2. Practice is one of the main purposes of homework. Just as with any skill, practice is extremely important, however before assigning copious amounts of problems, teachers need to be certain students have a relatively good understanding of the processes involved. Teachers must also take into account the Depth of Knowledge (DoK) utilized with each assigned problem. For most simple skills or plug and chug problems the DoK is 1 or 2. For true understanding of the concept students need to be involved in problems that have a DoK of 3 or 4. These problems will take more time and thought, but the understanding gained will be far deeper.

How much homework should be given?

In the past, assignmentsof 30-35 problems were common so that the students could use rote memorization for a particular process. Now that the emphasis is not on memorizing but rather on understanding, fewer problems should be given so that students can spend sufficient time in developing their ideas and solutions.
It may be that 1 or 2 problems will be enough for the students to grasp the depth of the concept. It is highly recommended that before making assignments teachers should do the problems themselves so that they can understand the amount of time required. Homework assignments could include a few problems with DoK of 1 or 2, but problems with a DoK of 3 or 4 should always be included. The problems that make the students think will provide an understanding that lasts more than a day or a week.

How can we get students to do their homework?

No matter the purpose or quantity of homework assigned students need to actually do their assignments to gain any benefit.

There is a better chance that one or two meaningful problems will be at least attempted compared with a page with 50 long division problems. Whatever the assignment, students need to feel it is important to complete the work.

In my classes I walked around the room at the beginning of class every day and looked at every student’s work. I used a right side up stamp to indicate a completed assignment with all work shown, an up side down stamp to indicate the assignment was half done and no stamp was given to papers less than halfway completed. This gave me the opportunity to talk with each student every day, for 5-10 seconds about their homework. If it was not done or “the dog ate it” I would explain the need for them to do their work, how it was important to me that they did their work and I would get them to promise they would do their work that night. Not all of them did, in which case we would have a little discussion about how important promises were, but many of the students would at least make an attempt. The next day I would make a big deal about the work completed and have another talk with those that didn’t do their work. For some students this was the only adult conversation they had all day and the only person that ever told them they cared what they did. The result was more homework turned in than ever before. It was far more successful than notes or phone calls home, more successful than detention or ridicule. It was just the teacher caring about the success of the students and sharing it with them.

Practice is important to the success of students in any endeavor. We want students to learn to persevere with their work and experience the great feeling of a job well done when they do. Meaningful work combined with patience, enthusiasm and encouragement from the teacher will go a long way in preparing students for the work that lies ahead.