The Homework Dilemma

If you have ever tried to figure out what a homework assignment is trying to accomplish and why is it taking so many hours, then you’ve taken the first step in wrestling with the homework dilemma.

Homework serves, by most counts, four different purposes. The most common is practice: reinforcing specific skills. It can serve, though, to prepare a student for future lessons. Then there is homework that extends a well-honed skill to solve new types of problems. Finally there is homework that requires students to integrate a range of skills for a specific task such as a science project or book report.     

There are, however, homework myths that can confuse the entire homework enterprise. The first is that the more homework you do, the better will be your test scores and grades. According to Professor Harris Cooper of Duke University, a leading homework researcher who reviewed over 180 studies on homework and its effects,  the correlation between homework and performance in elementary school is nil, in middle school slight, and even in high school, “too much homework may diminish its effectiveness or even become counterproductive.” (Harris Cooper, The Battle Over Homework, 2nd Edition, Spring 2006)

So what is the optimum amount of time a student should spend on homework? Again, according to Professor Cooper, students should not spend more than 10 minutes per grade level per night—and we’re talking only Monday-Thursday. In other words a second grader should be spending 20 minutes a night, and a freshman in high school, 90 minutes.

The next myth: The reason US high school students score so poorly on the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) test over math, science, and reading is because the schools in other countries assign much more homework. Surprisingly, many of the high scoring countries, such as Japan and Denmark, actually assign less. Possibly the US can improve student PISA performances by assigning homework that is concise, uncomplicated, and engages a student’s interests. Unfortunately, most teachers in the US are not trained on how to assign homework effectively, nor are most aware of the problems surrounding homework. Rather, when it comes to homework, most teachers are winging it.

Homework myth number three is that homework allows parents to take an active role in their child’s education and creates family bonding. Possibly, in certain cases, this is true. Yet, research indicates over half of parents have serious arguments with their child over homework resulting in yelling and crying.

To quell some of the confrontations over homework, parents might create a quiet, well lit place to study. They also might eliminate distractions, especially the Internet. (A professor from St. Thomas University in Canada limited his two children to one hour a day online. Despite withdrawal symptoms, his children eventually regained their ability to concentrate, play and read.) Ensure all the materials necessary to complete the assignment are available; help schedule study time; be positive about homework; model the solution to a problem but never do the homework; and, stay alert: encourage the frustrated and reward success.

Get engaged and try to get your school to ‘flip’ homework. According to extensive research from Salman Khan Academy and the University of British Columbia, among many, learning is improved dramatically my making the presentation of concepts, homework, and the problems, the class. Khan Academy’s website is brimming with lectures, brief and concise, on 100s of concepts. These can be reviewed and replayed as often as needed. Then, the learning occurs by working through problems with the teacher in the classroom.

However you might approach the homework dilemma, do not neglect doing your homework: you just might learn something.