The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

How Important is Homework to Learning?

on June 9, 2016

My feelings about homework have been strongly affected by the school experiences of my own children and my granddaughter.  My four kids, who completed their education in the past century, almost never complained about homework or needed any help with their assignments. They also had plenty of time left to read books of their own choice and participate in after school sports.  On the other hand, my only granddaughter, who was as capable as her parents and uncles, went to high school early in this century and stayed up past midnight almost every night doing homework. When I went to the school to talk about the problem, I was told that the school was high-achieving and naturally expected much from all its students.  I transferred her out to a more progressive thinking school the following week.

As an elementary grade teacher the only homework I gave was reading. Later, when I became a principal, my teachers decided—unanimously—to do the same. They designated time amounts for each grade and asked parents to monitor them, without being too strict or reporting back to teachers. High school is a different world, however. There, students move through five or more classes per day, and each class is barely long enough for instruction, discussion, and a bit of practice. There is rarely time for adding on reading or writing. To make the situation more of a problem teachers do not know when their colleagues are giving difficult and lengthy homework assignments.

To form our own opinions let’s look at the research and then the unscientific results of interviews that I did with teachers. The research is decisive about which students benefit most from doing homework.  Middle school and high school students gain some benefit, but not elementary students.  Researchers don’t say why this is true.  At the same time researchers suspect that assigning large amounts of homework on a consistent basis adversely affects student performance. According to some of them, the amount of homework students have to do should be guided by the “ten-minute rule” which means that the total homework time for each grade should be no longer than ten times the grade level, figured in minutes. In other words, sixth grade teachers should assign no more than sixty minutes of homework. Unfortunately, however, this rule doesn’t help much because students vary widely in how long it takes them to complete the same piece of work.

In addition, some researchers have looked at the benefits of stressing a particular type of homework, but they have not been able to give definitive answers. The problem is that the types of reading or writing assignments vary in their difficulty. Reading a news paper report on election results may take only five minutes and be clear to all students, while reading an opinion piece on what should be done about the religious conflicts in Middle East countries may demand more time and thought.

Through conversations with several experienced teachers whose wisdom I respect, I learned that most of them favor reading for homework, either in a familiar textbook or a piece of literature introduced and begun in class. Their second choice was math problems also introduced and practiced in class. Answering questions about material read and/or discussed in class was not at all popular. Most of the teachers I talked to felt that such tasks were boring for students and did not improve their learning. When it came to having students do writing for homework there were differences of opinion. Elementary grade teachers were skeptical about giving students such assignments because they felt that young children need help throughout the process, and that parents should not be the ones to give it. In contrast, middle and high school teachers felt that some types of writing make good homework assignments, as long as there was preparation in the classroom beforehand.

Although teacher preferences may appear to leave homework questions still open, I saw a few restrictions coming through clearly. Teachers believe that they should stay away from assigning unfamiliar tasks or formats as homework because students tend to forget teachers’ instructions and become frustrated or rely on their parents for guidance. Teachers also try to avoid long-term projects to be done at home because student work outside the classroom cannot be monitored or guided by teachers.

In their interviews some teachers also mentioned one type of homework they liked that I did not ask about: interviewing parents or other adults about topics being studied at school. Although students needed help in the classroom beforehand in selecting and framing questions, most of them seemed strongly motivated to find out what their parents, siblings, friends, or strangers had to say. They wrote down answers or recorded them on cell phones and, once back in the classroom, classified them, counted them, and determined percentages. Teachers said that this type of homework almost always led to good discussions and writing about the results.

Although some of the problems in education today, such as swamping kids with too much homework or bewildering them with unfamiliar assignments, have not been answered by research or the teachers I interviewed, I hope they have stirred readers to think more about them. The demands now put upon teachers and students are greater than ever before, and can’t be met by longer school days or years or more work at home. What do you see as better ways to educate all our children?


3 responses to “How Important is Homework to Learning?

  1. pauleck47 says:

    Timely piece. Both of my grandkids were enrolled in a Spanish immersion elementary school program and had extensive homework packages starting in kindergarten. I did a lot of child care for my daughter, a single Mom with an irregular work schedule. Therefore, I spent a lot of time with a Spanish dictionary and guessing as the directions were mostly in—-SPANISH—and I do not speak the language. Major frustration for all involved. I would have much preferred playing and going out for ice cream talks.

    I also have read Alfie Kohn’s article based on his meta-analysis of the efficacy of homework. Dr. David C. Berliner also spoke on this topic when he visited in March of this year. Both of these scholars appear to agree with the information shared in this blog.

    Seems to me that we are wasting a lot of time at the elementary grade level while putting a lot of undue pressure on kids, parents and teachers.


    • writerjoney says:

      You know that I agree with you,Pat.I wish you’d write a piece about your grandchildren’s homework describing what they were asked to do, how long it took them, and their reactions. I don’t have any experience or direct information that I can write about this topic. But I do suspect that it’s either the utter stupidity of the decision makers or just plain child abuse.


  2. pauleck47 says:

    Well done! Thank you for writing on this timely topic. Regards, Pat


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