George Lucas Educational Foundation Celebrating our 25th Anniversary!
Subscribe to RSS

Research Trends: Why Homework Should Be Balanced

PrintPrint
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Share
Girl working on her laptop at home on the dining room table

Homework: effective learning tool or waste of time?

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).

Why Homework Should Be Balanced

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.

Homework Pros and Cons

Homework has many benefits, ranging from higher academic performance to improved study skills and stronger school-parent connections. However, it can also result in a loss of interest in academics, fatigue, and cutting into important personal and family time. Here's a handy reference chart that lists the research-based pros and cons of homework:

 

Grade Level Makes a Difference

Although the debate about homework generally falls in the "it works" vs. "it doesn't work" camps, research shows that grade level makes a difference. High school students generally get the biggest benefits from homework, with middle school students getting about half the benefits, and elementary school students getting little benefit (Cooper et al., 2006). Since young students are still developing study habits like concentration and self-regulation, assigning a lot of homework isn't all that helpful.

Parents Should Be Supportive, Not Intrusive

Well-designed homework not only strengthens student learning, it also provides ways to create connections between a student’s family and school. Homework offers parents insight into what their children are learning, provides opportunities to talk with children about their learning, and helps create conversations with school communities about ways to support student learning (Walker et al., 2004).

However, parent involvement can also hurt student learning. Patall, Cooper, and Robinson (2008) found that students did worse when their parents were perceived as intrusive or controlling. Motivation plays a key role in learning, and parents can cause unintentional harm by not giving their children enough space and autonomy to do their homework.

Homework Across the Globe

OECD, the developers of the international PISA test, published a 2014 report looking at homework around the world. They found that 15-year-olds worldwide spend an average of five hours per week doing homework (the U.S. average is about six hours). Surprisingly, countries like Finland and Singapore spend less time on homework (2-3 hours per week) but still have high PISA rankings. These countries, the report explains, have support systems in place that allow students to rely less on homework to succeed. If a country like the U.S. were to decrease the amount of homework assigned to high school students, test scores would likely decrease unless additional supports were added.

Homework Is About Quality, Not Quantity

Whether you're pro- or anti-homework, keep in mind that research gives a big-picture idea of what works and what doesn't, and a capable teacher can make almost anything work. The question isn't about homework vs. no homework; instead, we should be asking ourselves, "How can we transform homework so that it's engaging, relevant, and supports learning?"

What are your thoughts on homework?

 

References

Cooper, H. (1989). Synthesis of research on homework. Educational leadership, 47(3), 85-91.

Cooper, H. (2010). Homework’s Diminishing Returns. The New York Times.

Cooper, H., Robinson, J. C., & Patall, E. A. (2006). Does homework improve academic achievement? A synthesis of research, 1987–2003. Review of Educational Research, 76(1), 1-62.

Darling-Hammond, L., & Ifill-Lynch, O. (2006). If They'd Only Do Their Work! Educational Leadership, 63(5), 8-13.

Eren, O., & Henderson, D. J. (2011). Are we wasting our children's time by giving them more homework? Economics of Education Review, 30(5), 950-961.

Fernández-Alonso, R., Suárez-Álvarez, J., & Muñiz, J. (2015, March 16). Adolescents’ Homework Performance in Mathematics and Science: Personal Factors and Teaching Practices. Journal of Educational Psychology. Advance online publication.

OECD (2014). Does Homework Perpetuate Inequities in Education? PISA in Focus, No. 46, OECD Publishing, Paris.

Patall, E. A., Cooper, H., & Robinson, J. C. (2008). Parent involvement in homework: A research synthesis. Review of Educational Research, 78(4), 1039-1101.

Van Voorhis, F. L. (2003). Interactive homework in middle school: Effects on family involvement and science achievement. The Journal of Educational Research, 96(6), 323-338.

Walker, J. M., Hoover-Dempsey, K. V., Whetsel, D. R., & Green, C. L. (2004). Parental involvement in homework: A review of current research and its implications for teachers, after school program staff, and parent leaders. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Family Research Project.

Was this useful? (2)

Comments (36) Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Conversations on Edutopia (36) Sign in or register to comment

LTHori's picture

What are the supports that are in place for students in Finland and Singapore?

Youki Terada's picture
Youki Terada
Senior Associate, Research Curation

Great question, LTHori!

Here's an NPR article on the education system in Finland:
What The U.S. Can Learn From Finland, Where School Starts At Age 7
http://www.npr.org/2014/03/08/287255411/what-the-u-s-can-learn-from-finl...

It boils down to a few things:
- Universal child care and preschool
- Well-trained, high-quality teachers
- Strong political support

Here's an Edutopia discussion on Singapore education (with a great link to an article) that you may find interesting:
https://www.edutopia.org/groups/technology-tools/708526

- Youki

LTHori's picture

Thanks for the resource. There are also some great studies from Fulbright exchange teachers on Finnish practices.

Desi's picture
Desi
Current Classroom Teacher; Former Instructional Coach In West Texas; Teacher @ Middle School

Reading this gave me the answer I needed! This year I'm going to "WEAN-into homework". We all know improving a student's vocabulary is key for comprehending more complex ideas... and how wonderful would it be for kids to apply new vocab in their day to day living for retention... Well I'm going to start off but assigning homework in a phase-in process. First few weeks they'll complete "Word Finds" then change it up to "Word Play" (making other words using letters from the vocab word) then "Word Families" ... Then Word "Showcasings" then graduate to Crossword puzzles (this is where learning the meaning is key) and end the year with formal Vocab quizzes and possibly some poetry... Thanks for opening my mind to trying a new approach. :)

Youki Terada's picture
Youki Terada
Senior Associate, Research Curation

LTHori, thank you for the resource, I'll check them out.

Desi, sounds like a great plan! Good luck. :)

-Youki

Youki Terada's picture
Youki Terada
Senior Associate, Research Curation

Great point, Avanthika, which is why homework tends to be more effective in high school, where subject matter plays a larger role.

mrsH927's picture

This is a very insightful read. As the parent of both an elementary and a middle school student, I can see the frustration for homework early, but the necessity to set up a routine and expectation for it. I completely agree that many times homework dips into valuable family time. The pros and cons list makes sense of some of this. Altogether, I agree that there should be balance for students so that they don't become frustrated and lose interest. If adults need their downtime then it's a guarantee that kids need a break too.

Youki Terada's picture
Youki Terada
Senior Associate, Research Curation

Glad you found it useful, Mrs. H. Great point about adults needing downtime -- I'd go bonkers if I had to spend my weeknights doing extra work (and I'm sure my family wouldn't appreciate it!)

The Edumicator's picture

Forgive my lateness to the party... Having read Marzano, Vatterott, and Kohn, I realized that, as an elementary teacher, I needed to start questioning my use of homework. I'm glad to see articles like Mr. Terada's because I hope it forces teachers to consider their homework philosophies. Unfortunately, somehow, teachers tend to believe that their homework policies fall in line with the research and nothing changes. We assume that our homework assignments are fulfilling the Pros, and simply make excuses about the Cons. For elementary students, I can't stop thinking about two things. If lessons and assignments were more engaging and students enjoyed learning more, I don't think we would need homework; plus, I should facilitate their practice anyway. And, secondly, it's hard for me to justify homework when it forces itself into personal and family time. Teachers argue about a lack of time and a need for practice, but those seem like issues that should be fixed in the classroom.

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.