George Lucas Educational Foundation

Is Homework Helpful?: The 5 Questions Every Teacher Should Ask

Is Homework Helpful?: The 5 Questions Every Teacher Should Ask

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Student behind a pile of books

The Common Core has asked teachers to increase rigor by diving deeper into the material. Consequently, everything has been ramped up, classwork and homework no exception.  

My nephew, a fourth grader, has 40-50 minutes of homework a night plus independent reading and projects. When you include a snack break, the distractions from his younger sister, and his fourth-grade attention span that is bound to wander, that time often gets doubled. He is hard working and conscientious, but many nights result in distraction, frustration and anxiety. 

The National PTA recommends 10-20 minutes per night in the first grade, and an additional 10 minutes per grade level thereafter (e.g., 20 minutes for second grade, 120 minutes for 12th). If you follow these guidelines, students will spend 137,160 minutes doing homework from first grade to 12th grade. That equals 2,286 hours or 95 straight days of homework. 

Yet, high school students in Finland rarely get more than a half-hour of homework a night. It, as a country, allows children to engage in more creative play at home. This is significant because its students scored remarkably well on international test scores. It has many parents and education advocates in America questioning our practices.

So, are we misguided with all this work? To answer that, one must step back and question the value of assignments. How often should they be assigned? Where is the line between too much and too little? Here are five considerations to help you determine what to assign and why. 

1. How long will it take to complete?

There are no surefire guidelines or golden rules that say how long students should work, especially since they progress at different speeds. Assignments need to lead to better learning outcomes. To achieve this, one must balance efficiency and effectiveness. The more efficient the assignment, the more material and learning that can be covered over the course of a year. 

Yet, here’s the rub. It must not be so quick that the material is not mastered, nor so long to provoke boredom. In between there is a sweet spot that everyone should seek.

2. Have all learners been considered? 

Often, teachers make assumptions about the time it takes to complete an assignment based on the middle-of-the-pack kid. Yet, struggling learners can take double or triple the time as other students to complete an assignment. Don't just think about the average learner, consider the needs of al students.

3. Will an assignment encourage future success?

A longer assignment can be justified if it is meaningful. Work that builds confidence and opens the door to future success is certainly worth it. Worthy assignments encourage participation in upcoming activities rather than discourage it. Teachers must explain the benefit of classwork and homework so that students will be sold on its benefit. Without the sales pitch, or the awareness of its purpose, students will view assignments as busy work.  

4. Will an assignment place the material in a context the classroom can not? 

Homework is effective when classroom learning is transferred beyond the school walls. When teaching area, have students measure the area of a refrigerator shelf to determine what size sheet cake will fit for an upcoming party.  When teaching the types of clouds, have students observe them in their own back yard. Make the learning applicable to everyday life, and it will be worth the time it takes to complete.

5. Does an assignment offer support when a teacher is not there? 

Students can reduce the time it takes to complete assignments if they know where to turn for help. In the case of homework teachers are not there at all. Assignments should not only check for understanding, they should also offer support when students struggle.  Teachers should provide links to online tutorials, like Khan Academy, that offer instruction when stuck. 

This post is the first of two parts. The second part can be found here: Homework: Helping Students Manage their Time.

This post was created by a member of Edutopia's community. If you have your own #eduawesome tips, strategies, and ideas for improving education, share them with us.

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Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

Thanks for sharing these articles cfox. I can't wait to spend some time with them!

Brian Sztabnik's picture
Brian Sztabnik
AP Literature teacher from Miller Place, NY

I enjoyed reading your post, especially how you tie everything together at the end when you say, "In conclusion, I think that in fact, the "heavy" burden of homework does more good than harm. Those students and parents in America who are faced with the increase of homework are merely over-reacting."

I believe that students need work that engages their curiosity, feed their thirst to know more, and builds deep understanding, not just superficial knowledge. This is true of classwork as well as homework. If teachers simply gave less homework, I don't know if this would increase mastery. Nor would more homework. It all comes down to meaningfulness.

My fear is that, in the U.S., many teachers have reacted to the increase of rigor expected by the Common Core by piling on my work at home without a regard to its effectiveness.

cfox's picture

Hi Brian, I can't take credit for the articles by any means -- I didn't write them! But I was just throwing those out there because I do notice whenever the topic of meaningful homework comes up in articles I read, and when other countries are used as a comparison, it's usually Finland. When it's the topic of math and related international test scores, then it's usually Hong Kong or Singapore. But I don't generally see an article talking about meaningful homework and test scores and Hong Kong or Singapore, so I was curious about what interesting discussions might come from that.

Ali King's picture
Ali King
Kindergarden Teacher's Aid

Hey Brian, I just wanted to say that your third point really rings true to me. As a recent college grad, the memory of nightly homework is a not-so-distant memory, and it took me pretty much until college to see the real benefits of homework. I think that it is really important for teachers to communicate with their students what their goals for a homework assignment are, and also for the students to give feedback to the teacher as to whether or not the assignment met those goals. I think more dialogue in the classroom (especially about homework) would create a more constructive learning environment for everyone.

Lina Raffaelli's picture
Lina Raffaelli
Former Community Engagement Intern at Edutopia

I echo Ali's thoughts, as a recent college grad myself. Understanding the goal or takeaway of the HW assignment is key. I think if students have a clear picture of why the exercise is important, or how it ties into class content, then it feels more beneficial and less like a waste of their time. I agree that communication is a essential part of this; in some cases the goals may seem clear and obvious to the teacher/professor but are more convoluted from the student perspective.

Brian Sztabnik's picture
Brian Sztabnik
AP Literature teacher from Miller Place, NY


Sometimes it is hard as a teacher to communicate why things are important because we see the material and the work from an experienced perspective. For example, today in class I gave an assignment that I thought was straightforward, but when a student said "I'm not sure what you are asking us to do" I realized that I had not explained things fully. That is because it was an assignment that I had given out for years and while it was routine to me, it was new to them. Consequently, they didn't have the same understanding or perspective that I did. It was my fault for not communicating and modeling my expectations more clearly. Lesson learned -- see things from the student's perspective, not your own.

Emma's picture

Brian, I really enjoyed your post and agree with much of what you are saying. Our building leadership team just had an in-depth discussion regarding the purpose of homework, and many of the same points were brought up. Often times in math a concept seems very simple when the teacher is walking you through it. However, when you get home you get a better sense of what you did not understand and where you are having troubles. I use homework as formative assessments to help guide my instruction. It is important for me to know where my students are having troubles when I am not there to help them right away. However, in response to your fifth point I think it is very important that we provide support for those students who need it outside of school. I often post interactive whiteboard examples on our class page so students can "get help" from me even when we are not in class. In addition, I answer questions through messages on our Learning Management System many times throughout the evening. My students know that I am here to help them even when we are not in school.

JulesLars's picture

I used to be from the 'homework is exercise for the brain' school of thought. I even had that printed in my 'Welcome Back' packet I would send home the first day of school. Now that I am a parent, I can see where homework can be more of a burden and can overwhelm children who participate in after school activities, such as sports or clubs. Although I feel it not a truly fair comparison to Finland's take on homework and student success, with their school system using the tracking method for students once they reach 16, I do see how homework can be an unnecessary evil, if the teacher does not put much thought into what to assign. Now, especially after reading this, I will make a more conscious effort to only assign meaningful homework assignments that will not take up so much time. Children need time to be children. I would not want my own child to be burdened with hours of homework, on top of their sports activities, which I feel are important for them to have. As with anything, I feel balance is a good thing. I am not one for extremes, and I feel education should not be extreme, either.

Angela's picture

I found this piece interesting as I have asked myself is homework beneficial for my students? I teach middle school history at a school with a rigorous curriculum. Initially I would assign homework that I felt reinforced the objectives that I taught on that day. After a while parents began to complain about too much homework. While it did not seem to me that my homework was excessive when you added the homework that had been assigned by other teachers, it made for a long night for many students. I think I was steeped in tradition. "Middle school students must have homework?" I had to take a moment and reflect on what my goals were.I decided to flip my classroom. My students read a minimum of 15 minutes a night from the textbook. I instruct in class, I assign practice assignments as well as collaborative assignments. I find they have greater success if I can monitor their learning and I am available if they have questions or need clarity. I can also assess whether they can complete assignments independently. Making this switch worked for me. If parents complain about the amount of homework I am no longer a part of the equation. More importantly my students get what they need in a safe and supportive learning environment. I do believe that sometimes you have to examine methodology to see if it is effective. When it no longer produces the desired results, changes need to be made.

Jason Franco's picture

Agreed! As a math teacher it's challenging to not get caught up in the practice, practice, practice mentality, where more is better. In the move toward common core, it's exciting to try to get the students to THINK and not just memorize. Now we need to get the kids to buy into it!

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