George Lucas Educational Foundation

Homework: No Proven Benefits

Why homework is a pointless and outdated habit.
By Alfie Kohn
Related Tags: Assessment, All Grades
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This is an excerpt from Alfie Kohn's recently published book The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing. For one teacher's response to this excerpt, read In Defense of Homework: Is there Such a Thing as Too Much?.

It may surprise you, as it did me, to learn that no study has ever demonstrated any academic benefit to assigning homework before children are in high school. In fact, even in high school, the association between homework and achievement is weak -- and the data don't show that homework is responsible for higher achievement. (Correlation doesn't imply causation.)

Finally, there isn't a shred of evidence to support the folk wisdom that homework provides nonacademic benefits at any age -- for example, that it builds character, promotes self-discipline, or teaches good work habits. We're all familiar with the downside of homework: the frustration and exhaustion, the family conflict, time lost for other activities, and possible diminution of children's interest in learning. But the stubborn belief that all of this must be worth it, that the gain must outweigh the pain, relies on faith rather than evidence.

So why does homework continue to be assigned and accepted? Possible reasons include a lack of respect for research, a lack of respect for children (implicit in a determination to keep them busy after school), a lack of understanding about the nature of learning (implicit in the emphasis on practicing skills and the assertion that homework "reinforces" school lessons), or the top-down pressures to teach more stuff faster in order to pump up test scores so we can chant "We're number one!"

All of these explanations are plausible, but I think there's also something else responsible for our continuing to feed children this latter-day cod-liver oil. We don't ask challenging questions about homework because we don't ask challenging questions about most things. Too many of us sound like Robert Frost's neighbor, the man who "will not go behind his father's saying." Too many of us, when pressed about some habit or belief we've adopted, are apt to reply, "Well, that's just the way I was raised" -- as if it were impossible to critically examine the values one was taught. Too many of us, including some who work in the field of education, seem to have lost our capacity to be outraged by the outrageous; when handed foolish and destructive mandates, we respond by asking for guidance on how best to carry them out.

Passivity is a habit acquired early. From our first days in school we are carefully instructed in what has been called the "hidden curriculum": how to do what one is told and stay out of trouble. There are rewards, both tangible and symbolic, for those who behave properly and penalties for those who don't. As students, we're trained to sit still, listen to what the teacher says, run our highlighters across whatever words in the book we'll be required to commit to memory. Pretty soon, we become less likely to ask (or even wonder) whether what we're being taught really makes sense. We just want to know whether it's going to be on the test.

When we find ourselves unhappy with some practice or policy, we're encouraged to focus on incidental aspects of what's going on, to ask questions about the details of implementation -- how something will get done, or by whom, or on what schedule -- but not whether it should be done at all. The more that we attend to secondary concerns, the more the primary issues -- the overarching structures and underlying premises -- are strengthened. We're led to avoid the radical questions -- and I use that adjective in its original sense: Radical comes from the Latin word for "root." It's partly because we spend our time worrying about the tendrils that the weed continues to grow. Noam Chomsky put it this way: "The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum -- even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there's free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate."

Parents have already been conditioned to accept most of what is done to their children at school, for example, and so their critical energies are confined to the periphery. Sometimes I entertain myself by speculating about how ingrained this pattern really is. If a school administrator were to announce that, starting next week, students will be made to stand outside in the rain and memorize the phone book, I suspect we parents would promptly speak up . . . to ask whether the Yellow Pages will be included. Or perhaps we'd want to know how much of their grade this activity will count for. One of the more outspoken moms might even demand to know whether her child will be permitted to wear a raincoat.

Our education system, meanwhile, is busily avoiding important topics in its own right. For every question that's asked in this field, there are other, more vital questions that are never raised. Educators weigh different techniques of "behavior management" but rarely examine the imperative to focus on behavior -- that is, observable actions -- rather than on reasons and needs and the children who have them. Teachers think about what classroom rules they ought to introduce but are unlikely to ask why they're doing so unilaterally, why students aren't participating in such decisions. It's probably not a coincidence that most schools of education require prospective teachers to take a course called Methods, but there is no course called Goals.

And so we return to the question of homework. Parents anxiously grill teachers about their policies on this topic, but they mostly ask about the details of the assignments their children will be made to do. If homework is a given, it's certainly understandable that one would want to make sure it's being done "correctly." But this begs the question of whether, and why, it should be a given. The willingness not to ask provides another explanation for how a practice can persist even if it hurts more than helps.

For their part, teachers regularly witness how many children are made miserable by homework and how many resist doing it. Some respond with sympathy and respect. Others reach for bribes and threats to compel students to turn in the assignments; indeed, they may insist these inducements are necessary: "If the kids weren't being graded, they'd never do it!" Even if true, this is less an argument for grades and other coercive tactics than an invitation to reconsider the value of those assignments. Or so one might think. However, teachers had to do homework when they were students, and they've likely been expected to give it at every school where they've worked. The idea that homework must be assigned is the premise, not the conclusion -- and it's a premise that's rarely examined by educators.

Unlike parents and teachers, scholars are a step removed from the classroom and therefore have the luxury of pursuing potentially uncomfortable areas of investigation. But few do. Instead, they are more likely to ask, "How much time should students spend on homework?" or "Which strategies will succeed in improving homework completion rates?," which is simply assumed to be desirable.

Policy groups, too, are more likely to act as cheerleaders than as thoughtful critics. The major document on the subject issued jointly by the National PTA and the National Education Association, for example, concedes that children often complain about homework, but never considers the possibility that their complaints may be justified. Parents are exhorted to "show your children that you think homework is important" -- regardless of whether it is, or even whether one really believes this is true -- and to praise them for compliance.

Health professionals, meanwhile, have begun raising concerns about the weight of children's backpacks and then recommending . . . exercises to strengthen their backs! This was also the tack taken by People magazine: An article about families struggling to cope with excessive homework was accompanied by a sidebar that offered some "ways to minimize the strain on young backs" -- for example, "pick a [back]pack with padded shoulder straps."

The People article reminds us that the popular press does occasionally -- cyclically -- take note of how much homework children have to do, and how varied and virulent are its effects. But such inquiries are rarely penetrating and their conclusions almost never rock the boat. Time magazine published a cover essay in 2003 entitled "The Homework Ate My Family." It opened with affecting and even alarming stories of homework's harms. Several pages later, however, it closed with a finger-wagging declaration that "both parents and students must be willing to embrace the 'work' component of homework -- to recognize the quiet satisfaction that comes from practice and drill." Likewise, an essay on the Family Education Network's Web site: "Yes, homework is sometimes dull, or too easy, or too difficult. That doesn't mean that it shouldn't be taken seriously." (One wonders what would have to be true before we'd be justified in not taking something seriously.)

Nor, apparently, are these questions seen as appropriate by most medical and mental health professionals. When a child resists doing homework -- or complying with other demands -- their job is to get the child back on track. Very rarely is there any inquiry into the value of the homework or the reasonableness of the demands.

Sometimes parents are invited to talk to teachers about homework -- providing that their concerns are "appropriate." The same is true of formal opportunities for offering feedback. A list of sample survey questions offered to principals by the central office in one Colorado school district is typical. Parents were asked to indicate whether they agree or disagree with the following statements: "My child understands how to do his/her homework"; "Teachers at this school give me useful suggestions about how to help my child with schoolwork"; "Homework assignments allow me to see what my student is being taught and how he/she is learning"; and "The amount of homework my child receives is (choose one): too much/just right/too little."

The most striking feature of such a list is what isn't on it. Such a questionnaire seems to have been designed to illustrate Chomsky's point about encouraging lively discussion within a narrow spectrum of acceptable opinion, the better to reinforce the key presuppositions of the system. Parents' feedback is earnestly sought -- on these questions only. So, too, for the popular articles that criticize homework, or the parents who speak out: The focus is generally limited to how much is being assigned. I'm sympathetic to this concern, but I'm more struck by how it misses much of what matters. We sometimes forget that not everything that's destructive when done to excess is innocuous when done in moderation. Sometimes the problem is with what's being done, or at least the way it's being done, rather than just with how much of it is being done.

The more we are invited to think in Goldilocks terms (too much, too little, or just right?), the less likely we become to step back and ask the questions that count: What reason is there to think that any quantity of the kind of homework our kids are getting is really worth doing? What evidence exists to show that daily homework, regardless of its nature, is necessary for children to become better thinkers? Why did the students have no chance to participate in deciding which of their assignments ought to be taken home?

And: What if there was no homework at all?

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dan i's picture

As a math teacher, and based on ten years' teaching experience, I find that when you consider students with equal potential - with one cohort of these students allowed to not do homework, that they're grades on quizzes and tests are significantly lower, on average, than the cohort that are required --an experiment well worth trying.

The problem isn't homework itself - it's how it is assigned, and how it is thought about and managed after the students complete it.

Homework should not be done for homework's sake, first of all. Second of all, homework should be reflective--(if I don't understand, then I will find a way to understand), and finally, homework, if assigned the right way (immediate feedback, reteaching, etc.), provides practice time.

My guess is that most teachers do not manage homework in the way that most benefits students, hence the results of the studies.

Melody Moore's picture

The amount of homework assigned today in middle and high school is absolutely ridiculous. There is also little coordination between teachers at most schools to determine whether students are receiving a homework load that does nothing to motivate and in fact, leads to a feeling of helplessness and hopelessness. You try working an 8 hour day and coming come to 4 or more hours of homework each night and even more on weekends days and evenings. We expect our children to work seven days a week with no breaks. How would we feel if we had those demands? Some of the homework makes sense, other assignments are redundant and essentially consist of copying information out of the textbook from onto a worksheet. I have not had a single student indicate they learned anything from that type of homework assignment, even though it takes 1-2 hours each night per course. By the way, studies have shown no relationships between the amount of homework and achievement beyond having a bit of practice each night to ensure understanding and ability to apply concepts. University professors are complaining that freshmen are reaching them burnt out and unable to think for themselves having spent most of the homework time copying info from one place to another and memorizing facts.

Heather's picture

I think this post was absolutely bologna.. Homework promotes responsibility, gets parents involved in their child's academics, and yes, gives students something to do after school- many children don't have much else to do, especially in poverty areas. Some may enjoy the time spent on reading a book or bettering themselves by choice- not being made to, while in class... The students I work with severely need the extra practice and consistency. I could prove that the student(s) I currently assist would be so much closer to being on level if he/she had the help from home and a routine of homework.

I will say for some rare children that it can be a waste of time (those who are very advanced for their grade level), but then again, practice makes perfect.

It may take away from parents' time, but it is to help your child get an education. They do not have the one-on-one time in class and may not fully understand a concept until it is brought up differently by someone else, like a parent who learned the same things in school and may have struggled in the same subjects.

Teachers simply don't have the time to study spelling words words or memorize addition facts for every child for the tests each week- how else do you expect kids to learn to spell, etc.? Pass tests which count towards grades!? Which then, allows them to read, which then, lands them a job!? And, in college, studying is vital- the professors don't spend time on things you could read yourself.. so why not get in the habit earlier???

Lastly, it's not an "ego" thing- if it were, we wouldn't spend the extra hours grading homework...

Cheryl Stone Gundersen's picture
Cheryl Stone Gundersen
parent of 6th grader, 5th grader and 1st grader. VP of PTCO for 3 years,

With the amount of homework and what is not being learned in public schools, I feel as if I am a teacher and if I have to help with 3 children's homework, I may as well be homeschooling. I feels schools are not teaching effectively and plan on talking to our principal before making the decision to go to a web based school. I put in many hours volunteering to raise funds with PTCO, I would much rather be helping in their classrooms, but with 2 in middle school next year that will be more difficult. I like the idea of teaching on levels as seen here

Cass's picture
Graduate Student, Writing Tutor, and Mentor

I was always the student in class who enjoyed homework for some reason, but I understood why so many of my peers despised the very mention of out-of-class assignments. I have to say that as I am nearing the point of being able to stand in front of a classroom, I agree with the opinions which have been expressed in this article. The number one complaint of my peers and my family through the years was always, "homework sucks, there's no point." I plan on working with my students to encourage independent study habits rather than forcibly assigned worksheets or typed paragraphs.

As for the opinion that homework promotes good habits and self-discipline, I believe that's pretty much complete bollocks. In middle school alone, I knew students who made a couple of hundred dollars in a year writing papers and doing projects for other students. With the internet today standing as a purely accessible and infinite realm of knowledge and answers, written assignments will most likely be copied and pasted from websites rather than imagined or created. I believe a major problem is that older, rooted teachers are unable or unwilling to adapt to the social and technological changes which have occurred outside of their classrooms and younger, newer teachers are afraid of making waves.

Rohit Kumar's picture
Rohit Kumar
Pursuing my masters in Elementary Education

Hey Alfie,

First of all, let me thank you for initiating this post. This has been a question in my mind for long now. As I invest so much in designing "homework" for my kids, I wonder how much value is it going to impart to the process of learning?

So over the years, I have removed the kind of activities that will eat a child's family/sport/other time. Rather the kind of homework (rather should call it school work) I give mostly can be done in school time. It involves noticing various interactions between teacher-students and student-student. Which we then use in the classroom to further our discussion for the day.

Said that, I couldn't really identify that would directly/indirectly correspond to the heading of your article, "Homework: No Proven Benefits". I am sorry if I missed on something in the article. But I found this piece more of an advocacy bit for "critically" analyzing the usage and value of homework. Which is fine. The "critical analysis" has to happen to a good deal of issues in education, homework included. But I would really like to know your points in favor of not having to provide our students with homework. Am sorry again if I missed on understanding your article. Please help.

Thank you,


Neal Rogers's picture
Neal Rogers
Sixth Grade multiple-subject teacher in California

Does it really matter where, at home or the classroom, students do their "independent practice?"

It was argued in an earlier post that students need homework to help keep them busy at home after school. When did it become our jobs as teachers to ensure that our students are occupied when they go home? I find this argument facinating especially in light of teachers, in general, complaining that we are expected to do too many things that parents should be doing.

Serene Valor's picture
Serene Valor
Life long pursuit of happiness, learning and imagining :)

I find this article...or the subject matter at least, absolutely intriguing.

To simply draw such an extreme conclusion as "Homework: No Proven Benefits" cannot benefit anyone at all. Now looking at the other side of this extreme scale, if this article was to say "More Homework: All Benefits", that would prove to be just as unbeneficial as the first statement.

As a third year uni student, I can say that from a personal perspective and from the experience of my fellow students, homework plays a vital role in helping one absorb the information that they learned during the time of a lecture. And the type of homework I'm talking about here is one that actually makes you THINK. Not endless essays, mind numbing research or pointless equations. This type of homework = studying. The homework that this article is referring to = slave driving.

Now although the article is saying that there has been no research done to show that there is a correlation between homework and student success, an article from the following link believes otherwise:

It seems that after a 15 year study, homework does help students achieve higher grades. However, higher grades does not always equal success. In the words of a very wise professor, "if life was worth grades, then we'd all be in school forever." And this is true. Achieving high grades does not necessarily mean that you are intelligent. One could achieve high grades by means of cheating or memorizing. The true test of intelligence comes from the application of the skills we were taught in school into real life situations.

Homework that forces you to think and apply class lessons helps you make the transition from the school world to the real world.

In researching more about why we receive homework and cases for and against it, I stumbled upon the following:

In reading the whole article, the point that stood out the most was that it's not the amount of homework or the hours that we put in that is the problem, but the fact that INAPPROPRIATE homework is being assigned.

Inappropriate homework also includes giving unrelated or extremely high levels of homework to very young children. Kindergartners for example, should not be having any form of homework other than "take home your coloring books". At most, the parents should be reading to their kids for about 10-20 mins a day. This can easily be done during bedtime. During the elementary years of a child's life, they should be able to learn though expression. Art, music sports are all wonderful ways for children to let out some energy, get their minds flowing and be creative. Creativity and imagination are the marks of great minds.

In my opinion, the education system should focus on in-class learning during a child's elementary years. They should teach them about good work, study habits and how to be scheduled in a fun way that is easy for these children to understand. This will also set them up for post-secondary where it's basically our choice to do or skip the homework. And sometimes, post-sec students have to create their own homework in order to help them study. The trick here is to teach young kids to study "smarter" not "harder". There have been countless books written on this matter.

In their middle and high school years, educators should focus on group learning. Assigning work that is to be done in groups helps students overcome shyness and become comfortable working with people. This skill can be easily transitioned into the working world when these kids will be faced with all types of situations and people. If independent work is to be assigned, it should be the type that has to do directly with what they are learning in the class room. Too many times I've seen students having homework that has little or nothing to do with their subject. And if it is relevant, it isn't very stimulating for the mind. Take economics for example. A good teacher knows that all students learn in different ways. To teach a tough topic, the teacher would give a thorough but easy to understand lecture with colorful slides and detailed handouts. For homework, rather than have students read through the textbook, the teacher can talk about a case in the class beforehand and then ask the students to form an opinion backed by facts they learned through their lecture. Students can then present their opinion in class through a class discussion or debate.

The above example is the exact way one of my professor's taught my class. It's easy, there's no need to worry about hours of homework and we actually learn something since we have to formulate an opinion on the matter. This is something that I believe students do not get to do throughout their educational career. Something of vital importance that is sadly missing.

Furthermore, middle school and high school need to be the time that teachers should be getting their students ready for the workplace, post-secondary or apprenticeships. If you ever visit other countries around the world, kids know what they to be before they graduate high school. I don't see that much around here. For students in middle school, their homework should be concerned around future careers. This way, the kid isn't confused about what he/she wants to do in life when it comes time to graduate high school. I'm not saying that have the kid choose something that is set in stone, what I'm saying here is that give the kid the chance to form a slid opinion. Too many guidance councilors mislead kids into thinking that they have so much time and that they should aim for lower that they are really worth. Such guidance is more misguidance and leaves the kid more confused and lost than he/she was in the first place. To make these kids have solid opinions on not just some math equations but actually about what to do with their lives, we have to give them homework that will teach them skills to make good choices. And giving them the right homework to reinforce what they learned will help them greatly.

So to conclude my "homework" of why homework really isn't unnecessary as long as it is interesting and of relevance to the student and subject matter; I believe that homework does have its place. There is a reason why students who study receive good results and accelerate even in the working world. However, the type of homework we receive has a big impact on the type of students we will become. Although homework is not the only factor in creating the prime student, I'm sure that if we were to only focus and give a little time to think about the appropriateness of the homework that is assigned to kids, we would be able to help them get a little closer to the goals that THEY desire. Read:THEY not US. This is their life after all and whether they wish to be honor students or not is up to them. The educators job is to make sure that they fill the child with the love of life long learning, being a good global citizen and never giving up when they want to achieve their goals.

It's a tough role that our educators have, but we hold them to high standards for a reason. They are the gates to future leaders and bright minds of this world. And it is through good teachers can we find the brilliance in ourselves and in our children.

Elwood Flemming's picture

As a teacher/foster parent of a kid with SLD its difficult for her to read for 30 minutes sounding out each word. By the time we finish its bath/bed time. It make her not want to read at all. We do make it fun but the anticipation/frustration of going home to do homework is evident in that long ride.

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