Expert Advice On Homework

For Teachers

Ending the Homework Debate: Expert Advice on What Works

By Monica Fuglei November 28, 2013

After exploring the case against homework as well as the ways homework benefits students, it’s clear that both sides have valid arguments. After examining the evidence, we’ve come up with recommendations for both teachers and parents for homework that contributes to students’ academic growth.

What kind of homework is beneficial?

While some research points to homework increasing test scores, what researchers, parents, teachers, and even students want is homework that deepens content knowledge and thus understanding, critical thinking, and the ability of students to bring those to the classroom.

Homework must focus on quality, not quantity

In the research journal article “When is Homework Worth the Time?”, co-author Robert H. Tai summarizes the analysis of 18,000 tenth-grade transcripts by saying, “The results of this study imply that homework should be purposeful, and that the purpose must be understood by both the teacher and the students.” The authors determined that in order to be worthwhile, homework should meet the following criteria:

  • Eliminate specific quantities of homework, such as the common suggestion of 10 minutes per night per grade.
  • Instead of length, assignments should focus on making analytical connections.
  • Math homework should consist of a small number of different types of exercises instead of large quantities of similiar problems.
  • Science assignments should ask students to explore concepts rather than answer prescribed questions.

The study concluded with a call for further research in order to pinpoint the most effective type of homework.

Homework should meet the needs of each student

Another important factor in homework quality has to do with the needs of the recipients. Professor Gerald LeTendre discussed this in Penn State University’s article “Is Homework Bad for Kids?”, saying that young children do not benefit from homework as much as older students, because they lack the awareness and reflection required for good study habits.

Additionally, LeTendre points out that homework must address a child’s “actual academic problem.” In order to discuss these individual academic problems, differentiation, a key term in classroom management, must also be used in out-of-classroom work. LeTendre suggests that homework should be assigned at the individual level and reviewed with the student regularly to ensure its effectiveness.

One differentiation strategy: Flipped classrooms

Of course, differentiated homework leads to questions of fairness and the very real problem of teachers’ time. With increasingly large class sizes, creating individual homework plans for every student could be an insurmountable task. One alternative to such problems is the flipped classroom, where students engage the lecture material outside of the classroom and then classroom time is dedicated to what would have been homework under the traditional setup.  Teachers are then free to allow students to work in groups or individually, visiting each group and testing their mastery along the way.

Skills developed through effective homework: Spaced repetition, retrieval practice, desirable difficulties, deliberate practice

Changing the entire functionality of the course isn’t necessary, though, if instructors remember key features of effective homework as identified by the emerging field of Mind, Brain, and Education, says Annie Murphy Paul. In the article “How Can We Make Homework Worthwhile?”, Paul identifies important characteristics such as spaced repetition, retrieval practice, and desirable difficulties.

Spaced repetition

Spaced repetition covers and revisits material over time in ways that traditional homework has not, revisiting material that has been covered in the recent and distant past to reinforce a student’s knowledge base.

Retrieval practice

Retrieval practice can lead to interesting assignments like the role-playing homework described in “How to Create Effective Homework,” in which students adopted a historical persona. Their drive to maintain their character extended into their motivation for completing homework.

Desirable difficulty

Additional and sometimes fun strategies include working with what researchers call “cognitive disfluency” by breaking convention in order to more fully gain the attention of students via changes in fonts or sizes, intentional grammatical errors, and even breaking free of categorically organized homework. A math worksheet that combines division, multiplication, addition, and subtraction problems randomly, for example, garners more attention from the brain than one that focuses on a single skill.

Deliberate practice

Finally, homework must be what Paul calls deliberate practice. Students and teachers must both be fully aware of homework’s purpose and point. This leads to one of the most important points about homework: it is not effective without student buy-in. Both common sense and research show that the only chance a student has to benefit from homework is when the student actually attempts completion — meaning that in addition to being effective, students have to be motivated to complete it.  That motivation only comes when students understand how and why homework is important.

Monica Fuglei is a graduate of the University of Nebraska in Omaha and a current adjunct faculty member of Arapahoe Community College in Colorado, where she teaches composition and creative writing.

Learn More: Click to view related resources. Tags: Leadership and Administration, Pros and Cons


Does homework help? Only if it's the right homework, expert says

By Jonathan Hepburn and Paige Cockburn

Posted August 24, 2016 19:47:50

Homework is not useless but its quality is far more important than quantity and schools should think very carefully about why they are setting it, an education expert at the University of South Australia says.

Over the past week an anti-homework note sent to parents by a teacher in Forth Worth, Texas, has spread around the world after being posted to Facebook by a parent.

"After much research this summer, I am trying something new," the note from Mrs Brandy Young, which has been shared more than 70,000 times, says.

"Homework will only consist of work that your student did not finish during the school day. There will be no formally assigned homework this year."

The note goes on to say that research has been unable to prove that homework improves student performance.

Instead, Mrs Young urges parents to spend their evenings doing things like reading together, playing outside, and getting their children to bed early, which "are proven to correlate with student success."

Not surprisingly, the note was posted to Facebook with the comment "Brooke is loving her new teacher already!"

External Link: Facebook no-homework note

Good homework is 'purposeful, specific, and reinforces learning'

However, "she's not quite right," says Brendan Bentley, a PhD candidate and lecturer in the Education Department of the University of South Australia.

In 2006, a review of American research conducted between 1987 and 2003 found that "there was generally consistent evidence for a positive influence of homework on achievement."

The review, led by Dr Harris Cooper of Duke University, found that evidence was stronger for students in grades seven to 12 than for kindergarten to grade six, and for when students, rather than parents, reported how much time they spent doing homework.

On the other hand, in 2013, Australian academics Richard Walker and Mike Horsley published Reforming Homework, in which they reviewed international research and found that for young primary school children, homework is of little or no value and students are regularly given too much.

The issue is that although if you do something more often you get better at it, you have to be doing the right thing in the first place.

"Homework has to be purposeful, specific, and reinforce learning. If it's just to finish work, that may not help the student at all," Mr Bentley said.

In fact, too much homework can be worse than useless: It can be detrimental.

"For students in grades three or four, more than 20 minutes of homework can exhaust them. They go into cognitive load, and their ability to learn goes into a decline," Mr Bentley said.

"They can develop a negative attitude towards learning. It's about getting the balance right."

Cognitive load refers to the total amount of mental effort being used: a heavy cognitive load creates errors or interference.

That 20 minutes is not a guideline for each day: "There needs to be a good argument for having homework every single night," Mr Bentley said.

"Schools have to understand why they are giving homework. Without a good purpose and a rationale: Reconsider it."

He says that homework can be ramped up as students get older, but even in grade 10, research shows that, "if it's more than an hour, it's a waste of time."

Designing effective homework also depends upon how much the student is able to learn.

"Adults can learn about seven things at a time. For young children, that's maybe two or three," Mr Bentley said. "You only need 20 minutes to reinforce that."

However, he says the benefits of homework are not just about reinforcing learning, and that if it does not turn students off, it can teach important study habits.

He agrees that family time and relaxation can be more important than homework.

"Developing good habits and attitudes through interaction with parents can be good — every time you interact with your children, you are teaching assumptions," he said.

On the other hand, too much homework can lead to conflicts with parents.

"Parents are keen for their children to be the best, so they may ask about homework, and may do it for their children, which defeats the purpose," Mr Bentley said.

Topics:education, children, secondary-schools, primary-schools, schools, youth, australia

Key points:

  • Academics agree that too much homework can harm learning
  • Good homework is 'purposeful, specific, and reinforces learning'
  • Time spent with family after school can be more important than more study

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