Taking a Closer Look at Homework

Taking a Closer Look at Homework

Essentials on education data and analysis from research authority AEL

After-school programs and summer sessions are not the only ways to extend time for student learning, nor are they the least expensive.

Some researchers are urging schools to take a fresh look at homework and its potential for engaging students and improving student performance. The key, they say, is to take into account grade-specific and developmental factors when determining the amount and kind of homework. So, what's appropriate? What benefits can be expected? What makes for good homework policies? Research doesn't have all the answers, but a review of existing data yields some helpful observations and guidance.

How much homework do students do? Survey data and anecdotal evidence show that some students spend hours nightly doing homework. Homework overload is the exception rather than the norm, however, according to new research reports from the Brookings Institution and the Rand Corp. Their researchers analyzed data from a variety of sources and concluded that the majority of U.S. students spend less than an hour a day on homework, regardless of grade level, and this has held true for most of the past 50 years. In the last 20 years, homework has increased only in the lower grade levels, and this increase is associated with neutral (and sometimes negative) effects on student achievement.

How much is appropriate? NEA and the National PTA recommendations fall in line with general guidelines suggested by researcher Harris Cooper: 10 to 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). High school students may sometimes do more, depending on what classes they take.

What are the benefits? Homework usually falls into one of three categories: practice, preparation or extension. The purpose should vary by grade. Individualized assignments that tap into students' existing skills or interests can be motivating. For elementary school students, homework can develop study skills and habits and keep families informed about their child's learning. For secondary school students, homework is associated with greater academic achievement.

NAEP's 1992-2000 Reading Assessments show that fourth graders who spent 30 to 60 minutes on homework daily attained the highest average scores in reading; scores declined for those who did more. The 1999 NAEP results showed the highest average reading scores among 17-year-olds who spent more than two hours daily on homework. Doing moderate amounts of math homework is associated with higher math scores (see chart).

What's good policy? Experts advise schools or districts to include teachers, parents and students in any effort to set homework policies. Policies should address the purposes of homework (not to be used as punishment); amount and frequency; school and teacher responsibilities (e.g., coordination of assignments, clear directions, home-school communications); student responsibilities; the role of parents or others who assist students with homework; and equity issues (accommodations for students with disabilities, availability of support and resources).

A word of caution The data suggest that when it comes to using homework to improve student achievement, there is a point of diminishing returns. One study found students' inability to understand and keep up with assignments contributed to their dropping out of school. After studying homework for seven years, researchers Brian Gill and Steven Schlossman suggest it's time to shift the focus from quantity to quality.

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