In today’s educational system, homework is a contentious issue. Students, even the best of them, will generally resist doing it, parents will sometimes feel at a loss about how to help their children with it, and though most teachers still feel that it is important to assign it, many are beginning to doubt its efficacy. Even the research about homework is equivocal: The studies which have been undertaken cannot agree about whether or not homework actually improves academic performance, both in terms of grades and in terms of other academic measures such as standardized testing. Some school systems have so much doubt about its value that they have dispensed with it altogether.
A Matter of Time
One of the big concerns about homework is that it takes too much time away from other activities: time that could be spent with family, on hobbies, on the sorts of exploratory activities that lead to self-motivated learning, and on just being a kid. After a full day of school activities, students are generally not finished. They will often have to complete hours of homework, and there is the perception that schools are giving more and more homework without necessarily reaping any dividends for doing so. It will often get worse as students get older and are generally assigned more homework while they are also more involved in other extracurricular activities in or out of school or get their first jobs. Additionally, many of today’s students are chronically sleep-deprived, and the lack of sleep can lead not only to health issues, but also have a strong negative impact on academic performance.
While it is unlikely that many people would argue that parents should never help children with homework, one of the concerns about homework is that parents might be too involved, in effect doing their children’s homework for them. Certainly, if a parent gets involved in his or her child’s homework, that parent should serve as a guide or tutor and not a free homework service.
Another issue with parents helping their children with their homework is that parents often do not understand the assignments children come home with. For most parents who are not teachers, it has been decades since they themselves were exposed to the subjects themselves, let alone the specific concepts. Also, old concepts are continually being taught in new ways. For example, today’s math instruction emphasizes math literacy rather than rote learning. Children are being asked to solve those old problems using new methods, and parents might not even be able to help even if they want to.
For some students in some home environments, parents may be unable to help their children because they are working, because they do not have the time or energy to devote to the task, or because they lack the knowledge to give guidance. It may be that students in this sort of situation are at a disadvantage in the classroom.
Why Give Homework?
Homework is assigned for a number of reasons. Probably primary among them is that it gives students an opportunity to practice skills introduced in the classroom. Teachers will also give homework that helps to prepare students for what is coming, in effect using the homework as a preview so that the students will be more prepared to learn what is being taught in the classroom. Homework is also assigned for projects that would take too long if students were only able to work on them in class. Also, more and more, (particularly since No Child Left Behind was enacted), teachers find themselves having to spend a lot of class time preparing students for standardized tests, and they may themselves simply unable to cover all of the material they want or need to. Finally, homework can help to build skills in independent learning, a skill that will be crucial in college and beyond.
Homework also benefits students in ways that go beyond improving learning and academic performance. Giving students homework builds attention skills, forces students to be self-starters, develops time-management skills, and, in general, helps them to develop skills that they will continue to use. The bottom line is that it teaches them something that we all have to learn: Sometimes we have to do stuff that we do not want to do.
Even if homework were assumed to be a given, presumed to be necessary, it is unclear just how much homework students should be assigned. Certainly, students may reach a point of frustration if they are constantly working, and there is a danger that giving students too much homework can lead to burnout.
Many parents feel that the children are not being given the right amount: either too much or too little. But is there a Goldilocks zone for homework? Is there an amount that is “just right”?
Obviously, giving an elementary student five hours of homework a night is excessive; it would even be excessive for a much older student. While there is not any real agreement about how much is too much, there is consensus that younger students should have a lot less homework given to them than older students. Generally speaking, the older the student, the more homework can be assigned. It is also crucial that college-bound high school students learn how to do work independently, write out-of- class essays, and generally become accustomed to doing a lot of work outside of the classroom in order to prepare them for the realities of college academics.
What Kind of Homework Should be Assigned?
While there is no real agreement on whether or not homework should be assigned, there is a consensus that homework, if it is assigned, should be meaningful and should help students to develop academically. Many teachers believe that they have to assign homework and will send students home with it without thinking about the usefulness of the homework that they do assign. Homework should never be just “busywork.” It should engage students in meaningful learning, ask them to make connections, spur their curiosity about a subject. Ultimately, it is not the amount of homework that matters; it is the kind of homework.