Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Homework - Is it Worth It?

In what is probably one of THE longest running discussions in the history of US public education, comes yet another study on the outcomes for student doing homework.

From Stanford University News (Stanford is where the study was conducted):

A Stanford researcher found that too much homework can negatively affect kids, especially their lives away from school, where family, friends and activities matter.

"Our findings on the effects of homework challenge the traditional assumption that homework is inherently good," wrote Denise Pope, a senior lecturer at the Stanford Graduate School of Education and a co-author of a study published in the Journal of Experimental Education.

What is fascinating is who the researchers studied.  It was about 4,000 students from 10 high-performing high schools in well-off California cities.   There was a survey and open-ended questions about the students' own thoughts on homework.

Students in these schools average about 3.1 hours of homework each night.

Pope and her colleagues found that too much homework can diminish its effectiveness and even be counterproductive. They cite prior research indicating that homework benefits plateau at about two hours per night, and that 90 minutes to two and a half hours is optimal for high school.

The study found that too much homework is associated with stress (less than 1% said homework was not a stress factor in their lives), reductions in health (headaches, stomachaches, sleep loss, etc.) and less time for family, friends and after-school activities.

And, there was that age-old question that all highschoolers ask: what is the point to this homework?

Also, there was no relationship between the time spent on homework and how much the student enjoyed it. The research quoted students as saying they often do homework they see as "pointless" or "mindless" in order to keep their grades up.

She said the research calls into question the value of assigning large amounts of homework in high-performing schools. Homework should not be simply assigned as a routine practice, she said.

"Rather, any homework assigned should have a purpose and benefit, and it should be designed to cultivate learning and development," wrote Pope.

A few thoughts:

1) I am sad to say but I felt that at least one-third of homework my sons received was not useful at all.  It did seem like busy work.  I remember my younger son in 8th grade studying Romeo and Juliet.  (As an aside, why just this one in middle school? It went on for at least 4 weeks.)  My son comes home and tells me the assignment is to make a mask.  I asked him if he was supposed to research what a medieval mask would look like and then create the mask.  He looked at the sheet and then said, "Nope, just make a mask."  I couldn't believe it and yet there it was.  That's a 4th grade assignment, not an 8th grade assignment. 

2) I wonder what the stats and comments would have been like for middle income and lower-income groups of students.  I suspect the study's stat of 56% of kids "consider homework a primary source of stress" might be even higher. 

3) Bill Gates used to call the 3 R's - rigor, relevance and relationships.  (I actually thought this was a good one but he seems to have dropped it.)  I think relevance is key to keeping kids engaged.  What is the outcome of this homework?  What lesson does it reinforce or what skill does it sharpen? 

 To note, both the NEA and the PTA agree that the guidelines for homework by researcher Harris Cooper are about right:

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 twelfth). High school students may sometimes do more, depending on what classes they take (see Review of Educational Research, 2006).


Anonymous said...

3.1 hours on average? Seriously? Are high school students here doing that much? Even the 120 minutes number seems too high for 12th grade to me if that is every night. I didn't do that much homework in college. (Sure, more than that on some nights, but not an average of 120 minutes every night.)


Anonymous said...

My guess is yes, in the "high achieving" schools that was the sample in the Stanford study. It's a self-report, so I wouldn't be surprised if some wasted time in there (texting, snapchatting, etc.).

I'd love to hear reports from others.

But,I also think homework is valuable. There's a summary of some of the research here: http://www.lincnet.org/.../Centri.../Domain/108/Homework.pdf

It should be the right kind of homework (not going to support random mask making in 8th grade, unless it's voluntary, though potentially, the relevance was assumed and not reported -- my suspicion is that there are some 8th grade boys who wouldn't hear all the details, though I certainly don't know yours). But there's lots of reinforcement and depth that can only be done with HW.


Anonymous said...

Related to HW - How do parents feel about assignments that have students write an opinion on a matter, then require them to actually mail it off?

another parent

Anonymous said...

My daughter & her friends do average 3 hrs/night plus 8-10 hrs on weekends keeping up with maximum number of AP classes with highest possible grades. According to the counseling office at their SPS high school, if they don't do this, colleges will think they are slackers. Have you seen the movie 'Race to Nowhere'? This is a certain segment of the population, not all high schoolers. But not only the kids shooting for the ivies either.

Much of the homework is not learning, but just checking the boxes to get the high grades. turning it in on time in the correct format is more valued than how much you learned doing it. Most of it is never graded, so no learning from teacher feedback.

On top of the homework, there are jobs, sports, music, volunteering, leadership positions, etc.

It is insane.

Lynn said...

Yes - it is insane. If I had my children's elementary years to do over again, I would tell their teachers at the beginning of each year that we read together every day and that we will practice math facts as necessary - but no homework will be turned in. Children need time to play.
Middle and high school homework should be assigned only when necessary to learn the material covered in the course.
When did we give schools the right to determine what our children do at home?
The only work I did at home in high school was writing papers and these were infrequent. The rest was completed in class or just not done. I didn't learn to study until I got to college. It was quite a shock - but honestly I'd do it again rather than spend as many hours on homework as my children do.

Anonymous said...

Sorry that's me, HS parent, claiming that it is insane.

Anonymous said...

Three hours in high school doesn't seem unreasonable to me, if you're carrying a heavy college prep courseload. Kids should be doing a lot of reading and writing, and these are best done at home, not school. High level math requires some serious time at home, too--class time is for lectures and making sure they know how to do the work, then homework is necessary for practice and reinforcement.

I probably did about that much per night way back when I was in high school, and that was on top of playing on a sports team, working a part-time job, and taking an "A" period class. You learn good time management skills, how to study efficiently, etc.


Anonymous said...

I just don't understand how teenagers can possibly do 3.1 hours of HW on average each night with even more on the weekends and still have time for sports, volunteering, etc. Are they going to bed after midnight? No wonder people are so desperate to flip bell times. (Don't get me wrong - I'm all for flipping bell times.)

When do they get to explore what they are passionate about?

zb, I couldn't pull up your link.


SE Mom said...

Three hours minimum a night is the norm for my senior daughter at a private high school with multiple AP classes.

She is engaged with fair amount of it. Sometimes seems like too much.
Overall the amount of work seems to match what I recall my experience with homework being in college. I was intrigued by the recent Seattle Times report of project based learning for some AP classes at Garfield.

The biggest downside is the chronic lack of sleep.

Anonymous said...

My kid’s sps high school teaches 6 subjects. This takes 30 hours a week at school, plus minimum 25hrs a week of homework for a full AP load. That is a 55 hour week.

Those 55 hours do not cover all the academics in those 6 subjects. Math & Science must be supplemented or re-taught at home. They do lots of writing, but almost none of it has constructive comments from the teacher that they can learn from. (I do understand that teachers cannot give detailed attention to 150 papers each week.) So what are they learning? Count on supplementing that at home, so you don’t reach college essays & realize that your child doesn’t know how to use a comma because they did writer’s workshop. Also there are subjects that I think my kid should know a little about, economics, political science, philosophy, that I have to teach at home.

If your child is on the ‘non-slacker’ track they will have to do 3 semesters of PE, one personal fitness independent study, two occupational ed classes & one health class outside of school as well as the required volunteer hours & senior project in order to graduate. Add 12 hours/week of schools sports for graduation requirements or 6 hours of rec. league sports for exercise. Also add 2-3 hours/wk of volunteering, another graduation requirement. That is about 70 hours a week for school requirements alone.

Many kids also work about 8 hours/wk of after-school jobs. Oh and 6-10 hours on metro getting to school, work, etc.

In all the free time that is left, we parents have to find time to teach them to cook, drive, file taxes, cast a vote, repair things, buy things, banking, read a contract, make a budget, maintain relationship with neighbors, household chores, self advocate, practice good nutrition, write a letter, leadership skills, take responsibility, admit fault, deal with emergencies, recognize& maintain healthy relationships, use credit, relate to other age groups like children & the elderly, evaluate risk, make decisions, identify and use personal strengths, negotiate, grow things, take care of the environment, be in the wilderness, plan, organize, manage time, communicate across cultures, know basic laws & community rules, understand loan paperwork, experience art galleries & music & drama performances, read a map, when & how to access medical care, monitor medical paperwork, buy a plane ticket, motivate themselves to do unpleasant tasks, make a phone inquiry, meet civic responsibilities, swim, deal with stress, et cetera. We don’t want to be ‘helicopter parents’ who have to teach them these things over the phone when they are in college.

They also need time to pursue their own interests, to read, create, invent, and experiment. My kid’s friends do youth symphony, girl scouts, choir, debate team, school newspaper, robotics team, photography, museum docent, model UN, book clubs. (And the counselor says that if they want colleges to take them seriously, they need to have official leadership roles in at least 2 of these.)

I just don’t see how this is reasonable. It is certainly not healthy.

-hs parent

Anonymous said...

What HS parent describes terrifies me. Is there more homework in public than private HS? Do some schools have more/less homework than others?

Anonymous said...


One choice is to get off the AP bandwagon. Sure take an AP class or maybe two at a time, but don't fill your schedule with them. The mantra we heard from counselors & college admissions folks, is 'take the hardest possible classes at the highest possible level'.

But there is a choice. Not all kids are doing this. Understanding that there may be a price when it comes to admissions time.

-HS parent

Anonymous said...

I don't think AP classes are worth the work at all. Most colleges and universities will only accept a limited number of AP credits after a great score on a tough exam and about a million hours of homework. Why have your kid work so hard and sleep so little if they don't get a break in college for it. Better to actually sign them up for the university courses directly. Then they're not just spinning their wheels.