My almost five year old daughter is too young for homework–or at least that is what I believe. She’s picked up on the idea somewhere, though, and has introduced it into her play: “My homework today is to dance!”
When my son, almost three, mimicked her, “My homework is to throw this ball,” his sister replied, “You’re too young for homework!”
But is homework an effective learning tool at any age?
Homework’s Effect is Negligible…Except in Math
An interesting study suggests that the effect of homework on student performance is negligible–except in mathematics.
The study attempts to control for teacher traits and for student traits and comes up with the conclusion that additional hours of math homework are beneficial while more homework in science, social studies, and English language arts shows no effect.
Exceptions to the Data
Interesting exceptions to the data show that African American students benefit less from math homework than other students and Hispanic students benefit more from science homework. Also, parent education plays a factor with children of the most and least educated parents showing less of an effect from additional mathematics homework than those of parents with a high school diploma or “some college”.
While interesting, there are no immediate policy implications other than caution about increasing homework loads as a way to improve student performance.
Why Parents Want Homework
The authors of the study trace the current perception of homework as a performance-booster to the Space Race Era attempts to equal Russia in science and mathematics. Given current financial anxieties and worries about competing with China and other Asian economic powerhouses, it is not surprising that parents are concerned about “preparing” their children for a competitive job market.
Student Attitudes Towards Homework
As a former classroom teacher, I can say that, anecdotally, most students will do as little homework as they can without it impacting their grades. Not only is copying homework rampant but so is espionage to discover which assignments are being checked and taking calculated risks based on the grade value each respective teacher assigns to a given assignment. And honestly, you have to admire the cleverness of these students who game the system with their risk-benefit analysis. After all, we’ve made school about numerical grades while paying only the barest lip service to genuine learning.
This study is interesting because it seems to suggest something unique about the nature of mathematics homework. There are a number of possibilities, including the type of skills needed and tested in high school-level mathematics, the type of homework that tends to be assigned in math classes and its usefulness in preparing students for testing, and possibly also the way that students and teachers approach completing, checking, and reviewing mathematics homework.
As a former social studies classroom teacher, most of the homework I assigned was reading or research (to develop a prior knowledge base) and writing or projects (to process information). I discovered that most students did not attempt to do the reading, which may be a commentary on the dry nature of history textbooks or possibly on the students’ aforementioned risk-assessments. Of those who did, a shocking number of them seemed unable to read non-fiction texts for information.
Learning seemed to happen best when done in the classroom and then processed in a culminating project that took place partially in the classroom, partially at home.
The major stumbling block to implementing this discovery was the sheer volume of information students are expected to learn as part of a typical history class. If some of the acquisition of facts did not take place outside of the classroom, there was simply no way to complete the state-required syllabus in time for the exams.
The other discrepancies in this study also point to something key that is either happening or not happening at home while a student is completing homework. I think it is fair to say that students of average ability, whose parents see a benefit from homework and whose parents are able to help with the homework, are most likely to complete the homework in a productive manner. However, this does not explain the discrepancy between subject matter.
Another fascinating point in the study is their attempt to control for, as a teach trait, teachers of advanced classes assigning more homework. Personally, I have always believed that advanced students need shorter assignments of a more complex nature, rather than more homework.
Should We Assign More or Less Homework?
If there are any takeaways from this study, they may be that we need a true assessment as educators of why we are assigning homework, what type of homework we are assigning, and whether or not it is having the desired effect.
This study is also a reinforcement of the idea that there is a limit to the amount of homework that is productive. Assigning more homework beyond this breaking point has no effect at best, and brings a negative effect at worst.
Too Young for Homework?
While looking for possible preschool programs for my daughter, I visited a school where they assign homework every night. “For preschool?” I asked, incredulously. “Well,” she replied, “they need to get used to it for kindergarten.”
I came away from that exchange wondering, though, if this constant downward pushing of academics and the very concept of assigning work for the sake of assigning work was not only a failure to boost U.S. academic performance but possibly even one of the causes of our current woes.