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A Look at the Evidence

There is a scene in Walt Disney's animated film The Sorcerer's Apprentice where the young Mickey Mouse is told by Merlin to fill a cistern with water. After carrying a few buckets, Mickey decides to use his newly learned magic powers to ease the job by turning a broom into a water carrier. With a single zap, the trick is done. And while the broom carries water, Mickey naps.

Unfortunately, when Mickey awakes he finds that, though, the cistern is full the broom continues to carry water. He also discovers that he does not have the magic to stop the broom so despite his efforts the water keeps coming. In desperation, Mickey strikes the broom with an axe but each of the splinters turns into a broom and begins carrying water also. The frantic Mickey watches helplessly in terror as the unstoppable brooms flood the castle. Suddenly, an angry Merlin appears and clears the mess with a wave of his hand. As a teacher he has seen "homework" take a nasty turn!

In recent discussions with parents and students I have heard a variety of opinions expressed about homework. What has impressed me most is that many of the opinions people hold about homework are based more on impressions than on the relatively well developed body of knowledge and research about homework.

Below, this literature is summarized in order to provide a review of the current thinking about homework focused around some questions I often hear.

First, several generalizations can be made about homework:

  1. Parents expect teachers to assign homework and believe it is a mark of good schooling.
  2. Students do not like to do homework, often believe it intrudes on their time and is not valuable.
  3. The value of homework is genuinely unclear and the research on the effects of homework is relatively poor.
  4. For all parties involved in schooling, homework has been controversial, is so now and will continue to be so in the future.


Q: What do we know about the effects of homework on students' achievement?

The research indicates two main conclusions. First, there is a long and substantial tradition of assigning homework. Though the belief in homework waxes and wanes, it has consistently been used by teachers and expected by parents. Homework tends to become more important and increase in volume during periods of "reform" such as following the launch of Sputnik in the late 50's and the current "A Nation at Risk" inspired basic education revival. It may be that homework is tangible evidence for us that something is being done to improve education.

Second, the research on homework provides little experimental support for its value in increasing achievement. Nearly every experimental study which supports homework is balanced by a study which shows no effect. However, studies of homework appear to show no negative effects on achievement.

On the other hand, correlational studies tend to indicate that homework is a positive correlate with achievement. These large scale analyses of data reveal a positive but modest relationship between homework and achievement. A problem with these studies is that many other variables are also associated with higher achievement.

One reasonable conclusion may be that better schools with better students assign more homework. This, of course, does not imply that assigning more homework will result in either a school's or its students' achievement improving.

Q: Why is the homework "picture" so confusing?

One reason is because the issues are complex. From personal experience most of us know that homework can be both good and bad. It is very difficult to isolate effects when so much variation in quality exists. There are some generally accepted types, purposes and guidelines for homework which may be helpful in understanding the homework confusion.

Researchers Lee and Pruitt (1979) identified three types of homework:

  • Practice: This is the most familiar and frequent type of homework which isusually assigned to reinforce lessons taught during school. Typical practice assignments are to complete 20 math problems, memorize grammar rules and balance chemical formulas. In other words, this is mostly drill which is usually repetitive. Some research indicates that these types of assignments are of questionable value.

    A frequent problem with practice homework is boredom for those who can do the practice. For those who cannot, confusion and frustration is a difficulty. These latter students may actually be learning to do the work incorrectly particularly when homework is not corrected.

  • Preparation: With this type of homework students are assigned to read over material to be presented in the future in order to gain sufficient information to more fully learn. There is little indication that such homework will prepare students without good directions on what, why and how they should read. Thus, preparation assignments should be oriented to a specific purpose.
  • Extension: These homework assignments go beyond classroom presentations. Examples include individual or group projects, science fairs and "background" reading. Often these assignments are long term and production (vs. reproduction) oriented.

    Extension homework tends to be more individually and choice focused, also. Building a miniature Roman catapult, a model of a nuclear reactor or cooking a typical Spanish festival meal can be a good learning experience and fun, as well. Of course,it can also be time consuming, distracting and expensive.

Q: Why do teachers assign homework?

According to researchers England and Flatley (1985) there are five reasons. These are that homework:

  1. Teaches self discipline.
  2. Eases times constraints on the curriculum.
  3. Teaches independence and responsibility.
  4. Supplements and reinforces school learning.
  5. Creates a bond between home and school.

It may be sufficient to say only that there are no data which support a relation between homework and these purposes. Nonetheless, a survey of teachers conducted in 1966 found that 89 of 90 teachers favored homework; another survey in 1989 found that teachers did not strongly believe homework was beneficial.

Q: What are the characteristics of "good" homework?

Although there is much equivocation about the value and purposes of homework, there is considerable agreement about what constitutes good homework.

  • First, the purpose must be clear to teachers, to students and to parents. It appears that parents can be most helpful when they and their children understand what is wanted, the teacher's expectations, how much homework will be assigned and how child and parent can work together with the teacher. As a teacher, it is wise to identify these policies at the beginning of the year so all will know what to expect.
  • Second, homework should be corrected and returned. It should count, not just be counted. Teachers can enlist parents to make homework count by ensuring it is correct and encouraging them to praise and support their children for completing homework.
  • Third, homework should gradually increase through the school years. Primary children should not have homework but beginning in the fourth to fifth grade homework begins and increases in amount assigned through high school. There is little agreement about how much should be assigned.

    However, homework that is assigned should be coordinated between teachers. Children at all levels of schooling are more involved in outside activities (i.e. sports, civic, social, cultural). If six teachers assign 30-40 minutes of homework, the result is very problematic for students and parents. This can be a very real problem as indicated in one study which found that teachers consistently underestimate how long students will spend on the homework they assign. So, it is a good idea for teachers and parents to discuss homework policies to ensure a proper balance.

  • Fourth, the value of homework varies. Sometimes assigned homework will not be what every child needs to do. If this happens frequently, propose some alternatives to what is routinely assigned and to communicate better the purpose of the homework.
  • Fifth, regardless of public opinion, recognize that homework, while it can be a valuable strategy, is not absolutely essential as a daily ingredient of quality education. Most students will not do homework sometimes. Promote but do not expect total compliance.

Q: What can parents do about homework?

The following suggestions may help parents encourage their children to do the homework assigned.

  1. Set a time and place for study/intellectual development -- make this a priority time which supersedes everything else. Include study other than assigned homework and reading for pleasure.
  2. Make school associations positive; include occasional special rewards and always make study very positive.
  3. Help by doing what you can whenever you can and avoid frustration. Stay calm and positive even through tears and rejection.
  4. Help students plan how to attack their assignments and to use their time well.
  5. Learn with your children and show interest in their learning; discuss and develop ideas and review and correct homework.
  6. Test your children on a regular schedule; do this rigorously and thoroughly It is better for parents and their children to find out what they do not know before a test.
  7. Develop an attitude of positive acceptance by relating school success to effort, by being consistent and by being supportive.
  8. Set a purpose for homework; discuss this with your children (Why are you doing this? What can you learn from it?).

Clearly the best approach to make homework a valuable and effective component of classroom instruction is to make sure students and parents understand the purposes of homework. This understanding should provide parents with the knowledge and interest to support you and help their children. In this way homework can become a positive link between the school and the home.

References and Sources for Additional Information

Bonfiglio, J. F. (1988). Evolution of a model homework policy and practice statement. NASSP Bulletin, 72, N507, p. 18-23.

Chen, C. & Stevenson, H. W. (1989). Homework: A cross-cultural examination. Child Development, 60, 3, 551-60.

England, D. A. & Flatley, J. K. (1985). Homework-And Why. Bloomington, IN. Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation.

Keith, T. Z. (1982). Time spent on homework and high school grades: A large-sample path analysis. Journal of EducationalPsychology 74, No. 2, 248-253.

LaConte, R. T. & Doyle, M. A. (1986). Homework as a Learning Experience. Washington, DC: National Education Association.

Lee, J. & Pruitt, K. W. (1979). Homework Assignments: Classroom Games or Teaching Tools? Clearing House, 53, 1, 31-35.

Paschal, R. A., Weinstein, T. & Walberg, H. J. (1984). The effects of homework on learning: A quantitative synthesis. Journal of Education Research, 78, 2, 97-105.

©all rights reserved Thomas M. Sherman, Blacksburg, VA 24060

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