Like all teachers, I’ve spent many hours correcting homework. Yet there’s a debate over whether we should be setting it at all.
I teach both primary and secondary, and regularly find myself drawn into the argument on the reasoning behind it – parents, and sometimes colleagues, question its validity. Parent-teacher interviews can become consumed by how much trouble students have completing assignments. All of which has led me to question the neuroscience behind setting homework. Is it worth it?
'My son works until midnight': parents around the world on homework
Increasingly, there’s a divide between those who support the need for homework and those who suggest the time would be better spent with family and developing relationships. The anxiety related to homework is frequently reviewed.
A survey of high-performing high schools by the Stanford Graduate School of Education, for example, found that 56% of students considered homework a primary source of stress. These same students reported that the demands of homework caused sleep deprivation and other health problems, as well as less time for friends, family and extracurricular pursuits.
When students learn in the classroom, they are using their short-term or working memory. This information is continually updated during the class. On leaving the classroom, the information in the working memory is replaced by the topic in the next class.
Adults experience a similar reaction when they walk into a new room and forget why they are there. The new set of sensory information – lighting, odours, temperature – enters their working memory and any pre-existing information is displaced. It’s only when the person returns to the same environment that they remember the key information.
But education is about more than memorising facts. Students need to access the information in ways that are relevant to their world, and to transfer knowledge to new situations.
Many of us will have struggled to remember someone’s name when we meet them in an unexpected environment (a workmate at the gym, maybe), and we are more likely to remember them again once we’ve seen them multiple times in different places. Similarly, students must practise their skills in different environments.
Revising the key skills learned in the classroom during homework increases the likelihood of a student remembering and being able to use those skills in a variety of situations in the future, contributing to their overall education.
The link between homework and educational achievement is supported by research: a meta-analysis of studies between 1987 and 2003 found that: “With only rare exceptions, the relationship between the amount of homework students do and their achievement outcomes was found to be positive and statistically significant.”
The right type of work
The homework debate is often split along the lines of primary school compared with secondary school. Education researcher Professor John Hattie, who has ranked various influences on student learning and achievement, found that homework in primary schools has a negligible effect (most homework set has little to no impact on a student’s overall learning). However, it makes a bigger difference in secondary schools.
His explanation is that students in secondary schools are often given tasks that reinforce key skills learned in the classroom that day, whereas primary students may be asked to complete separate assignments. “The worst thing you can do with homework is give kids projects; the best thing you can do is reinforce something you’ve already learned,” he told the BBC in 2014.
The science of homework: tips to engage students' brains
So homework can be effective when it’s the right type of homework. In my own practice, the primary students I teach will often be asked to find real-life examples of the concept taught instead of traditional homework tasks, while homework for secondary students consolidates the key concepts covered in the classroom. For secondary in particular, I find a general set of rules useful:
- Set work that’s relevant. This includes elaborating on information addressed in the class or opportunities for students to explore the key concept in areas of their own interest.
- Make sure students can complete the homework. Pitch it to a student’s age and skills – anxiety will only limit their cognitive abilities in that topic. A high chance of success will increase the reward stimulation in the brain.
- Get parents involved, without the homework being a point of conflict with students. Make it a sharing of information, rather than a battle.
- Check the homework with the students afterwards. This offers a chance to review the key concepts and allow the working memory to become part of the long-term memory.
While there is no data on the effectiveness of homework in different subjects, these general rules could be applied equally to languages, mathematics or humanities. And by setting the right type of homework, you’ll help to reinforce key concepts in a new environment, allowing the information you teach to be used in a variety of contexts in the future.
Helen Silvester is a writer for npj Science of Learning Community
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Educators and parents have long been concerned about students stressed by homework loads, but a small research study asked questions recently about homework and anxiety of a different group: parents. The results were unsurprising. While we may have already learned long division and let the Magna Carta fade into memory, parents report that their children’s homework causes family stress and tension — particularly when additional factors surrounding the homework come into play.
The researchers, from Brown University, found that stress and tension for families (as reported by the parents) increased most when parents perceived themselves as unable to help with the homework, when the child disliked doing the homework and when the homework caused arguments, either between the child and adults or among the adults in the household.
The number of parents involved in the research (1,173 parents, both English and Spanish-speaking, who visited one of 27 pediatric practices in the greater Providence area of Rhode Island) makes it more of a guide for further study than a basis for conclusions, but the idea that homework can cause significant family stress is hard to seriously debate. Families across income and education levels may struggle with homework for different reasons and in different ways, but “it’s an equal opportunity problem,” says Stephanie Donaldson-Pressman, a contributing editor to the research study and co-author of “The Learning Habit.”
“Parents may find it hard to evaluate the homework,” she says. “They think, if this is coming home, my child should be able to do it. If the child can’t, and especially if they feel like they can’t help, they may get angry with the child, and the child feels stupid.” That’s a scenario that is likely to lead to more arguments, and an increased dislike of the work on the part of the child.
The researchers also found that parents of students in kindergarten and first grade reported that the children spent significantly more time on homework than recommended. Many schools and organizations, including the National Education Association and the Great Schools blog, will suggest following the “10-minute rule” for how long children should spend on school work outside of school hours: 10 minutes per grade starting in first grade, and most likely more in high school. Instead, parents described their first graders and kindergartners working, on average, for 25 to 30 minutes a night. That is consistent with other research, which has shown an increase in the amount of time spent on homework in lower grades from 1981 to 2003.
“This study highlights the real discrepancy between intent and what’s actually happening,” Ms. Donaldson-Pressman said, speaking of both the time spent and the family tensions parents describe. “When people talk about the homework, they’re too often talking about the work itself. They should be talking about the load — how long it takes. You can have three problems on one page that look easy, but aren’t.”
The homework a child is struggling with may not be developmentally appropriate for every child in a grade, she suggests, noting that academic expectations for young children have increased in recent years. Less-educated or Spanish-speaking parents may find it harder to evaluate or challenge the homework itself, or to say they think it is simply too much. “When the load is too much, it has a tremendous impact on family stress and the general tenor of the evening. It ruins your family time and kids view homework as a punishment,” she said.
At our house, homework has just begun; we are in the opposite of the honeymoon period, when both skills and tolerance are rusty and complaints and stress are high. If the two hours my fifth-grade math student spent on homework last night turn out the be the norm once he is used to the work and the teacher has had a chance to hear from the students, we’ll speak up.
We should, Ms. Donaldson-Pressman says. “Middle-class parents can solve the problem for their own kids,” she says. “They can make sure their child is going to all the right tutors, or get help, but most people can’t.” Instead of accepting that at home we become teachers and homework monitors (or even taking classes in how to help your child with his math), parents should let the school know that they’re unhappy with the situation, both to encourage others to speak up and to speak on behalf of parents who don’t feel comfortable complaining.
“Home should be a safe place for students,” she says. “A child goes to school all day and they’re under stress. If they come home and it’s more of the same, that’s not good for anyone.”
Read more about homework on Motherlode: Homework and Consequences; The Mechanics of Homework; That’s Your Child’s Homework Project, Not Yours and Homework’s Emotional Toll on Students and Families.