Have you done your homework on homework?

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Take this quick True/False quiz:

  1. T/F Homework in high school should be limited to 10 minutes per night, per class.
  2. T/F Most high school students do about two hours of homework per night.
  3. T/F Research has found no correlation between homework and achievement.
  4. T/F Homework is always beneficial to students.
  5. T/F Homework is never beneficial to students.
  6. T/F Interactive online homework is more effective than paper-and-pencil homework.

. . . . .

This will be easy to grade. These statements are all false. But I’ve heard every one of them asserted by some “expert” with an agenda.

I’ve only spent a few hours this week diving into the murky world of homework research — mostly peer-reviewed studies by educational psychologists and economists — but I can report a few findings.

First of all, the “10-minute rule” is often misapplied or misinterpreted. It’s 10 minutes x the student’s grade level = total nightly homework, and even that is a rough estimate.

Harris Cooper, a neuroscientist at Duke who has spent a lot more time studying homework than you or me, explains in this New York Times column that diminishing returns (i.e. wasted time) sets in after about 2.5 hours/night for high school kids.

That’s a lot more homework than most students do.

In fact, one study (Kalenkoski and Pabilonia, 2017) reports that on average, American high school students do 6.4 hours of homework per week, including time when they are “multi-tasking” (i.e. distracted). Girls do more than boys, by the way.

What about the correlation between homework and achievement? Is there one? 

Cooper’s 2006 meta-analysis of hundreds of research studies says this: “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.”

These studies weren’t perfect — we know that. The ones that attempted to find (and found) causation had all sorts of flaws. And it’s likely that already-motivated students both do homework and achieve at higher levels.

But here’s what we do know: Students who do more homework tend to perform better on learning tasks, and students who perform better on learning tasks tend to do more homework. My intuition (and 25 years of experience) says that more time working on something probably contributes to that better understanding.

These studies also raise important questions, like:

  • If homework is beneficial, what kind of homework is most beneficial?
  • Do some kinds of homework have negative effects?
  • Is interactive online homework better?

Clearly, not all homework is created equal. Homework that requires rote application of basic tasks is boring, and it can turn students off to school more than it helps reinforce concepts. It’s also easy to mindlessly copy. This is why students and parents are always bashing homework.

Overly difficult homework (especially if it’s graded) is similarly ineffective and can diminish student motivation. Search “homework” on Twitter, and you’ll find hundreds of frustrated students venting their anger about today’s assignments.

But homework that prepares students for class in a non-threatening way (like a video or accessible reading) and homework that challenges students to think creatively about what they are learning are both effective at building student understanding. This is important stuff.

One study (Lipowsky et al, 2004) found that students show greater achievement gains than their peers in other classes when the teacher assigns cognitively demanding homework — for example, “homework tasks that make us think about new things.”

What does that look like?

Last week, my econ students had an online discussion about whether “scarcity” is real or just a convenient lie to keep capitalism in place. My psych students watched a video that explained stages in classical conditioning to help them prepare for their own at-home conditioning experiments.

These were not the only pieces of homework I assigned, but they are examples of the kind of “thinking” homework that seems to work best and keep students engaged.

By the way, the research into online homework — like quizzes or problems with the instant feedback so many experts say homework needs — found little to no gain over traditional types of homework.

Homework seems to support learning even if students have to wait for the feedback, if only because it prompts kids to spend a little more time thinking about what they’re learning, rather than buried in social media or video games.

My take-away: Don’t dump homework just because some self-proclaimed expert tells you to, but don’t cling to rote assignments or torment students with work that is too difficult to do without scaffolding.

Martha Rush is a teacher, blogger, author and speaker. Visit NeverBore.org or join the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information. @MarthaSRush #beatboredom

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