Homework: Useful or useless?

Now that it’s October and the school year is in full swing, there’s a lot of buzz around homework. But it’s not just children that are protesting math problems and writing assignments — parents are actually staring a homework revolution. Just Google “the less homework revolution” and you’ll find multiple articles by parents who want to eliminate homework to give children more time to play, exercise and enjoy time with family. Even the Today Show weighed in on the homework conundrum by saying that all those hours students spend at the kitchen table with their books may not have an impact on their test scores.

As an education researcher, the topic of homework is important to me. So I went straight for the computer and pulled up the original study mentioned on the Today Show. It turns out that the journal article they referenced was actually not new, but a study published in 2011. It found that while math homework did contribute positively to student test scores, homework in English, history and science did not.

But this one report shouldn’t be the final word on homework. When I continued my research, I found dozens of studies on the effects of homework — and the results are conflicting. For example, a review of research I found showed that lengthy math homework assignments had a negative effect on achievement.

Other studies showed homework in a more positive light. One popular report from 1989 found that homework in all subjects was generally useful for high school students, but not for elementary school students. And another review of research found positive effects of homework in all subjects.

What should we do?

With all of these mixed findings, it’s clear that the question shouldn’t be “should students get homework?” Instead, educators should assign homework while considering the age of their students, the amount of assignments, and what content it covers. 

Mike Pabian, Professor at Lesley University, said that homework is a lot like practicing a sport. “A skill needs to be practiced to take root. The practice should not be assigned with a ‘more is better’ philosophy; rather, less is more. Effective homework is a matter of targeted practice that will strengthen a certain content area or procedure.”

Ashley McDonald, my sister and a second grade teacher in Central Massachusetts, agrees. “I believe homework is necessary to cement the skills we teach in the classroom, but it should be manageable and appropriate for the grade level” said McDonald. “We give homework packets that align with what we are doing in class, and we’ve had a great response from parents who have to sign off on the homework each night. It makes the parents aware of what we’re doing in class and where their children should be skill-wise.”

Teachers, what are your thoughts on homework? How much do you assign, and what response have you received from parents?