Stanford research shows pitfalls of homework

Stanford News

A Stanford researcher found that students in high-achieving communities who spend too much time on homework experience more stress, physical health problems, a lack of balance and even alienation from society. More than two hours of homework a night may be counterproductive, according to the study.

Denise Pope

Education scholar Denise Pope has found that too much homework has negative effects on student well-being and behavioral engagement. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

A Stanford researcher found that too much homework can negatively affect kids, especially their lives away from school, where family, friends and activities matter.

“Our findings on the effects of homework challenge the traditional assumption that homework is inherently good,” wrote Denise Pope, a senior lecturer at the Stanford Graduate School of Education and a co-author of a study published in the Journal of Experimental Education.

The researchers used survey data to examine perceptions about homework, student well-being and behavioral engagement in a sample of 4,317 students from 10 high-performing high schools in upper-middle-class California communities. Along with the survey data, Pope and her colleagues used open-ended answers to explore the students’ views on homework.

Median household income exceeded $90,000 in these communities, and 93 percent of the students went on to college, either two-year or four-year.

Students in these schools average about 3.1 hours of homework each night.

“The findings address how current homework practices in privileged, high-performing schools sustain students’ advantage in competitive climates yet hinder learning, full engagement and well-being,” Pope wrote.

Pope and her colleagues found that too much homework can diminish its effectiveness and even be counterproductive. They cite prior research indicating that homework benefits plateau at about two hours per night, and that 90 minutes to two and a half hours is optimal for high school.

Their study found that too much homework is associated with:

• Greater stress: 56 percent of the students considered homework a primary source of stress, according to the survey data. Forty-three percent viewed tests as a primary stressor, while 33 percent put the pressure to get good grades in that category. Less than 1 percent of the students said homework was not a stressor.

• Reductions in health: In their open-ended answers, many students said their homework load led to sleep deprivation and other health problems. The researchers asked students whether they experienced health issues such as headaches, exhaustion, sleep deprivation, weight loss and stomach problems.

• Less time for friends, family and extracurricular pursuits: Both the survey data and student responses indicate that spending too much time on homework meant that students were “not meeting their developmental needs or cultivating other critical life skills,” according to the researchers. Students were more likely to drop activities, not see friends or family, and not pursue hobbies they enjoy.

A balancing act

The results offer empirical evidence that many students struggle to find balance between homework, extracurricular activities and social time, the researchers said. Many students felt forced or obligated to choose homework over developing other talents or skills.

Also, there was no relationship between the time spent on homework and how much the student enjoyed it. The research quoted students as saying they often do homework they see as “pointless” or “mindless” in order to keep their grades up.

“This kind of busy work, by its very nature, discourages learning and instead promotes doing homework simply to get points,” Pope said.

She said the research calls into question the value of assigning large amounts of homework in high-performing schools. Homework should not be simply assigned as a routine practice, she said.

“Rather, any homework assigned should have a purpose and benefit, and it should be designed to cultivate learning and development,” wrote Pope.

High-performing paradox

In places where students attend high-performing schools, too much homework can reduce their time to foster skills in the area of personal responsibility, the researchers concluded. “Young people are spending more time alone,” they wrote, “which means less time for family and fewer opportunities to engage in their communities.”

Student perspectives

The researchers say that while their open-ended or “self-reporting” methodology to gauge student concerns about homework may have limitations – some might regard it as an opportunity for “typical adolescent complaining” – it was important to learn firsthand what the students believe.

The paper was co-authored by Mollie Galloway from Lewis and Clark College and Jerusha Conner from Villanova University.

The Risks of Guesstimating Homework Time

Edutopia

Studies show that homework is ineffective beyond a certain amount per night.

It is often said that a sign of insanity is doing something over and over again and expecting different results each time. This sums up how most American schools are dealing with the homework issue.

Not only does homework impact students but it also impacts their families. It is common for students and families to feel that they don’t have the time it takes to maintain a healthy balance between work and the rest of their lives. Family time that could be spent getting outdoors, visiting friends and relatives, and relaxing is being unnecessarily burdened by the large amount of homework kids have to do.

One student’s homework has the power to reshape how the entire family spends its time and sets its schedules. I don’t think most teachers appreciate this fact when they assign work.

Guesstimating Pitfalls

Despite studies — such as this one from Stanford — that show homework is ineffective beyond a certain amount per night, teachers and administrators continue to assign too much homework.

Teachers promise to assign a manageable amount of homework, but they don’t gather data on how long it takes their students to complete their homework. And exactly how do teachers estimate how long an assignment will take? Do they do it themselves first — not factoring in that they already understand the content? How on earth do you measure the length of time it takes for a student to think through a problem or a question, and not just write the answer down on a piece of paper?

One negative result of guesstimating time allotment is that students who take more time than is allotted for the assignment can feel that they are somehow inadequate, when the truth is that the allotted time is arbitrarily set. Students might also grow cynical and believe that the teachers are gaming the system by not being honest in stating the allotment, knowing that the homework will probably take more time than promised.

Valuing Free Time

I’ve heard some teachers argue that if students stop multitasking and stay off social media, they could then get the work done in the time allotted. Perhaps, but in addition to this argument also lacking data, it is built upon the dangerous idea that young people are experts at wasting their own time.

Too many adults seem to vastly undervalue the benefits and necessity of free, unstructured time. They undervalue the impact of relaxation and social time on forming well-rounded, healthy adults. So, when students get home from band practice, a game, or their extracurricular activity at six (if they have a short commute), are eating dinner by seven, and doing their homework by eight, at what point do they have time for decompressing, connecting with friends, pets, and family?

This is a plea to teachers and administrators: Take these studies and the testimonies of students and families seriously. Gather data, and if the assignment can be done in class, determine whether making it a homework assignment is truly warranted.

I Hate Homework. I Assign It Anyway.

The New York Times

I hate — hate — homework.

I hated homework when I was a student, I hate the battle of wills I have with my second-grader and I hate seeing my middle-school-age son miss out on the afternoons of his childhood.

But most of all, I hate being a hypocrite. So it’s time to come clean: I am a teacher, and I assign homework.

I have always assigned homework because that is what teachers do; if I didn’t, word would get around that I am a pushover, or don’t care enough about my students to engage their every waking moment with academics. When I first started teaching, I assigned homework liberally and without question, and scoffed at my students’ complaints about their workload. I expected them to keep quiet, buck up and let me do my job.

But 13 years later, I find myself at a crossroads. My son Ben is in middle school, and homework is no longer an abstract concept. I can’t just assign it and forget it, and I will no longer sacrifice my students’ right to their childhood so easily.

I am not the only parent — or teacher, for that matter — questioning the value of homework. It’s the subject of heated debate in school meetings and Internet chat rooms across the country. Even elite private schools in New York City are vowing to lighten their homework load.

The popular media tempest surrounding homework formed in 2006 with the publication of two books on the subject: “The Homework Myth,” by Alfie Kohn, and “The Case Against Homework,” by Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish, followed by Time Magazine’s The Myth About Homework by Claudia Wallis. Last year, Vicki Abeles’s documentary “Race to Nowhere” joined the fray. In her film, Ms. Abeles claims that today’s untenable and increasing homework load drives students to cheating, mental illness and suicide.

So is homework worth it or not? I went directly to the source. I asked my students whether, if homework were to completely disappear, they would be able achieve the same mastery of the material. The answer was a unanimous — if reluctant — “No.”

Most echoed my son Ben’s sentiments: “If I didn’t have homework, I don’t think I’d do very well. It’s practice for what we learn in school.” But, they all stressed, that’s only true of some homework. “Bad” homework — busy work and assignments that don’t do anything but eat up precious evening hours, is (as one of my more opinionated students put it) “a stupid waste of my time.”

Fair enough. If my students feel that quality homework is worth the effort, I’m keeping it. With one caveat. All assignments must pass the “Ben” test. If an assignment is not worthy of my own son’s time, I’m dumping it. Based on a quick look at my assignment book from last year, about a quarter of my assignments won’t make the cut.

Children need time to be quiet, play, read and imagine. Teachers who sacrifice these vital elements of childhood for anything less than the most valuable homework assignments are being derelict in their duty to their students and the teaching profession.

As Students Return to School, Debate About the Amount of Homework Rages

Photo

Discussions on blogs like GreatSchools.org or StopHomework.com reveal a belief that the workload assigned to students may be too heavy. CreditAlex Federowicz for The New York Times

How much homework is enough?

My daughter, Maya, who is entering second grade, was asked to complete homework six days a week during the summer. For a while, we tried gamely to keep up. But one day she turned to me and said, “I hate reading.”

I put the assignment aside.

That was my abrupt introduction to the debate over homework that is bubbling up as students across the United States head back to school.

This month, Brandy Young, a second-grade teacher in Godley, Tex., let parents know on “Meet the Teacher” night that she had no plans to load up her students’ backpacks.

“There will be no formally assigned homework this year,” Ms. Young wrote in a note that was widely shared on Facebook. “Rather, I ask that you spend your evenings doing things that are proven to correlate with student success. Eat dinner as a family, read together, play outside, and get your child to bed early.”

Other conversations about homework are humming in town halls and online. Some school districts, including one near Phoenix, have taken steps to shorten the summer break, out of concern that too much is forgotten over the summer. But discussions on blogs likeGreatSchools.org or StopHomework.com reveal a belief that the workload assigned to students may be too heavy.

“How many people take home an average of two hours or more of work that must be completed for the next day?” said Tonya Noonan Herring, a New Mexico mother of three, in an article on GreatSchools.

The National PTA and the National Education Association endorse a 10-minute guideline: Time spent on after-school work should not exceed 10 minutes a grade level a night. “That is, a first grader should have no more than 10 minutes of homework, a sixth grader no more than 60 minutes and a 12th grader no more than two hours,” the National PTA says.

The National Education Association said those recommendations followed general guidelines from the research of Harris M. Cooper, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University and the author of “The Battle Over Homework.”

“The horror stories I hear from parents and students about five or more hours spent on homework a night fly in the face of evidence of what’s best for kids, even what’s best for promoting academic achievement,” he wrote in an opinion piece for The New York Times.

Have expectations about homework changed this year at your school? Leave us a comment with your thoughts.

Principal: What happened when my school ended useless homework

The Washington Post

By Valerie Strauss March 18, 2016

Anyone who closely follows the debate about the value of homework at different grades knows about a famous meta-analysis of previous research on the subject, published in 2006 by researcher Harris Cooper and colleagues, which found that homework in elementary school does not contribute to academic achievement. You might think that educators would have taken that to heart, but because research rarely informs educational policy, it didn’t.

Today, children in preschool — that’s 3- and 4-year-olds — routinely get homework in the form of dull worksheets. A February 2016 report on New York City’s pre-kindergarten program reported this:

Out-of-school enrichment activities was another way pre-K programs engage parents in children’s learning at home. Homework most often consisted of worksheet packets and reading with the child or instructions to practice with children what they are learning at school. Parents in the focus groups voiced strong opinions about homework, with some favoring it and others feeling it was not age-appropriate for preschoolers to have homework; some felt their children had too little and others too much. On the positive side, parents enjoyed engaging with their children and saw homework as a window into what they were learning at school.

On the other hand, some parents felt their children had too much homework and preferred their children to spend more time at play. Most felt the daily requirement of reading a book to the child was important and key to their child’s reading and vocabulary progress. One parent pointed out that some of the content of the homework is beyond the child’s knowledge so parents are almost “required” to teach it at home. To encourage children to enjoy reading, one center loans each child a book every week that parents are expected to read with their child.

In Cambridge, Mass., one principal faced the homework issue and did something about it. She is Katie Charner-Laird, principal of Cambridgeport School, which educates students from what it calls “junior kindergarten” through fifth grade. Charner-Laird is a progressive educator who wrote the following piece about what happened when she led her team to reevaluate homework and whether it was important to assign. This appeared on the website of the nonprofit organization National Association for the Education of Young Children, and I am republishing it with permission.

By Katie Charner-Laird

In 2014, I found myself in one too many meetings with discontent parents talking about homework. Some parents felt the homework was not meaningful. Others were upset because they felt there was not enough feedback from teachers. Still, other parents wanted teachers to be individualizing homework more. In each of these meetings, it became uncomfortably clear that I really didn’t know what was happening across the school with regards to homework.

By the end of that year, I had made one firm commitment both to myself and to several parents. We would spend some time as a staff, before the next school year started, articulating our beliefs and approach to homework, and develop what some might call a homework policy.

Over that summer, I read a number of articles about how we have to get better at homework, the argument being that homework is a problem for children and families because it is tedious and doesn’t ask children to think critically and creatively. While I didn’t completely disagree with these articles, I also didn’t find a strong rationale for why we give homework or how much homework we should be giving.

I had heard of Alfie Kohn’s book, “The Homework Myth,” but in truth, I was avoiding reading it. As a former teacher, I had always felt that homework was a critical part of children learning organizational skills and responsibility and a way to practice newly developed skills. Moreover, the idea of getting rid of homework seemed a bit too unconventional. But when I finally did pick up “The Homework Myth,” I couldn’t put it down. One by one, my reasons for considering homework an essential part of the elementary school experience were dismantled.

Time management and organizational skills: Kohn points out that rather than teaching time management to students, homework actually requires parents to do more to organize children’s time.

Newly learned skills: Kohn argues that it is rare that all students need the same practice at the end of a lesson. For some, additional practice may be confusing, while for others, it may be unnecessary.

What the research says: Kohn scoured the research to find that there is no evidence that homework in elementary school leads to an increase in student achievement.

At our opening staff meetings last August, I asked teachers to read excerpts from “The Homework Myth,” and discuss the article with grade-level colleagues. Many teachers were as dumbfounded as I was when challenged to think about their long-held beliefs about homework. I asked each grade level team to decide on a common homework approach for the coming school year. While I knew where I stood on the homework issue at this point, I felt it was important for teachers to make these decisions themselves after I had provided them with research and the opportunities to discuss it. As I met with each grade-level team, I also felt it was my responsibility to ensure that there was some semblance of a trajectory from kindergarten through fifth grade.

The School’s New Homework Policy:

Last school year for the first time, I knew the homework expectations for each class in the school!
In kindergarten, students dictate stories to their families on a regular basis, but with no official due dates. Parents were encouraged to read to their children, but there were no set expectations for how much or how often.
Starting in first grade, students were expected to read nightly and this included families reading to children.
Most grade-level teams opted out of reading logs or other accountability structures, noting that these often devolved into a meaningless checklists lacking accountability altogether.
Third graders were asked to write nightly. Students determine the content and form of their writing, which is not graded. Third graders are also expected to practice their math facts based on both grade level expectations and personal levels of mastery.
In my experiences as both principal and teacher, parents often voice two significant complaints: homework either took too long, or not long enough; AND parents didn’t understand the homework, so they couldn’t help their child. These issues have been addressed in our new approach to homework. All homework is now open-ended enough to avoid these common complaints.

Teachers give parents information about other elements also taught in class so they can be supportive of the related homework. When a teacher asks students to read for 30 minutes, some students may read 10 pages, and others may read 30. Parents can help children find a regular time to do that homework because the time needed is consistent. Moreover, if a parent wants a child to do more homework, it is quite simple to just have them keep reading. There is no “wrong way” to do the homework. And this has led to many families reporting that the level of stress in their household has decreased dramatically.

So in 2014, Cambridgeport became “the school that doesn’t give homework,” yet I heard repeatedly from students, teachers, and parents about the significant, meaningful work they are doing at home. A fourth grader begged to take home his writing notebook on the third day of school so he could keep working on the story he had started in class. A class of fifth graders requested additional practice problems to take home with them. A father-daughter pair showed me the model they created of the setting of the book they were reading together.

Our school may be giving less homework but we have more students engaged in more meaningful learning activities at home than ever before.

Homework: A New User’s Guide

NPR

SEPTEMBER 19, 2015 7:03 AM ET
It's Homework Time!

LA Johnson/NPR

If you made it past the headline, you’re likely a student, concerned parent, teacher or, like me, a nerd nostalgist who enjoys basking in the distant glow of Homework Triumphs Past (second-grade report on Custer’s Last Stand, nailed it!).

Whoever you are, you’re surely hoping for some clarity in the loud, perennial debate over whether U.S. students are justifiably exhausted and nervous from too much homework — even though some international comparisons suggest they’re sitting comfortably at the average.

Well, here goes. I’ve mapped out six, research-based polestars that should help guide you to some reasonable conclusions about homework.

How much homework do U.S. students get?

The best answer comes from something called the National Assessment of Educational Progress or NAEP. In 2012, students in three different age groups — 9, 13 and 17 — were asked, “How much time did you spend on homework yesterday?” The vast majority of 9-year-olds (79 percent) and 13-year-olds (65 percent) and still a majority of 17-year-olds (53 percent) all reported doing an hour or less of homework the day before.

Another study from the National Center for Education Statistics found that high school students who reported doing homework outside of school did, on average, about seven hours a week.

If you’re hungry for more data on this — and some perspective — check out this exhaustive report put together last year by researcher Tom Loveless at the Brookings Institution.

An hour or less a day? But we hear so many horror stories! Why?

The fact is, some students do have a ton of homework. In high school we see a kind of student divergence — between those who choose or find themselves tracked into less-rigorous coursework and those who enroll in honors classes or multiple Advanced Placement courses. And the latter students are getting a lot of homework. In that 2012 NAEP survey, 13 percent of 17-year-olds reported doing more than two hours of homework the previous night. That’s not a lot of students, but they’re clearly doing a lot of work.

That also tracks with a famous survey from 2007 — from MetLife — that asked parents what they think of their kids’ homework load. Sixty percent said it was just right. Twenty-five percent said their kids are getting too little. Just 15 percent of parents said their kids have too much homework.

Research also suggests that the students doing the most work have something else in common: income. “I think that the debate over homework in some ways is a social class issue,” says Janine Bempechat, professor of human development at Wheelock College. “There’s no question that in affluent communities, children are really over-taxed, over-burdened with homework.”

But the vast majority of students do not seem to have inordinate workloads. And the ones who do are generally volunteering for the tough stuff. That doesn’t make it easier, but it does make it a choice.

Do we know how much homework students in other countries are doing?

Sort of. Caveats abound here. Education systems and perceptions of what is and isn’t homework can vary remarkably overseas. So any comparison is, to a degree, apples-to-oranges (or, at least, apples-to-pears). A 2012 report from the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development pegged the U.S. homework load for 15-year-olds at around six hours per week. That’s just above the study’s average. It found that students in Hong Kong are also doing about six hours a week. Much of Europe checks in between four and five hours a week. In Japan, it’s four hours. And Korea’s near the bottom, at three hours.

How much homework is too much?

Better yet, how much is just right? Harris Cooper at Duke University has done some of thebest work on homework. He and his team reviewed dozens of studies, from 1987 to 2003, looking for consensus on what works and what doesn’t. A common rule of thumb, he says, is what’s called the 10-minute rule. Take the child’s grade and multiply by 10. So first-graders should have roughly 10 minutes of homework a night, 40 minutes for fourth-graders, on up to two hours for seniors in high school. A lot of of schools use this. Even theNational PTA officially endorses it.

Homework clearly improves student performance, right?

Not necessarily. It depends on the age of the child. Looking over the research, there’s little to no evidence that homework improves student achievement in elementary school. Then again, the many experts I spoke with all said the same thing: The point of homework in those primary grades isn’t entirely academic. It’s about teaching things like time-management and self-direction.

But, by high school the evidence shifts. Harris Cooper’s massive review found, in middle and high school, a positive correlation between homework and student achievement on unit tests. It seems to help. But more is not always better. Cooper points out that, depending on the subject and the age of the student, there is a law of diminishing returns. Again, he recommends the 10-minute rule.

What kinds of homework seem to be most effective?

This is where things get really interesting. Because homework should be about learning, right? To understand what kinds of homework best help kids learn, we really need to talk about memory and the brain.

Let’s start with something called the spacing effect. Say a child has to do a vocabulary worksheet. The next week, it’s a new worksheet with different words and so on. Well, research shows that the brain is better at remembering when we repeat with consistency, not when we study in long, isolated chunks of time. Do a little bit of vocabulary each night, repeating the same words night after night.

Similarly, a professor of psychology at Washington University in St. Louis, Henry “Roddy” Roediger III, recommends that teachers give students plenty of little quizzes, which he says strengthen the brain’s ability to remember. Don’t fret. They can be low-stakes or no-stakes, says Roediger: It’s the steady recall and repetition that matter. He also recommends, as homework, that students try testing themselves instead of simply re-reading the text or class notes.

There’s also something known as interleaving. This is big in the debate over math homework. Many of us — myself included — learned math by focusing on one concept at a time, doing a worksheet to practice that concept, then moving on.

Well, there’s evidence that students learn more when homework requires them to choose among multiple strategies — new and old — when solving problems. In other words, kids learn when they have to draw not just from what they learned in class that day but that week, that month, that year.

One last note: Experts agree that homework should generally be about reinforcing what students learned in class (this is especially true in math). Sometimes it can — and should — be used to introduce new material, but here’s where so many horror stories begin.

Tom Loveless, a former teacher, offers this advice: “I don’t think teachers should ever send brand-new material that puts the parent in the position of a teacher. That’s a disaster. My own personal philosophy was: Homework is best if it’s material that requires more practice but they’ve already received initial instruction.”

Or, in the words of the National PTA: “Homework that cannot be done without help is not good homework.”