GUEST POST: Make Sense Not War - Suggestions on How to Make Homework More Effective
By: Paul A. Kirschner & Mirjam Neelen
Paul A. Kirschner, @P_A_Kirschner, is a Distinguished University Professor at the Welten Institute on the Open University of the Netherlands and describes himself as an educational realist and grumpy old man.
This post originally appeared on their blog 3-Star Learning Experiences.
Dinner’s done, so let the battle begin! “Do you have any homework? When will you start doing it? No! Absolutely no TV until you’ve finished your homework!” Thus goes the daily battle between parents and their children. The same battle takes place at school between students, and teachers and even between teachers and parents.
Although homework is something that most consider to be quite ‘normal’, the question is whether it’s really useful and if so, how much is effective, what objectives are strived for, and what does the teacher need to do so that students benefit from the homework? In other words, is homework worth all of the battles and the effort? While these questions sound really easy, they are actually really difficult to answer because there are so many factors at play. For example, how old is the student, what grade is (s)he in, what’s his/her motivation and her/his cognitive capacities, are the parents engaged in the process, etcetera. To paraphrase the late Johan Cruijff: Giving an answer is simple, but giving a simple answer is the hardest thing there is .
How much time should be spent on homework?
Heather Shumaker recently published an opinion piece in which she argued that homework is wrecking our kids. She quotes Harris Cooper from Duke University who apparently said: “There is no evidence that any amount of homework improves the academic performance of elementary students.” If we look at the study compilations of Cooper and his colleagues (1989 and 2006), they indeed conclude that “[H]omework has a positive effect on achievement, but the effect varies dramatically with grade level”. He found “substantial positive effects” for high school students, that junior high school students “also benefit from homework”, but for elementary school students “the effect of homework on achievement is negligible”. Also, with respect to amount of homework he found that for high school students, the more homework the better, for junior high students this is also true up to two hours per night, but that for elementary school children, the amount didn’t matter.
But the bigger question is: Why? What exactly makes the difference?
In general, we know that age (or the grade that the student is in) influences the effect of homework. The relationship between the amount of homework given / done and learning achievement seems to be positive for higher grades within secondary education, but less in the lower grades and sometimes even negative in elementary school. A possible reason is that the attention span of younger children is limited. They can only concentrate for so long.
As to who benefits most from homework with respect to learner characteristics like achievement level, most research reports that better students benefit more from homework than average or slower students, but this doesn’t mean that low-achievers don’t benefit. Research also shows that lower-ability students benefit from spending more time on homework assignments because they need more time to reach the same level as higher-ability students. However, “grades of low-ability students who did 10 hours of homework or more per week were as good as the grades of high ability students who did no homework” (Epstein, 1988).
This seems to be in line with the well-known rule of thumb (at least well-known in the USA) of ‘10 minutes per grade’. In other words, in each succeeding grade in school, the amount of homework should increase by 10 minutes. For example, 10 minutes in first grade, 20 in second grade, up to 120 minutes for the last year in secondary school.
Ulrich Trautwein and his colleagues have shown in a number of studies that the frequency of doing homework positively affects learning achievements. However, time spent has no effect, or even a slightly negative effect! In other words, it’s better to do a little homework regularly than a lot of homework only now and again. This sounds very similar to the highly effective instructional method of distributed practice (also see our blog Learning the Smart Way) where, for example, 60 minutes of studying in four separate sessions of 15 minutes works way better than studying the same material for one hour straight.
What’s the reason for giving/doing homework?
Homework can be given for roughly four reasons (i.e., learning objectives).
- The most common reason given is to practice or repeat what was learned or discussed in class.
- Second, homework can prepare students for what’s coming in the following lesson(s).
- A third reason is what is called extension and is aimed at having the student apply something that was learned in class in new contexts or situations (i.e., for transfer).
- Lastly, a possible homework objective is to integrate concepts and skills. This is mostly done through the assignment of essays to write or projects to carry out.
According to research from Pedro Rosário and colleagues, extension homework has by far the most positive effect on students’ achievements, stating "when comparing the three homework instructional purposes," (Rosário and his colleagues focused on practice, preparation, and extension) "students who completed homework that had a purpose of extension had higher grades in mathematics. These results are aligned with Trautwein, Niggli et al. (2009)." Keep in mind that this comparison only took place between the different homework objectives. NOT doing homework was not part of this research and, thus, it can’t be concluded from this particular study that any of the four is better or worse than no homework. Rosário concludes “that despite the homework purpose (i.e., practice, preparation or extension), it is always better to do more, compared to less, homework”.
What does the teacher do with the homework?
Even if students are being good kids and doing their homework, the question that then arises is: What does the teacher do with it, other than – we assume - ‘checking whether it has been done’? Follow-up is critical, and this follow-up can have many forms such as providing focussed feedback on the assignment, giving the completed homework a grade, giving small assessments on the homework itself (think about the ‘testing effect’) and using the homework as the starting point for continued in-class discussions.
If teachers give homework and students complete it faithfully, you would or even should expect that teachers put a bit more effort into it than just ‘checking’ whether it was done and if it is complete. The conclusion of many studies is that just giving feedback or grading it has a medium to large significant effect on students’ learning. In addition, José Carlos Núñez and his colleagues found that teacher feedback has a positive effect on the amount of homework that students complete and that in turn, again has a positive effect on students’ learning.
To paraphrase Epstein en Voorhis: Doing homework is a daily activity for most students. Each homework assignment requires time and energy from students, teachers, and parents. Given this effort, it’s essential that teachers design homework effectively in order to achieve specific objectives. If the design is good, chances are greater that more students will deliver better quality work and, if there is a proper follow-up from the teacher’s end as well, the student will benefit more with regards to learning.
Shumaker states that homework damages the relationship between parents and their children. She states that parents often assume the role of Homework Patrol Cop. However, if the amount of homework would be both age-appropriate in task and time as well as well-designed, and if the teacher would consistently provide effective feedback and other types of follow-up, then students would most likely experience that they benefit from homework. In other words, they might see and feel that something is ‘in it for them’. In that way, they might even be (more) willing to take responsibility for it so that daily battles no longer have to be fought. Ah well, at least less frequently.
If you liked this post, you may like our other posts about homework. In two weekly digests, we discussed assigning quality homework and giving feedback on homework assignments. We also featured another guest post about whether homework is useful.
 Voetballen is heel simpel, maar het moeilijkste wat er is, is simpel voetballen. = Playing football is very simple, but playing simple football is the hardest thing there is.
Cooper, H. (1989). Synthesis of research on homework. Educational Leadership, 47(3), 85-91.
Cooper, H., Robinson, J., & Patall, E. (2006). Does homework improve academic achievement? A synthesis of research 1987–2003. Review of Educational Research, 76, 1–62.
Epstein, J. L., & Van Voorhis, F. L. (2001). More than minutes: Teachers’ roles in designing homework. Educational Psychologist, 36(3), 181-193.
Núñez, J. C., Suárez, N., Rosário, P., Vallejo, G., Cerezo, R., & Valle, A. (2014). Teachers’ feedback on homework, homework-related behaviors and academic achievement. The Journal of Educational Research, 1, 1–13.
Rosário, P. Núñez, J. C., Vallejo, G., Cunha, J. Nunes, T., Mourão, R., & Pinto, R. (2015). Does homework design matter? The role of homework’s purpose in student mathematics achievement. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 43, 10-24.
Shumaker, H., (2016). Homework is wrecking our kids: The research is clear, let’s ban elementary homework. Salon. Retrieved from https://www.salon.com/2016/03/05/homework_is_wrecking_our_kids_the_research_is_clear_lets_ban_elementary_homework/.
Trautwein, U., Köller, O., Schmitz, B., & Baumert, J. (2002). Do homework assignments enhance achievement? A multilevel analysis in 7th-grade mathematics. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 27(1), 26-50.
Trautwein, U., Lüdtke, O., Schnyder, I., & Niggli, A. (2006). Predicting homework effort: Support for a domain-specific, multilevel homework model. Journal of Educational Psychology, 98, 438–456. doi:10.1037/0022-0622.214.171.1248.