In recent months, I’ve had dozens of conversations with educators and parents about the impact of traditional homework on learning. These discussions included a wide array of opinions, which I’ve distilled here.
Popular opinions about homework
Homework takes too much time from family activities
Most of it is worksheets or workbooks that kids hate
Homework doesn’t relate to the real world
Kids become frustrated when they don’t know how to do it
It becomes work for parents
Homework is completely teacher-driven
It doesn’t account for creativity
Homework invades students’ home lives, which should be their own
It hurts kids’ grades
Homework creates stress for students and parents
If it’s fun and not graded, homework has value
When kids see benefits from the activity, they want to do it
Many students come from poor home environments that aren’t conducive to completing homework
What about the research?
As you can see, most of these comments are not favorable toward homework, and many come from school administrators and teachers. “So why do we continue to assign it?” a reporter once asked me. “What does the research say?”
Neither question comes with a silver bullet response. I suspect the best answer to the first is, it’s the old That’s-the-way-we’ve-always-done-it mentality. Most educators simply don’t know how to escape the age-old tradition of homework.
The second question — “What does the research say” — is far more intriguing when rephrased to, “How is homework research conducted?” A recent study, published by the American Psychological Association, is indicative of how almost all homework research is conducted and a perfect example of why the research is so misleading. Consider this quote from the study.
The students were given questionnaires asking how often they did homework and how much time they spent on various subjects. They were also asked whether they did their homework alone or whether they had help and, if so, how often.
Their academic performance in math and science was measured using a standardized test. Adjustments were made to account for gender and socioeconomic background. Prior knowledge was measured using previous grades in math and science.American Psychological Association
Did you notice the bolded sentences? These sentences clearly state the problem with homework research. I’ve consumed many books and studies regarding the impact of homework on learning, and every single piece of research I’ve read on the subject measures student performance with some sort of test or grade.
What far too many education stakeholders — teachers, principals, and parents — don’t know is that studies like these are worthless, because test scores and grades are dysfunctional, grossly misleading, highly subjective instruments that undermine education nearly as much as homework.
The Crux of the Issue
Whether intentionally or unwittingly, teachers manipulate test results, when they create test questions that mimic homework activities. This same manipulation happens with standardized tests, because educators are conditioned to integrate regular test-practice activities into their lesson plans, and these typically involve additional practice at home.
So, when Sarah dutifully completes all of her nightly practice, she performs well on the test, more likely because it is the mirror image of her homework than because she is smarter than her peers. Conversely, Alicia is too busy caring for her toddler sibling while her single mom attends night school, so Alicia disdains most of her homework and, subsequently, fails the test.
What the test and the homework research never do is put Sarah and Alicia side by side and ask each individual what she knows about the topic. Many educators and parents tell me that when they ask this question, they often learn that Alicia knows just as much about the subject as Sarah, perhaps even more.
To put an even finer point on it: While the research may reveal a correlation between homework and test scores, this same research only lies about what students actually know. Furthermore, until there is a study of students doing homework and students not doing homework, including how they answer the “What do you know?” question, homework research will do nothing more than waste our time and misinform future pedagogy.