Does Homework Improve Academic Achievement?
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Educators should be thrilled by these numbers. Pleasing a majority of parents regarding homework and having equal numbers of dissenters shouting "too much!" and "too little!" is about as good as they can hope for.
But opinions cannot tell us whether homework works; only research can, which is why my colleagues and I have conducted a combined analysis of dozens of homework studies to examine whether homework is beneficial and what amount of homework is appropriate for our children.
The homework question is best answered by comparing students who are assigned homework with students assigned no homework but who are similar in other ways. The results of such studies suggest that homework can improve students' scores on the class tests that come at the end of a topic. Students assigned homework in 2nd grade did better on math, 3rd and 4th graders did better on English skills and vocabulary, 5th graders on social studies, 9th through 12th graders on American history, and 12th graders on Shakespeare.
Less authoritative are 12 studies that link the amount of homework to achievement, but control for lots of other factors that might influence this connection. These types of studies, often based on national samples of students, also find a positive link between time on homework and achievement.
Yet other studies simply correlate homework and achievement with no attempt to control for student differences. In 35 such studies, about 77 percent find the link between homework and achievement is positive. Most interesting, though, is these results suggest little or no relationship between homework and achievement for elementary school students.
Why might that be? Younger children have less developed study habits and are less able to tune out distractions at home. Studies also suggest that young students who are struggling in school take more time to complete homework assignments simply because these assignments are more difficult for them.
These recommendations are consistent with the conclusions reached by our analysis. Practice assignments do improve scores on class tests at all grade levels. A little amount of homework may help elementary school students build study habits. Homework for junior high students appears to reach the point of diminishing returns after about 90 minutes a night. For high school students, the positive line continues to climb until between 90 minutes and 2½ hours of homework a night, after which returns diminish.
Beyond achievement, proponents of homework argue that it can have many other beneficial effects. They claim it can help students develop good study habits so they are ready to grow as their cognitive capacities mature. It can help students recognize that learning can occur at home as well as at school. Homework can foster independent learning and responsible character traits. And it can give parents an opportunity to see what's going on at school and let them express positive attitudes toward achievement.
Opponents of homework counter that it can also have negative effects. They argue it can lead to boredom with schoolwork, since all activities remain interesting only for so long. Homework can deny students access to leisure activities that also teach important life skills. Parents can get too involved in homework -- pressuring their child and confusing him by using different instructional techniques than the teacher.
My feeling is that homework policies should prescribe amounts of homework consistent with the research evidence, but which also give individual schools and teachers some flexibility to take into account the unique needs and circumstances of their students and families. In general, teachers should avoid either extreme.
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Study: Homework Doesn’t Mean Better Grades, But Maybe Better Standardized Test Scores
Robert H. Tai, associate professor of science education at UVA's Curry School of Education
The time students spend on math and science homework doesn’t necessarily mean better grades, but it could lead to better performance on standardized tests, a new study finds.
“When Is Homework Worth The Time?” was recently published by lead investigator Adam Maltese, assistant professor of science education at Indiana University, and co-authors Robert H. Tai, associate professor of science education at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education , and Xitao Fan, dean of education at the University of Macau. Maltese is a Curry alumnus, and Fan is a former Curry faculty member.
The authors examined survey and transcript data of more than 18,000 10th-grade students to uncover explanations for academic performance. The data focused on individual classes, examining student outcomes through the transcripts from two nationwide samples collected in 1990 and 2002 by the National Center for Education Statistics.
Contrary to much published research, a regression analysis of time spent on homework and the final class grade found no substantive difference in grades between students who complete homework and those who do not. But the analysis found a positive association between student performance on standardized tests and the time they spent on homework.
“Our results hint that maybe homework is not being used as well as it could be,” Maltese said.
Tai said that homework assignments cannot replace good teaching.
“I believe that this finding is the end result of a chain of unfortunate educational decisions, beginning with the content coverage requirements that push too much information into too little time to learn it in the classroom,” Tai said. “The overflow typically results in more homework assignments. However, students spending more time on something that is not easy to understand or needs to be explained by a teacher does not help these students learn and, in fact, may confuse them.
“The results from this study imply that homework should be purposeful,” he added, “and that the purpose must be understood by both the teacher and the students.”
The authors suggest that factors such as class participation and attendance may mitigate the association of homework to stronger grade performance. They also indicate the types of homework assignments typically given may work better toward standardized test preparation than for retaining knowledge of class material.
Maltese said the genesis for the study was a concern about whether a traditional and ubiquitous educational practice, such as homework, is associated with students achieving at a higher level in math and science. Many media reports about education compare U.S. students unfavorably to high-achieving math and science students from across the world. The 2007 documentary film “Two Million Minutes” compared two Indiana students to students in India and China, taking particular note of how much more time the Indian and Chinese students spent on studying or completing homework.
“We’re not trying to say that all homework is bad,” Maltese said. “It’s expected that students are going to do homework. This is more of an argument that it should be quality over quantity. So in math, rather than doing the same types of problems over and over again, maybe it should involve having students analyze new types of problems or data. In science, maybe the students should write concept summaries instead of just reading a chapter and answering the questions at the end.”
This issue is particularly relevant given that the time spent on homework reported by most students translates into the equivalent of 100 to 180 50-minute class periods of extra learning time each year.
The authors conclude that given current policy initiatives to improve science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, education, more evaluation is needed about how to use homework time more effectively. They suggest more research be done on the form and function of homework assignments.
“In today’s current educational environment, with all the activities taking up children’s time both in school and out of school, the purpose of each homework assignment must be clear and targeted,” Tai said. “With homework, more is not better.”
Rebecca P. Arrington
Office of University Communications
[email protected] (434) 924-7189
November 20, 2012
Does Homework Help Improve Grades?
29 November 2022
8 minutes to read
- 01. The Homework Study Abstract
- 02. What's the Point of Homework?
- 03. Homework Through the Ages
- 04. Is There Any Benefit to Doing Homework?
It's axiomatic. Kids go to school and then, go home and do homework. They turn their homework in the next day. If it's a longer assignment, they hand it in by the due date. Is anybody really happy about that?
Students aren't. They've already ' done their time' in the classroom for the day; why should they continue classroom activity outside of school? Teachers aren't. They teach when school's in session so the only time left to grade homework is on their own time. Put that way, it seems that the practice conflicts with labour laws. Perhaps parents are the only party happy with homework. After all, they too have been led to believe that much work is the only path to success. Meet the scientists proving them wrong:
- Adam Maltese, Assistant Professor of Science Education at Indiana University
- Robert H. Tai, Associate Professor of Science Education at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education
- Fan Xitao, Dean of Education at the University of Macau
Their groundbreaking work has provoked a shift in attitude about homework. Their findings have prompted the French government to proclaim a homework ban ! Spoiler: it's not yet come to pass but other countries are striding in that direction.
Here at Superprof, we’ve been keeping a close eye on doing homework. We're tuned in to the ongoing debate surrounding the topic of homework and how beneficial the practice really is to learning outcomes . Read on to discover what we've found so far.
The Homework Study Abstract
Did you know that not a single academic study has ever been able to prove a positive correlation between academic success and homework? Me neither. All the way back in 2012, the Huffington Post reported on a then-new study. This work added more weight to the growing body of evidence about homework benefits. It concluded that homework has little or no effect on academic success.
The researchers listed in this article's introduction conducted that study. It surveyed more than 18,000 high-school maths and science students. The objective was to investigate the relationship between homework and academic performance. Specifically, whether more time spent on homework shows a net-positive effect on overall learning and grades.
They asked thousands of students one question: How much time do you spend on homework?’. The study found a very modest correlation between the amount of homework students said they did and their scores on standardised tests . It further disclosed that there was no relationship whatsoever between time spent on homework and course grades. Most shockingly, the study revealed "no substantive difference in grades between students who complete homework and those who do not.”
One of the paper's co-authors, Robert Tai said: “In today’s current educational environment, with all the activities taking up children’s time both in school and out of school, the purpose of each homework assignment must be clear and targeted. With homework, more is not better.”
So if homework is increasingly proven to be a waste of time, perhaps government bodies are right to consider ditching the practice. Incorporating homework back into the classroom where learning outcomes are best demonstrated could work to improve grades. After all, parents who homeschool their learners generally don't assign additional work after the formal learning time ends.
But perhaps only time will tell. If the responses to the study question are to be believed, it would mean class time could stretch to include 100 to 180 extra 50-minute class periods per year. Granted, it's more time in school. But then, it leaves our kids more time to explore other interests and develop in other ways after school.
What's the Point of Homework?
Let's apply a bit of critical thinking to the homework question. The point of school is to learn. Learning is measured through academic performance. Formal performance assessments - exams, are graded. Those grades reflect only marginal improvement for students who (state they) regularly complete their home assignments. That can hardly even be called a correlation.
Passionate educators insist that homework builds a bridge between school and home. But does it, really? And is parental involvement beneficial? Here again, evidence is stacking up. Studies show that parental involvement actually reduces learners' academic success. That's only in part because parents do the work. Another reason points to parents not fully understanding modern educational initiatives.
And then, there's busy work . Let's say that a primary school group just studied a significant historical epoch or science fact. They're assigned project work; maybe building or drawing a model of that event or writing their thoughts about what they just learned in science. These activities are related to the topic but don't necessarily reinforce learned knowledge.
This takes us to another point. Those who advocate for homework believe those exercises repeat concepts introduced in class. Repetition leads to consolidation (of knowledge), as the theory goes. We all know that's true for physical activity; everyone knows about muscle memory. But is it the same for intellectual work?
We'd argue not. For homework to be true repetition, it would have to be done in the same conditions as the original work. In other words, in the classroom. Students, particularly the younger ones may not be aware that they code-switch between school and home. That means they let go of their learner persona and adopt their child persona. It's a completely different psychological state.
Learners in a Montessori setting have less of an issue switching between the school and home environments. Traditional schools have a completely different setup than Montessori schools. They are far more structured and competitive than the more relaxed Montessori setting. And traditional schools mainly follow a teacher-led instruction model. By contrast, Montessori education revolves around the student-led model.
Homework Through the Ages
It's safe to say that, for as long as there have been schools, there has been homework. These extracurricular assignments' origins are hard to pin down. However, we can say, with a measure of authority, that all the internet pages claiming an evil teacher created the concept are (most likely) wrong. Roberto Nevelis (probably) wasn't angry at lazy students. He didn't intend to punish them by giving them extra work.
On the other hand, it would be easy to imagine Plato or Confucius assigning their disciples a few moral dilemmas to ponder on their own. But the first recorded instance of homework assignment doesn't reach back that far. Pliny the Younger asked his students to practise speaking at home. As he taught oration, it makes sense that his assignments would be verbal rather than written. And his point was clear. The more students practised speaking, the more fluent they would become.
Strangely enough, the type of homework we know today originated from a political manoeuvre. Horace Mann , a German politician, insisted that students must continue working to learn at home. It was a power move meant to prove that the state had absolute authority over every citizen, regardless of their age.
This power play didn't make students any more talented or gifted in learning . However, it did make other nations jealous and, maybe, a bit fearful. Soon, homework spread across Europe. As for Horace Mann, he imported the concept to US schools.
At first, American educators were ecstatic about homework. It didn't take long for that tide to turn, though. A couple of decades after assigning homework became a thing, the practice suffered massive backlash. It was banned in some states. Women's magazines and prominent newspapers published letters from the medical community describing how detrimental homework was to children.
How much of that might have been because, in those days, children were expected to earn their keep? Whether working around the homestead or out hawking newspapers, families counted on little ones' earnings. If they were doing homework, they could hardly report for duty. We'll never know for sure but the next big homework battle invoked child labour laws. That gives us a rather substantial clue to the sentiments of the time.
In 1930, a now-defunct group called the American Child Health Association insisted that homework is a form of child labour. Thus, those assignments were against the law and should be discontinued. Note that the Great Depression was unravelling American life at that time. Buying school supplies was likely out of the question.
The US has flip-flopped on homework ever since Mr Mann brought it over. From the Depression Era to the mid-50s, homework was supposed to be a personal exploration. When US lawmakers learned that Soviet students were in class practically, homework was back on the table. In the 80s, academics realised American students were falling far behind global educational standards. The practice intensified until the early aughts, when it again fell out of favour.
Is There Any Benefit to Doing Homework?
A growing body of work proves that homework does not substantially contribute to better grades. It does not necessarily reinforce what was learned in the classroom and does not exactly constitute a model for repetition as consolidation . It stresses students out and may cause turmoil at home. And both teachers and students have to labour beyond regular 'working' hours to deal with homework.
Even homework's origins appear odious! They're so bad, in fact, that in 1930, the US declared that homework, after a full school day, extends study hours beyond the amount of time child labour laws allowed kids to work! Even China, a country notorious for its educational push, is now pushing back against kids spending their childhoods in learning modes. Can homework be redeemed?
Not fully, but these assignments have their good points. For one, it helps learners understand time management . All the fables ever written can't teach kids about the evils of procrastinating quite like having to cram for an exam does. Learning how to manage their schedules prepares them for the adult world, where just about every second of their time will be regimented.
Speaking of time... We all know how taking work home lets people finish it without the boss breathing down their necks. They might have a nice beverage and a snack while they go over some reports or analyses. Students with homework are offered the same deal. They can take their time reviewing what they learned in class. They might search the internet for more information on the topic. They might even go beyond their assignment to read up on materials to be covered in the next lesson.
Homework potentially sets students on the path to discovery. Outside of the classroom, they're free to roam any intellectual field that piques their interest. It's not uncommon for a homework assignment to serve as a springboard into such explorations. In fact, studying numeral systems prompted my mate to ask his dad, a software engineer, about coding .
And, finally, homework teaches discipline. If you want to get good at something, you have to do it over and over again. More importantly, you have to commit to that repetition . Granted, students may not be wild about mastering academics but the process of doing homework itself, even under mandate, instils discipline.
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what is the point of homework
I don’t understand why your article says “Did you know that not a single academic study has ever been able to prove a positive correlation between academic success and homework?” There have been plenty of studies that prove homework helps academic success. Here’s the one right here https://www.forbes.com/sites/nataliewexler/2019/01/03/why-homework-doesnt-seem-to-boost-learning-and-how-it-could/?sh=47a6a0c968ab And another by Duke University https://today.duke.edu/2006/09/homework_oped.html If you’re going to say things as if they’re factual you need to back it up by where you’re getting your facts.
Agreed, another study here… “The evidence shows that the impact of homework, on average, is five months’ additional progress.” MacBeath and Turner (1990)
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Does Homework Improve Learning?
Chapter 2 of the homework myth (da capo press, 2006) copyright © 2006 by alfie kohn, by alfie kohn.
Because the question that serves as the title of this chapter doesn’t seem all that complicated, you might think that after all this time we’d have a straightforward answer. You might think that open-minded people who review the evidence should be able to agree on whether homework really does help.
When you think about it, any number of issues could complicate the picture and make it more or less likely that homework would appear to be beneficial in a given study: What kind of homework are we talking about? Fill-in-the-blank worksheets or extended projects? In what school subject(s)? How old are the students? How able and interested are they? Are we looking at how much the teacher assigned or at how much the kids actually did? How careful was the study and how many students were investigated?
Even when you take account of all these variables, the bottom line remains that no definite conclusion can be reached, and that is itself a significant conclusion. The fact that there isn’t anything close to unanimity among experts belies the widespread assumption that homework helps. It demonstrates just how superficial and misleading are the countless declarations one hears to the effect that “studies find homework is an important contributor to academic achievement.”
Taken as a whole, the available research might be summarized as inconclusive. But if we look more closely, even that description turns out to be too generous. The bottom line, I’ll argue in this chapter, is that a careful examination of the data raises serious doubts about whether meaningful learning is enhanced by homework for most students. Of the eight reasons that follow, the first three identify important limitations of the existing research, the next three identify findings from these same studies that lead one to question homework’s effectiveness, and the last two introduce additional data that weaken the case even further.
Limitations of the Research
1. At best, most homework studies show only an association, not a causal relationship. Statistical principles don’t get much more basic than “correlation doesn’t prove causation.” The number of umbrellas brought to a workplace on a given morning will be highly correlated with the probability of precipitation in the afternoon, but the presence of umbrellas didn’t make it rain. Also, I’d be willing to bet that kids who ski are more likely to attend selective colleges than those who don’t ski, but that doesn’t mean they were accepted because they ski, or that arranging for a child to take skiing lessons will improve her chances of being admitted. Nevertheless, most research purporting to show a positive effect of homework seems to be based on the assumption that when students who get (or do) more homework also score better on standardized tests, it follows that the higher scores were due to their having had more homework.
There are almost always other explanations for why successful students might be in classrooms where more homework is assigned – let alone why these students might take more time with their homework than their peers do. Even Cooper, a proponent of homework, concedes that “it is equally plausible,” based on the correlational data that comprise most of the available research on the topic, “that teachers assign more homework to students who are achieving better . . . or that better students simply spend more time on home study.” In still other cases, a third variable – for example, being born into a more affluent and highly educated family – might be associated with getting higher test scores and with doing more homework (or attending the kind of school where more homework is assigned). Again, it would be erroneous to conclude that homework is responsible for higher achievement. Or that a complete absence of homework would have any detrimental effect at all.
Sometimes it’s not easy to spot those other variables that can separately affect achievement and time spent on homework, giving the impression that these two are causally related. One of the most frequently cited studies in the field was published in the early 1980s by a researcher named Timothy Keith, who looked at survey results from tens of thousands of high school students and concluded that homework had a positive relationship to achievement, at least at that age. But a funny thing happened ten years later when he and a colleague looked at homework alongside other possible influences on learning such as quality of instruction, motivation, and which classes the students took. When all these variables were entered into the equation simultaneously, the result was “puzzling and surprising”: homework no longer had any meaningful effect on achievement at all. In other words, a set of findings that served – and, given how often his original study continues to be cited, still serves – as a prominent basis for the claim that homework raises achievement turns out to be spurious.
Several studies have actually found a negative relationship between students’ achievement (or their academic performance as judged by teachers) and how much time they spend on homework (or how much help they receive from their parents). But researchers who report this counterintuitive finding generally take pains to explain that it “must not be interpreted as a causal pattern.” What’s really going on here, we’re assured, is just that kids with academic difficulties are taking more time with their homework in order to catch up.
That sounds plausible, but of course it’s just a theory. One study found that children who were having academic difficulties actually didn’t get more homework from their teachers, although it’s possible they spent longer hours working on the homework that they did get. But even if we agreed that doing more homework probably isn’t responsible for lowering students’ achievement, the fact that there’s an inverse relationship seems to suggest that, at the very least, homework isn’t doing much to help kids who are struggling. In any event, anyone who reads the research on this topic can’t help but notice how rare it is to find these same cautions about the misleading nature of correlational results when those results suggest a positive relationship between homework and achievement. It’s only when the outcome doesn’t fit the expected pattern (and support the case for homework) that they’re carefully explained away.
In short, most of the research that’s cited to show that homework is academically beneficial really doesn’t prove any such thing.
2. Do we really know how much homework kids do? The studies claiming that homework helps are based on the assumption that we can accurately measure the number and length of assignments. But many of these studies depend on students to tell us how much homework they get (or complete). When Cooper and his associates looked at recent studies in which the time spent on homework was reported by students, and then compared them with studies in which that estimate was provided by their parents, the results were quite different. In fact, the correlation between homework and achievement completely disappeared when parents’ estimates were used. This was also true in one of Cooper’s own studies: “Parent reports of homework completion were . . . uncorrelated with the student report.” The same sort of discrepancy shows up again in cross-cultural research — parents and children provide very different accounts of how much help kids receive — and also when students and teachers are asked to estimate how much homework was assigned. It’s not clear which source is most accurate, by the way – or, indeed, whether any of them is entirely reliable.
3. Homework studies confuse grades and test scores with learning. Most researchers, like most reporters who write about education, talk about how this or that policy affects student “achievement” without questioning whether the way that word is defined in the studies makes any sense. What exactly is this entity called achievement that’s said to go up or down? It turns out that what’s actually being measured – at least in all the homework research I’ve seen — is one of three things: scores on tests designed by teachers, grades given by teachers, or scores on standardized exams. About the best thing you can say for these numbers is that they’re easy for researchers to collect and report. Each is seriously flawed in its own way.
In studies that involve in-class tests, some students are given homework – which usually consists of reviewing a batch of facts about some topic – and then they, along with their peers who didn’t get the homework, take a quiz on that very material. The outcome measure, in other words, is precisely aligned to the homework that some students did and others didn’t do — or that they did in varying amounts. It’s as if you were told to spend time in the evening learning the names of all the vice presidents of the United States and were then tested only on those names. If you remembered more of them after cramming, the researcher would then conclude that “learning in the evening” is effective.
Here’s one example. Cooper and his colleagues conducted a study in 1998 with both younger and older students (from grades 2 through 12), using both grades and standardized test scores to measure achievement. They also looked at how much homework was assigned by the teacher as well as at how much time students spent on their homework. Thus, there were eight separate results to be reported. Here’s how they came out:
Effect on grades of amount of homework assigned No sig. relationship
Effect on test scores of amount of homework assigned No sig. relationship
Effect on grades of amount of homework done Negative relationship
Effect on test scores of amount of homework done No sig. relationship
Effect on grades of amount of homework done Positive relationship
Of these eight comparisons, then, the only positive correlation – and it wasn’t a large one – was between how much homework older students did and their achievement as measured by grades. If that measure is viewed as dubious, if not downright silly, then one of the more recent studies conducted by the country’s best-known homework researcher fails to support the idea of assigning homework at any age.
The last, and most common, way of measuring achievement is to use standardized test scores. Purely because they’re standardized, these tests are widely regarded as objective instruments for assessing children’s academic performance. But as I’ve argued elsewhere at some length, there is considerable reason to believe that standardized tests are a poor measure of intellectual proficiency. They are, however, excellent indicators of two things. The first is affluence: Up to 90 percent of the difference in scores among schools, communities, or even states can be accounted for, statistically speaking, without knowing anything about what happened inside the classrooms. All you need are some facts about the average income and education levels of the students’ parents. The second phenomenon that standardized tests measure is how skillful a particular group of students is at taking standardized tests – and, increasingly, how much class time has been given over to preparing them to do just that.
In my experience, teachers can almost always identify several students who do poorly on standardized tests even though, by more authentic and meaningful indicators, they are extremely talented thinkers. Other students, meanwhile, ace these tests even though their thinking isn’t particularly impressive; they’re just good test-takers. These anecdotal reports have been corroborated by research that finds a statistically significant positive relationship between a shallow or superficial approach to learning, on the one hand, and high scores on various standardized tests, on the other. What’s more, this association has been documented at the elementary, middle, and high school level.
Standardized tests are even less useful when they include any of these features:
* If most of the questions are multiple-choice, then students are unable to generate, or even justify, their responses. To that extent, students cannot really demonstrate what they know or what they can do with what they know. Multiple-choice tests are basically designed so that many kids who understand a given idea will be tricked into picking the wrong answer.
* If the test is timed, then it places a premium not on thoughtfulness but on speed.
* If the test is focused on “basic skills,” then doing well is more a function of cramming forgettable facts into short-term memory than of really understanding ideas, making connections and distinctions, knowing how to read or write or analyze problems in a sophisticated way, thinking like a scientist or historian, being able to use knowledge in unfamiliar situations, and so on.
* If the test is given to younger children, then, according to an overwhelming consensus on the part of early-education specialists, it is a poor indicator of academic skills. Many children under the age of eight or nine are unable to demonstrate their proficiency on a standardized test just because they’re tripped up by the format.
* If the test is “norm-referenced” (like the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, Terra Nova, Stanford Achievement Test, and others used widely in classrooms and also by researchers), then it was never designed to evaluate whether students know what they should. Instead, its primary purpose is to artificially spread out the scores in order to facilitate ranking students against each other. The question these tests are intended to answer is not “How well are our kids – or our schools – doing?” but “Who’s beating whom?” We know nothing about academic competence in absolute terms just from knowing what percentage of other test-takers a given child has bested. Moreover, the selection of questions for these tests is informed by this imperative to rank. Thus, items that a lot of students answer correctly (or incorrectly) are typically eliminated – regardless of whether the content is important – and replaced with questions that about half the kids will get right. This is done in order to make it easier to compare students to one another.
I’m unaware of any studies that have even addressed the question of whether homework enhances the depth of students’ understanding of ideas or their passion for learning. The fact that more meaningful outcomes are hard to quantify does not make test scores or grades any more valid, reliable, or useful as measures. To use them anyway calls to mind the story of the man who looked for his lost keys near a streetlight one night not because that was where he dropped them but just because the light was better there.
If our children’s ability to understand ideas from the inside out is what matters to us, and if we don’t have any evidence that giving them homework helps them to acquire this proficiency, then all the research in the world showing that test scores rise when you make kids do more schoolwork at home doesn’t mean very much. That’s particularly true if the homework was designed specifically to improve the limited band of skills that appear on these tests. It’s probably not a coincidence that, even within the existing test-based research, homework appears to work better when the assignments involve rote learning and repetition rather than real thinking. After all, “works better” just means “produces higher scores on exams that measure these low-level capabilities.”
Overall, the available homework research defines “beneficial” in terms of achievement, and it defines achievement as better grades or standardized test scores. It allows us to conclude nothing about whether children’s learning improves.
Assume for the moment that we weren’t concerned about basing our conclusions on studies that merely show homework is associated with (as opposed to responsible for) achievement, or studies that depend on questionable estimates of how much is actually completed, or studies that use deeply problematic outcome measures. Even taken on its own terms, the research turns up some findings that must give pause to anyone who thinks homework is valuable.
4. Homework matters less the longer you look. The longer the duration of a homework study, the less of an effect the homework is shown to have. Cooper, who pointed this out almost in passing, speculated that less homework may have been assigned during any given week in the longer-lasting studies, but he offered no evidence that this actually happened. So here’s another theory: The studies finding the greatest effect were those that captured less of what goes on in the real world by virtue of being so brief. View a small, unrepresentative slice of a child’s life and it may appear that homework makes a contribution to achievement; keep watching and that contribution is eventually revealed to be illusory.
6. There is no evidence of any academic benefit from homework in elementary school. Even if you were untroubled by the methodological concerns I’ve been describing, the fact is that after decades of research on the topic, there is no overall positive correlation between homework and achievement (by any measure) for students before middle school – or, in many cases, before high school. More precisely, there’s virtually no research at all on the impact of homework in the primary grades – and therefore no data to support its use with young children – whereas research has been done with students in the upper elementary grades and it generally fails to find any benefit.
The absence of evidence supporting the value of homework before high school is generally acknowledged by experts in the field – even those who are far less critical of the research literature (and less troubled by the negative effects of homework) than I am. But this remarkable fact is rarely communicated to the general public. In fact, it’s with younger children, where the benefits are most questionable, if not altogether absent, that there has been the greatest increase in the quantity of homework!
In 2005, I asked Cooper if he knew of any newer studies with elementary school students, and he said he had come across exactly four, all small and all unpublished. He was kind enough to offer the citations, and I managed to track them down.
The first was a college student’s term paper that described an experiment with 39 second graders in one school. The point was to see whether children who did math homework would perform better on a quiz taken immediately afterward that covered exactly the same content as the homework. The second study, a Master’s thesis, involved 40 third graders, again in a single school and again with performance measured on a follow-up quiz dealing with the homework material, this time featuring vocabulary skills. The third study tested 64 fifth graders on social studies facts.
All three of these experiments found exactly what you would expect: The kids who had drilled on the material – a process that happened to take place at home — did better on their respective class tests. The final study, a dissertation project, involved teaching a lesson contained in a language arts textbook. The fourth graders who had been assigned homework on this material performed better on the textbook’s unit test, but did not do any better on a standardized test. And the third graders who hadn’t done any homework wound up with higher scores on the standardized test. Like the other three studies, the measure of success basically involved memorizing and regurgitating facts.
Such a correlation would be a prerequisite for assuming that homework provides academic benefits but I want to repeat that it isn’t enough to justify that conclusion. A large correlation is necessary, in other words, but not sufficient. Indeed, I believe it would be a mistake to conclude that homework is a meaningful contributor to learning even in high school. Remember that Cooper and his colleagues found a positive effect only when they looked at how much homework high school students actually did (as opposed to how much the teacher assigned) and only when achievement was measured by the grades given to them by those same teachers. Also recall that Keith’s earlier positive finding with respect to homework in high school evaporated once he used a more sophisticated statistical technique to analyze the data.
All of the cautions, qualifications, and criticisms in this chapter, for that matter, are relevant to students of all ages. But it’s worth pointing out separately that absolutely no evidence exists to support the practice of assigning homework to children of elementary-school age – a fact that Cooper himself rather oddly seems to overlook (see chapter 4). No wonder “many Japanese elementary schools in the late 1990s issued ‘no homework’ policies.” That development may strike us as surprising – particularly in light of how Japan’s educational system has long been held out as a model, notably by writers trying to justify their support for homework. But it’s a development that seems entirely rational in light of what the evidence shows right here in the United States.
7. The results of national and international exams raise further doubts about homework’s role. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is often called the nation’s report card. Students who take this test also answer a series of questions about themselves, sometimes including how much time they spend on homework. For any number of reasons, one might expect to find a reasonably strong association between time spent on homework and test scores. Yet the most striking result, particularly for elementary students, is precisely the absence of such an association. Even students who reported having been assigned no homework at all didn’t fare badly on the test.
International comparisons allow us to look for correlations between homework and test scores within each country and also for correlations across countries. Let’s begin with the former. In the 1980s, 13-year-olds in a dozen nations were tested and also queried about how much they studied. “In some countries more time spent on homework was associated with higher scores; in others, it was not.” In the 1990s, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) became the most popular way of assessing what was going on around the world, although of course its conclusions can’t necessarily be generalized to other subjects. Again, the results were not the same in all countries, even when the focus was limited to the final years of high school (where the contribution of homework is thought to be strongest). Usually it turned out that doing some homework had a stronger relationship with achievement than doing none at all, but doing a little homework was also better than doing a lot.  This is known as a “curvilinear” relationship; on a graph it looks sort of like an upside-down U.
What about correlations across cultures? Here we find people playing what I’ll later argue is a pointless game in which countries’ education systems are ranked against one another on the basis of their students’ test scores. Pointless or not, “a common explanation of the poor performance of American children in cross-cultural comparisons of academic achievement is that American children spend little time in study.” The reasoning, in other words, goes something like this:
Premise 1: Our students get significantly less homework than their counterparts across the globe.
Premise 2: Other countries whup the pants off us in international exams.
Conclusion: Premise 1 explains Premise 2.
Additional conclusion: If U.S. teachers assigned more homework, our students would perform better.
Every step of this syllogism is either flawed or simply false. We’ve already seen that Premise 1 is no longer true, if indeed it ever was (see chapter 1). Premise 2 has been debunked by a number of analysts and for a number of different reasons. Even if both premises were accurate, however, the conclusions don’t necessarily follow; this is another example of confusing correlation with causation.
But in fact there is now empirical evidence, not just logic, to challenge the conclusions. Two researchers looked at TIMSS data from both 1994 and 1999 in order to be able to compare practices in 50 countries. When they published their findings in 2005, they could scarcely conceal their surprise:
8. Incidental research raises further doubts about homework. Reviews of homework studies tend to overlook investigations that are primarily focused on other topics but just happen to look at homework, among several other variables. Here are two examples:
Second, back in the late 1970s, New Jersey educator Ruth Tschudin identified about three hundred “A+ teachers” on the basis of recommendations, awards, or media coverage. She then set out to compare their classroom practices to those of a matched group of other teachers. Among her findings: the exceptional teachers not only tended to give less homework but also were likely to give students more choices about their assignments.
It’s interesting to speculate on why this might be true. Are better teachers more apt to question the conventional wisdom in general? More likely to notice that homework isn’t really doing much good? More responsive to its negative effects on children and families? More likely to summon the gumption to act on what they’ve noticed? Or perhaps the researchers who reviewed the TIMMS data put their finger on it when they wrote, “It may be the poorest teachers who assign the most homework [because] effective teachers may cover all the material in class.” (Imagine that quotation enlarged and posted in a school’s main office.)
This analysis rings true for Steve Phelps, who teaches math at a high school near Cincinnati. “In all honesty,” he says, “the students are compelled to be in my class for 48 minutes a day. If I can’t get done in 48 minutes what I need to get done, then I really have no business intruding on their family time.” But figuring out how to get it done isn’t always easy. It certainly took time for Phil Lyons, the social studies teacher I mentioned earlier who figured out that homework was making students less interested in learning for its own sake – and who then watched as many of them began to “seek out more knowledge” once he stopped giving them homework. At the beginning of Lyons’s teaching career, he assigned a lot of homework “as a crutch, to compensate for poor lessons. . . . But as I mastered the material, homework ceased to be necessary. A no-homework policy is a challenge to me,” he adds. “I am forced to create lessons that are so good that no further drilling is required when the lessons are completed.”
Lyons has also conducted an informal investigation to gauge the impact of this shift. He gave less and less homework each year before finally eliminating it completely. And he reports that
The results observed by a single teacher in an uncontrolled experiment are obviously not conclusive. Nor is the Harvard physics study. Nor is Tschudin’s survey of terrific teachers. But when all these observations are combined with the surprising results of national and international exams, and when these, in turn, are viewed in the context of a research literature that makes a weak, correlational case for homework in high school – and offers absolutely no support for homework in elementary school – it gradually becomes clear that we’ve been sold a bill of goods.
People who never bought it will not be surprised, of course. “I have a good education and a decent job despite the fact that I didn’t spend half my adolescence doing homework,” said a mother of four children whose concern about excessive homework eventually led to her becoming an activist on the issue. On the other hand, some will find these results not only unexpected but hard to believe, if only because common sense tells them that homework should help. But just as a careful look at the research overturns the canard that “studies show homework raises achievement,” so a careful look at popular beliefs about learning will challenge the reasons that lead us to expect we will find unequivocal research support in the first place. The absence of supporting data actually makes sense in retrospect, as we’ll see in chapter 6 when we examine the idea that homework “reinforces” what was learned in class, along with other declarations that are too readily accepted on faith.
Most proponents, of course, aren’t saying that all homework is always good in all respects for all kids – just as critics couldn’t defend the proposition that no homework is ever good in any way for any child. The prevailing view — which, even if not stated explicitly, seems to be the premise lurking behind our willingness to accept the practice of assigning homework to students on a regular basis — might be summarized as “Most homework is probably good for most kids.” I’ve been arguing, in effect, that even that relatively moderate position is not supported by the evidence. I’ve been arguing that any gains we might conceivably identify are both minimal and far from universal, limited to certain ages and to certain (dubious) outcome measures. What’s more, even studies that seem to show an overall benefit don’t prove that more homework – or any homework, for that matter — has such an effect for most students. Put differently, the research offers no reason to believe that students in high-quality classrooms whose teachers give little or no homework would be at a disadvantage as regards any meaningful kind of learning.
But is there some other benefit, something other than academic learning, that might be cited in homework’s defense? That will be the subject of the following chapter…
For full citations, please see the reference section of The Homework Myth .
1. Cooper et al., p. 70.
2. This early study by Joseph Mayer Rice is cited in Gill and Schlossman 2004, p. 175.
5. Paschal et al.; Walberg et al.
6. Barber, p. 56. Two of the four studies reviewed by Paschal et al. found no benefit to homework at all. The third found benefits at two of three grade levels, but all of the students in this study who were assigned homework also received parental help. The last study found that students who were given math puzzles (unrelated to what was being taught in class) did as well as those who got traditional math homework.
7. Jongsma, p. 703.
8. There is reason to question whether this technique is really appropriate for a topic like homework, and thus whether the conclusions drawn from it would be valid. Meta-analyses may be useful for combining multiple studies of, say, the efficacy of a blood pressure medication, but not necessarily studies dealing with different aspects of complex human behavior. Mark Lepper (1995), a research psychologist at Stanford University, has argued that “the purely statistical effect sizes used to compare studies in a meta-analysis completely and inappropriately ignore the crucial social context in which the conduct and interpretation of research in psychology takes place.” The real-world significance of certain studies is lost, he maintains, when they are reduced to a common denominator. “The use of purely statistical measures of effect size” – overlooking what he calls the “psychological size of effects” – “promotes a[n] illusion of comparability and quantitative precision that is subtly but deeply at odds with the values that define what makes a study or a finding interesting or important.” This concern would seem to apply in the case of distinctive investigations of homework. (Quotations from pp. 414, 415, 420.)
9. Cooper 1999a, 2001. The proportion of variance that can be attributed to homework is derived by squaring the average correlation found in the studies, which Cooper reports as +.19.
10. Cooper et al. 2006.
12. Hofferth and Sandberg, p. 306.
13. Cooper 1999a, p. 100. It’s also theoretically possible that the relationship is reciprocal: Homework contributes to higher achievement, which then, in turn, predisposes those students to spend more time on it. But correlations between the two leave us unable to disentangle the two effects and determine which is stronger.
14. Cool and Keith. Interestingly, Herbert Walberg, an avid proponent of homework, discovered that claims of private school superiority over public schools proved similarly groundless once other variables were controlled in a reanalysis of the same “High School and Beyond” data set (Walberg and Shanahan).
15. For example, see Chen and Stevenson; Epstein; Georgiou; Gorges and Elliott.
16. Epstein and Van Voorhis, pp. 183-84. Also see Walberg et al., pp. 76-77.
17. Muhlenbruck et al. In Cooper et al. 1998, “there was some evidence that teachers in Grades 2 and 4 reported assigning more homework to classes with lower achievement, but students and parents reported that teachers assigned more homework to higher achieving students, especially when grades were the measure of achievement” (p. 80).
18. Cooper et al. 2006, p. 44.
19. Cooper et al. 2001, pp. 190-91.
20. Chen and Stevenson, p. 558.
21. “Several surveys have found that students consistently report their homework time to be higher than teachers’ estimates” (Ziegler 1986, p. 21).
22. Ziegler 1992, p. 602. Cooper (1989a, p. 161), too, describes the quality of homework research as “far from ideal” for a number of reasons, including the relative rarity of random-assignment studies.
23. Dressel, p. 6.
24. For a more detailed discussion about (and review of research regarding) the effects of grades, see Kohn 1999a, 1999b.
25. Cooper 1999a, p. 72. That difference shrank in the latest batch of studies (Cooper et al. 2006), but still trended in the same direction.
26. Cooper et al. 1998. The correlation was .17.
27. See Kohn 1999b, 2000, which includes analysis and research to support the claims made in the following paragraphs.
28. Nevertheless, Cooper criticizes studies that use only one of these measures and argues in favor of those, like his own, that make use of both (see Cooper et al. 1978, p. 71). The problems with tests and grades may be different, but they don’t cancel each other out when the two variables are used at the same time.
29. Cooper 1989a, p. 99. On the other hand, a study reporting a modest correlation between achievement test scores and the amount of math homework assigned also found that “repetitive exercises” of the type intended to help students practice skills actually “had detrimental effects on learning” (Trautwein et al., p. 41).
30. Cooper 1999a, p. 72; 2001, p. 16. The studies he reviewed lasted anywhere from two to thirty weeks.
31. Natriello and McDill. “An additional hour of homework each night results in an increase in English [grade point average] of 0.130” (p. 27).
32. Tymms and Fitz-Gibbon. Quotation appears on p. 8. If anything, this summary understates the actual findings. When individual students’ scores on the English A-level exams were examined, those who worked for more than seven hours a week in a particular subject “tended to get a third of a grade better than students of the same gender and ability who worked less than [two hours] a week, and if students with similar prior achievement are considered, the advantage only amounted to about a fifth of a grade.” When the researchers compared classes rather than individuals – which is probably the more appropriate unit of analysis for a homework study — the average A-level grades in heavy-homework classes were no different than those in light-homework classes, once other variables were held constant (pp. 7-8).
33. Barber, p. 55.
34. Cooper 1989a, p. 109. Why this might be true is open to interpretation. Cooper (2001, p. 20) speculates that it’s because younger children have limited attention spans and poor study skills, but this explanation proceeds from – and seems designed to rescue — the premise that the problem is not with the homework itself. Rather, it’s the “cognitive limitations” of children that prevent them from taking advantage of the value that’s assumed to inhere in homework. While it wouldn’t be sufficient to substantiate this account, it would certainly be necessary to show that homework usually is valuable for older students. If there’s any reason to doubt that claim, then we’d have to revisit some of our more fundamental assumptions about how and why students learn.
35. The unpublished study by C. Bents-Hill et al. is described in Cooper 2001, p. 26.
36. The four, in order, are Finstad; Townsend; Foyle; and Meloy.
37. When Cooper and his colleagues reviewed a new batch of studies in 2006, they once again found that “the mean correlation between time spent on homework and achievement was not significantly different from zero for elementary school students” (Cooper et al. 2006, p. 43).
38. Cooper 1989a, p. 100. The correlations were .02, .07, and .25, respectively.
39. Baker and Letendre, p. 118.
40. For example, see any number of writings by Herbert Walberg. Another possible reason that “elementary achievement is high” in Japan: teachers there “are free from the pressure to teach to standardized tests” (Lewis, p. 201). Until they get to high school, there are no such tests in Japan.
41. See the table called “Average Mathematics Scores by Students’ Report on Time Spent Daily on Mathematics Homework at Grades 4, 8, and 12: 2000,” available from the National Center for Education Statistics at: http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/mathematics/results/ homework.asp. As far as I can tell, no data on how 2004 NAEP math scores varied by homework completion have been published for nine- and thirteen-year-olds. Seventeen-year-olds were not asked to quantify the number of hours devoted to homework in 2004, but were asked whether they did homework “often,” “sometimes,” or “never” – and here more homework was correlated with higher scores (U.S. Department of Education 2005, p. 63).
42. In 2000, fourth graders who reported doing more than an hour of homework a night got exactly same score as those whose teachers assigned no homework at all. Those in the middle, who said they did 30-60 minutes a night, got slightly higher scores. (See http://nces.ed.gov/ nationsreportcard/reading/results/homework.asp). In 2004, those who weren’t assigned any homework did about as well as those who got either less than one hour or one to two hours; students who were assigned more than two hours a night did worse than any of the other three groups. For older students, more homework was correlated with higher reading scores (U.S. Department of Education 2005, p. 50).
43. Ziegler 1992, p. 604.
44. Mullis et al. 1998, p. 114.
45. Chen and Stevenson, pp. 556-57.
46. Ibid., p. 551.
47. Even at a first pass, TIMSS results suggest that the U.S. does poorly in relative terms only at the high school level, not with respect to the performance of younger students. But TIMSS results really don’t support the proposition that our seniors are inferior. That’s true, first, because, at least on the science test, the scores among most of the countries are actually pretty similar in absolute terms (Gibbs and Fox, p. 87). Second, the participating countries “had such different patterns of participation and exclusion rates, school and student characteristics, and societal contexts that test score rankings are meaningless as an indicator of the quality of education” (Rotberg, p. 1031). Specifically, the students taking the test in many of the countries were older, richer, and drawn from a more selective pool than those in the U.S. Third, when one pair of researchers carefully reviewed half a dozen different international achievement surveys conducted from 1991 to 2001, they found that “U.S. students have generally performed above average in comparisons with students in other industrialized nations” (Boe and Shin; quotation appears on p. 694). Also see the many publications on this subject by Gerald Bracey.
48. Baker and Letendre, pp. 127-28, 130. Emphasis in original.
49. Mullis et al. 2001, chap. 6.
50. Tsuneyoshi, p. 375.
51. Sadler and Tai; personal communication with Phil Sadler, August 2005. The larger study also found that students who took Advanced Placement science courses – and did well on the test – didn’t fare much better in college science courses than those who didn’t take the A.P. classes at all.
52. Baker and Letendre, p. 126.
53. Phelps, personal communication, March 2006.
54. Lyons, personal communication, December 2005.
55. Quoted in Lambert.
56. This New Jersey principal is quoted in Winerip, p. 28.
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Study: Homework linked to better standardized test scores
Researchers who looked at data from more than 18,000 10th-graders found there was little correlation between the time students spent doing homework and better grades in math and science courses. But, according to a study on the researc h, they did find a positive relationship between standardized test performance and the amount of time spent on homework.
The study , called ”When Is Homework Worth the Time?: Evaluating the Association Between Homework and Achievement in High School Science and Math,” was conducted by Adam Maltese, assistant professor of science education at the Indiana University School of Education; Robert H. Tai, associate professor of science education at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, and Xitao Fan, dean of education at the University of Macau.
According to a news release by Indiana University, the researchers looked at survey and transcript data from the students in an effort to explain their academic performance and concluded that despite earlier research to the contrary, homework time did not correlate to the final course grade that students received in math and science classes.
The value of homework has been the subject of various research studies over the years, yet there is still no conclusive evidence that it makes a big difference in helping students improve achievement. The most often-cited studies are those that conclude that there is virtually no evidence that it helps in elementary school but some evidence that it does improve academic performance in later grades. Yet this newest study looked at 10th graders and found no correlation.
The study did, however, find a positive association between time spent on homework and student scores on standardized tests. It doesn’t directly conclude that the homework actually affected the test scores, but the university release quotes Maltese as saying that “if students are spending more time on homework, they’re getting exposed to the types of questions and the procedures for answering questions that are not so different from standardized tests.”
That, of course, would depend on the kind of homework students receive. Maltese is further quoted as saying, “”We’re not trying to say that all homework is bad. It’s expected that students are going to do homework. This is more of an argument that it should be quality over quantity. So in math, rather than doing the same types of problems over and over again, maybe it should involve having students analyze new types of problems or data. In science, maybe the students should write concept summaries instead of just reading a chapter and answering the questions at the end.”
The co-authors also recommend that education policymakers better evaluate homework — the kinds of assignments that are most useful and the time required to make the work effective.
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