It homework a waste of time or is it an effective tool? In this month’s Ilm o Amal, TRC staff considers the research on the age-old debate of whether or not to assign homework and its impact on student learning.

The debate on whether to assign or not to assign homework rages on. Most researches on the subject tend to pit ‘Homework is a waste of time’ against ‘Homework is an effective tool’. Some research on the subject suggests that if assigned properly homework can be an effective learning tool that reinforces what students learn in class. On the other hand research also suggest that assigning too homework can lower a student’s performance and interfere with other important activities, especially with young students.

So here is what research says…

Instead of issuing a blanket statement on the usefulness or uselessness of homework, a 2006 study on the subject by Harris Cooper, Saiying Steenbergen-Hu, and Amy L, D showed that in general, homework has varying benefits… depending on the student’s level. The study concluded that high school students benefited the most from homework, the benefits decreased for middle school students and at elementary school level homework offered very few benefits.

The study also concluded that even thought assigning homework had academic benefits; it could also cut into important personal and family time. The research also found that students’ ability to complete homework often depended on factors outside of their control.
In 2015, another study by Ruben Fernández-Alonso and Javier Suarez-Alvarez, which focused mainly on math and science homework, concluded that assigning too much homework could result in poor performance by students. Javier Suarez-Alvarez said “Our data indicate that it is not necessary to assign huge quantities of homework, but it is important that assignment is systematic and regular, with the aim of instilling work habits and promoting autonomous, self-regulated learning.” Another 2006 study (Darling-Hammond & Ifill-Lynch) concluded ‘The goal shouldn’t be to eliminate homework, but to make it authentic, meaningful, and engaging.’

Research has found that the real debate about homework should go beyond assigning and look at several other factors that come into play.

What Grade Level is the Student?
Research has concluded that when it comes to effective homework the students’ grade level makes a difference. When students are young, they are still developing several of the skills that homework intends to develop, such as discipline, concentration, so assigning a lot of homework does not help. This is because many young students are just not able to focus for long periods of time. Thus students that benefit the most from homework are those who are in high school.

The Role of Parents
Studies have also concluded that the benefit of homework is not just augmenting student learning, it can also be used as a vehicle to create connections between school and home. Parents can learn what their children are learning through homework and it can also help open up discussions between them about the same. Homework can also help start a conversation between parents and the school about how to support children’s learning.

However, parental involvement in homework can be a tricky ground, as another 2008 study by Patall, Cooper, and Robinson (2008) found that parents can be seen as controlling and often students ended up doing worse because of that. Thus parents who did not allow their children enough space ended up causing unintentional harm to them.

What is happening around the world?
When it comes to study habits and test results across the world, the PISA test is a useful tool. PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) is a worldwide study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in member and non-member nations that evaluates educational systems by measuring 15-year-old school pupils’ performance on mathematics, science, and reading. In 2014, OECD published a report that studied homework around the world. The research found that across the globe, 15-year-olds spend an average of five hours per week doing homework. Interestingly the study found that countries like Finland and Singapore spend even less time on homework (two to three hours per week), but they still have high PISA rankings. The report found that these countries have support systems in place that allow students to rely less on homework to succeed.

How to use research findings
While research can’t be used to apply a one-size-fits-all type solution on the subject of homework, it is useful for all teachers to keep in mind the findings and use their own situation to make changes (or not) in the way they assign homework in their classroom. It seems that the question is not whether to assign homework or not, instead it is how to assign homework that is engaging and supports students’ learning?

November 2019