Homework: a Necessity or an Age-Old Brain Drain?

Author: Amira Aker

Editors: Shweta Ramdas, Zena Lapp, and David Mertz


Everyone hates homework. It’s boring, annoying, and takes you away from a million other things you’d rather be doing. But I always thought it was a necessary part of learning. How else could you learn without effort and a little struggle? As a Ph.D. student (so, somewhat academically inclined) and a mother of two, I was distraught by the growing phenomenon of schools banning homework. But the logical part of me thinks that there must be more to this than just pandering to student laziness and teacher burnout.

Should Homework Really be Banned?

Opponents of homework claim that it only leads to unnecessary stress. Kids are already in school all day; why further burden them with more work when they should be resting, engaging in their own extracurricular activities or simply spending time with their families?

The movement to ban homework can be traced back to the early 1900s. The topic can be so divisive that early psychologists referred to homework as a “sin against childhood,” and research does support some of the opposing views. Too much homework can, in fact, reduce sleep and increase stress in students and their parents.

Those who oppose homework also claim that it’s ineffective. But measuring the effectiveness of homework is not as easy as it may seem, and the results are contradictory. Homework’s effectiveness depends on several factors, including the age of the student, the time spent versus the amount accomplished, parental help, and teacher feedback. Furthermore, the definition of learning is a complicated one, and higher test scores don’t necessarily indicate more learning. This difficulty in defining learning means that researchers use different metrics for learning in their studies, making it difficult to compare the results.

How to Make Homework More Effective

Even though the scientific literature is limited on the topic, there seem to be three main lessons to be learned. First, we should focus on the amount of homework completed, rather than the time spent. The amount time spent on homework is not a good indicator of the amount learned. Second, homework is more effective for older students. Children in primary school receive little, if any, immediate benefit from homework, but spending a few minutes a day after school could introduce the concept of homework, help build a sense of self-discipline, and provide motivation for achievement. Once students reach middle school, homework becomes an important learning tool that helps students practice and imprint the information learned in class.

Third, homework is more effective with teacher feedback. While some claim the simple act of revisiting concepts at home to be beneficial, it is more valuable for students to evaluate their work critically and learn from their mistakes. Some have raised concerns regarding students practicing mistakes through homework, thereby learning incorrect concepts. However, research doesn’t support this. Even a student makes a mistake, s/he learns by the simple act of attempting to apply the knowledge or concepts learned in the classroom. In fact, mistakes can be beneficial. They teach you what not to do and build deeper learning around a topic, but students need teachers to point out their mistakes in order to learn what was wrong.

One researcher described homework as “low-hanging fruit” because it would be the easiest educational tool to fix to enhance learning, as long as it’s done right. Teachers today receive minimal training in assigning homework during their education. According to a global survey, American students lie in the middle of the spectrum for the amount of homework received. So, teachers may not necessarily be assigning too much homework, but are probably not assigning the right types of homework that drive application of concepts, nor perhaps, providing sufficient feedback. The research on how to improve homework has yet to reach consensus. There are, however, great resources that review how students learn.

Making Homework and Learning More Fun

Along with the recent ban on homework in some classrooms, there has been a push towards making learning fun. One popular method is to assign student-led projects rather than typical homework. However, after synthesizing hundreds of thousands of articles, one researcher found minimal learning with such projects. Deep learning occurs when a student has to employ retrieval of concepts in different settings. Homework could be created to foster the retrieval process and enhance deeper understanding and learning.

Introducing a topic for the first time in a fun manner and relating the topic to a student’s everyday life may make students more enthusiastic to learn, but it is incorrect to expect the entire learning experience to be fun. Learning requires struggle. That time when you feel like you’ve hit a dead end when trying to learn something new is actually the time when you’re learning most of all. Instead of focusing on making the classroom simply fun, there should be a push towards enhancing student engagement and thought, both through homework, and perhaps more importantly, activities in the classroom.

Instead of banning homework, we should try to fix it. We shouldn’t be eliminating an effective learning tool under the guise of helping students. Teachers today are under pressure to achieve certain standards with minimal support. Eliminating homework may only lead to increased pressure on teachers if students aren’t given the chance to achieve deeper learning through concept application outside the classroom. Homework may never be fun, but maybe it doesn’t have to be.


About the author

Amira picAmira is a PhD student in Environmental Health at the University of Michigan. Her research looks at how chemicals in our products can affect the health of the mother and fetus during pregnancy. When not staring at her data, she’s either making or talking about food.

Read more from Amira here.




Image Credit: https://cdn.pixabay.com/photo/2015/02/05/09/09/homework-624735_960_720.jpg

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