Student Homework: More or Less?

By Jacqueline Robinson

When my daughter was in the fifth grade, she came home from school almost every night with three or more hours of homework. It was my privilege (or should I say duty?) to fight with her on a regular basis to get it done. One night she worked until midnight doing homework. I was outraged, but I didn't want the teacher to think I was lazy, so I never complained. I wasn't sure, but it seemed to me that five hours of homework was a bit too much for a fifth grade student. Later, I found out that parents and educators have fretted and fumed over homework for more than a century. Parents who favor more homework want to give their children every advantage to compete in today's international society. Some educators see homework as a way to beef up lagging test scores and improve grades. Other parents dislike the recent trend toward more homework, reluctant to stay up until midnight helping their children. They prefer to spend their time going to the park or reading some really good books with their children. Added to the opposition are those who say that homework increases the gap between the haves and the have-nots, since middle class families do better when it comes to helping children with homework. So, who is right? Is homework a menace or is it a Godsend? According to researchers the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

What Child Development Research Shows

Cognitive researchers (those who study the mind and how it works) have found that children have unique brain structures that determine how well they will be able to solve problems at different stages of development. Scientists Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky found that in order to learn, children must add new knowledge to old knowledge-kind of like building a bridge. The bridge provides a structure to hold future information. Because of this, younger students can only concentrate for short periods of time. They also have difficulty blocking out distractions. These facts taken together explain why one minute Johnny is doing his homework, and the next minute he is in his room with Nintendo™ blaring away. Overloading a child with more homework than he can handle simply means that the homework will not get done.

Student Homework and Test Scores

Other research focuses on whether homework actually does improve test scores and performance. A set of three studies compared these factors: homework versus no homework; how much homework is given; and homework versus in-class assignments that resemble homework. In the first study, researchers compared how well students progressed when they were given homework and how they did when they did not receive any homework. Of the twenty studies in this group, three out of four seemed to favor homework. The study indicated that if a junior high student from the homework class were placed in the no-homework class a week before finals, his class rank would instantly shoot up from thirteenth to tenth. A high school student would improve his class rank from thirteenth to eighteenth. However, improvement was barely noticeable among elementary students.

Student Homework Versus In-class Activities

The second study compared homework to in-class supervised activities. In this investigation students who did not get homework were required to participate in another homework-like activity in class. Homework did not seem to make such a great difference in these studies. In fact, elementary-aged children who were supervised by a teacher while doing their assignments fared better than the homework students. Again junior high school students showed some improvement with homework, and high schoolers did better than the entire group with the addition of homework to in-class activity.

More or Less Homework: Does It Improve Grades?

All this information is dizzying, but it keeps pointing to the same thing: children seem to need more homework as they get older and less in the elementary years. Even the last study that compared how well children did when they spent more time actually doing homework confirmed the findings of the other two studies. Of fifty state and national studies, forty-three indicated that students who did more homework had better achievement scores. But again, grade-level is the key. Students in grades three through five showed little improvement on test scores; students in grades six through nine showed an improvement of seven percent. High school students on average improved by twenty-five percent.

Putting It All Together

So what is a parent to do? In brief, the amount of homework should fit the age of your child, with younger children receiving less and older children receiving more. While homework is a valuable tool to help children remember what they learn, it can have negative effects if it is excessive. Parents and educators must make sure that children don't get homework overload. The National Parent Teacher Association and the National Education Association provide guidelines for helping parents determine how much homework is enough. In their recent guide for parents, they encourage educators to follow the "ten-minute rule."

The Ten-minute Rule

The ten-minute rule recommends that children receive ten minutes of homework per night multiplied by the child's grade level. So, a second grade student should have only twenty minutes of homework at night, whereas a sixth grader can have up to an hour of homework. This is a practical way to determine if a child is getting too much or too little homework. For instance, if your high schooler is coming home every night bookless, something is wrong. Either he's not being honest with you, or his teacher is not challenging him. Either way, a talk with the teacher is warranted. On the other hand if your fifth grader is always finished with her homework in fifty minutes or less, she's fine, and you have nothing to worry about. As parents, we can help our children get the most out of homework by sharing the ten-minute rule with teachers and principals who may not be aware of it, and keeping a watchful eye on how much homework is given. This will certainly go a long way toward reaching the academic success that we desire for our children, while allowing them to have some fun along the way. References
  • Cooper, H. (1989). Homework. New York: Logman.
  • Cooper, H. (2001). Homework for all in Moderation. Educational Leadership, April, 34-38.
  • Cooper, H., Lindsay, J.J., Nye, B., & Greathouse, S. (1998). Relationships between attitudes about homework, the amount of homework assigned and completed, and student achievement. Journal of Educational Psychology, 90, 70-83.
  • Muhlenbruck, L., Cooper, H., Nye, B., & Lindsay, J.J. (2000). Homework and achievement: Explaining the different relations at the elementary and secondary school levels. Social Psychology of Eduction, 4, 295-317.
  • National Parent Teacher Association and National Education Association (2000) Helping your student get the most out of homework. Available online at www.pta.org.
  • Jacqueline Robinson is a recent public relations graduate from Wayne State University, Detroit, Michigan. She is a wife, and the mother of seven children.