Homework Research - Q&A
Q: Who does homework?
A: Pretty much everybody.
In 2016, 95% of K-8 students in the United States reported doing homework outside of school, 91% of Grades 9-12 students. (In high school it’s about 94.4% for female students, only 88.7% for male students, but in K-8 it’s pretty much the same for male/female kids.)
Q: Why do teachers assign homework?
A: Mostly to help kids learn, but also to develop good academic habits.
Metlife’s 2007 Survey of the American Teacher focused on issues related to homework. The survey of 1,000 U.S. K-12 public school teachers found that teachers reported frequently assigning homework for the following reasons:
- to help students practice skills or prepare for tests (86%).
- to help students develop good working habits (80%).
- to develop students’ critical thinking skills (67%).
- to motivate students to learn (65%).
- to assess students’ skills and knowledge (63%).
Q: That seems pretty straightforward. There is probably a ton of research about homework.
A: There is.
Q: And is the research literature a mess?
A: Oh yeah, a huge one.
Fernández-Alonso, R., Suárez-Álvarez, J., & Muñiz, J. (2015). Adolescents’ homework performance in mathematics and science: personal factors and teaching practices. Journal of educational psychology, 107(4), 1075.
"Classical educational research provides empirical evidence of the positive effect of doing homework on academic results. Nonetheless, when this effect is analyzed in detail there are inconsistent, and in some cases, contradictory results."
Blazer, C. (2009). Homework. Literature Review. Research Services, Miami-Dade County Public Schools.
"Homework has been a difficult variable to study directly, uncontaminated by other variables. Homework assignments are influenced by more factors than any other instructional strategy. student ability, motivation, and grade level may all influence homework’s effect. In addition, there is considerable variation in whether, when, and how students complete assignments, as well as the home conditions in which they work on their assignments."
"Most studies have relied on student or parent reports of the amount of time spent on homework, but these reports may be inaccurate."
"Trautwein, Lüdtke, and Pieper (2007) stated that “given the practical significance of homework for students, teachers, and parents alike, the quality and quantity of empirical research on the subject is surprisingly uneven. The available body of research findings on homework is complex, fragmented, and contradictory. In fact, the recommendations that scientists and practitioners make about homework assignment and completion are often based on their own experience or on speculation rather than on sound scientific evidence.”
Trautwein, U., & Köller, O. (2003). The relationship between homework and achievement—still much of a mystery. Educational psychology review, 15(2), 115-145.
"Despite the long history of homework and homework research, the role that homework plays in enhancing student achievement is, at best, only partly understood."
“Homework research has made a great deal of progress over the past tw decades…Nevertheless, the empirical basis for addressing even the most basic questions such as “Do homework assignments foster achievement?” is insufficient and contradictory. The relationship between homework and achievement at the individual level is not yet fully understood, and it is unclear to what extent homework behavior improves grades.”
Q: Wow. Why is it so hard to study homework?
A: Homework is complex.
“Homework is complex—it involves different actors (teacher, students, parents), serves various purposes (e.g. achievement improvement, self-regulation), involves tasks of different quality (e.g. routine vs. complex tasks), and impacts the organizations of lessons (e.g. discussing, checking, and grading homework). As Cooper (1989) put it, “My literature survey led me to conclude that homework probably involves the complex interaction of more influences than any other instructional device.” This complexity is not reflected in many studies, however.”
Simple things are easier to study. Complex things require complex studies. The first thing we need to be careful about is what we’re looking for. Are we looking at the impact of a teacher assigning homework in a certain way (a class-level effect)? Or are we looking at how student behavior is related to achievement (a student-level effect)? This is why Trautwein calls for multi-level modeling, basically collecting and analyzing data in a way that is sensitive to the fact that students are part of classes which are part of schools, and how any impact on learning might come at one of these levels, but not others.
But the other issue is what sort of behavior are we looking for? A lot of research just pays attention to how much time students or teachers claim homework takes. This has…issues. First of all, can we believe them? Second, is that talking about productive time or just, like, how long it takes them to finish their homework? Third, aren’t there a lot of things that matter besides time on homework? For example, to succeed at homework you clearly need some motivation because a teacher isn’t around to get you on task. Maybe some homework assignments are more motivating, and the positive impact of homework is only clear when you distinguish between good and bad assignments? Most studies in the past didn’t even bother to look at that.
Q: OK, so it’s a mess. But is it an irredeemable mess? Do we know if homework helps kids learn?
A: Uh, let’s say yes, it probably does.
"There was generally consistent evidence for a positive influence of homework on achievement."Dettmers, S., Trautwein, U., Lüdtke, O., Kunter, M., & Baumert, J. (2010). Homework works if homework quality is high: using multilevel modeling to predict the development of achievement in mathematics. Journal of Educational Psychology, 102(2), 467.
“We were able to confirm the importance of homework selection and homework challenge for student achievement at the class level, even when controlling for prior knowledge and potential confounding variables. Hence, students in classes given well-chosen and challenging homework assignments learn more.” ."Cooper, H. M. (2015). The battle over homework: Common ground for administrators, teachers, and parents. Simon and Schuster.
"While each study that has looked at the link between homework and achievement has flaws, in general, they tend not to share the same flaws. Across the studies, a wide variety of students have provided data, and the relationship of homework and achievement has been tested in varied subject areas under different circumstances. The studies have controlled for or tested many plausible competing explanations in various combinations. With only rare exceptions, the relationship between the amount of homework students do and their achievement outcomes was found to be positive and statistically different from zero. Therefore, I think it would not be imprudent, based on the evidence in hand, to conclude that doing homework can cause improved academic achievement."
Q: Great, let’s make kids do more homework! A: The length of homework assignments doesn’t matter much. Frequency of assignments matters more.Fernández-Alonso, R., Suárez-Álvarez, J., & Muñiz, J. (2015). Adolescents’ homework performance in mathematics and science: personal factors and teaching practices. Journal of educational psychology, 107(4), 1075.
“The data point to the fact that the teacher regularly assigning homework matters more than the quantity.”
Q: OK, so let’s assign kids homework more frequently. A: Yes, that does seem like an actual takeaway!Bembenutty, H. (2011). The last word: An interview with Harris Cooper-Research, policies, tips, and current perspectives on homework. Journal of Advanced Academics, 22(2), 340-350.
“Our research syntheses suggest that shorter but more frequent assignments are better than fewer long assignments.”Fernández-Alonso, R., Suárez-Álvarez, J., & Muñiz, J. (2015). Adolescents’ homework performance in mathematics and science: personal factors and teaching practices. Journal of educational psychology, 107(4), 1075.
“Once the adjustment variables are controlled, the homework variables with the most impact on the test are doing homework without help and frequency of homework assignment by teachers.”
Q: But why wouldn’t length of the assignment matter? Doesn’t more homework equal more practice equal more learning?
A: One possibility is that kids are less motivated to do challenging assignments. They are more motivated to do interesting work that they see as being thoughtfully chosen by the teacher.
“Our study provides strong evidence that interesting and well-selected homework assignments are associated with higher expectancy and value beliefs and with higher homework effort and that they are effective for learning. Teachers may thus be able to improve the effectiveness of their instruction by optimizing the homework assignments they set, and it may well be worth focusing more on the quality of homework assignments in teacher training. However, the picture that emerges for homework challenge is more complex. We found that challenging homework assignments were negatively related to homework expectancy beliefs and homework effort and found differential effects for mathematics achievement. In our view, the complexity of our results reflects the difficulties teachers face in their daily routine: What is the ideal balance between cognitively activating instruction (i.e., challenging homework assignments) and instruction that caters for the low-achieving students in the class?”
Q: Is that it?
A: Well, there’s another possibility.
Q: What is it?
A: Well, there’s not much evidence for it. But it could be that homework doesn’t directly impact achievement much at all.
Q: How would homework improve achievement, then?
A: By improving other things, like student independence and overall engagement with the material.
“Nevertheless, far from being devalued, school homework has demonstrated new, rich values and is currently seen as an opportunity to improve the student’s engagement with their own learning (Xu, 2013; Zimmerman & Kitsantas, 2005). This is surely our work’s main message to teachers, that doing homework is still valid nowadays in technically sophisticated learning contexts. 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-directed learning.”
If effort and independence is the student-level variable most associated with learning, then that suggests independence and autonomy could be an important thing to foster in older students. The fact that younger kids aren’t ready for that level of responsibility might be why homework has less of positive effect for that age.
Q: That makes sense for older kids, but what about for younger children?
A: Well, homework seems to be less impactful for younger children, so that would make sense.
"Still, this assertion must be quickly followed by the qualification that the positive effect of homework on achievement for young students may be limited."
Q: Maybe we should just get rid of homework for younger children.
A: It probably wouldn’t impact their performance much, but parents would hate it. Parents, in general, like homework.
Gill, B., & Schlossman, S. (2003). Parents and the politics of homework: Some historical perspectives. Teachers College Record, 105(5), 846-871.
“In 1913, one principal who had abolished homework admitted that he “incurred considerable opposition on the part of parents, who were so indoctrinated with the idea of home study in their own school days that they protested vigorously against its prohibition” (quoted in Bok, 1913). A fellow anti-homework warrior described the problem more succinctly: “I had to fight the parents: they felt that the pupils were not learning unless they carried home an armful of books every night” (Bok, 1913). A principal in Brooklyn agreed that the opponents of homework “will have to convert the parents” to their view (“Question of Homework for Children,” 1913). After the Washington, D.C. schools abolished homework below sixth grade, parents made “many urgent requests” for homework (Report of Board of Education, 1900–01, 1902). In Lynn, Massachusetts, the superintendent likewise reported that parental protests against homework were exceedingly rare, and that many parents asked for homework for their children (Annual Report of the School Committee, 1899–1900, 1900). One commentator who doubted the value of homework conceded that “the chief objection against abandoning home study comes from parents,” who “still believe that the pupil must be kept busy by long home work” (Hall-Quest, 1916). For those who wanted to abolish homework, then, parents were often obstacles rather than allies.”
Q: Why do parents like homework so much?
A: It’s a way to keep an eye on what their child is learning and get a more direct picture into their children as students.
“Interestingly, of all the types of involvement, parents say they most want to help their children with homework so that their children will do better in school (Epstein, 1986; Sanders, Epstein, & Connors-Tadros, 1999).”Gill, B., & Schlossman, S. (2003). Parents and the politics of homework: Some historical perspectives. Teachers College Record, 105(5), 846-871.
In our judgment, this “connecting link” argument was, and is, probably the single most important function of homework. Parents have few means by which to monitor the school and the progress of their children in the school. Homework gives parents direct knowledge (albeit inevitably incomplete) about the school’s educational agenda and methods. It tells them what the school is doing and lets them—to the extent of their ability, inclination, and availability—oversee and participate in the education process by assisting their children with schoolwork. Homework also enables parents to make a preliminary judgment regarding their children’s academic progress, and to engage the teacher in order to refine that preliminary judgment and help guide the child’s future intellectual development. Homework, in short, is a rare and valuable mechanism of school accountability to parents.
Q: Well, I guess it is good to have parents involved in homework. For young kids, at least.
A: Not necessarily!
“The current research revealed that during early elementary school, parents’ involvement in children’s math homework tends to be affectively less positive and more negative than their involvement in children’s math activities.” (e.g. number games, flashcards)Lau, N. T., Hawes, Z., Tremblay, P., & Ansari, D. (2022). Disentangling the individual and contextual effects of math anxiety: A global perspective. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 119(7), e2115855119.
“Interestingly, our results suggest that homework may play a significant role in math anxiety. We found that the frequency of homework assigned is related with higher math anxiety, which is consistent with previous findings (44, 51). Similarly, we also found evidence to suggest that parental involvement with homework is associated with an increase in math anxiety, which again is in line with previous findings (55). These findings suggest that homework and the degree to which parents are involved in their children’s homework must be considered carefully in any future study of math anxiety as well as potential interventions to alleviate math anxiety.”
Q: Oy. Is there any way to deal with that?
A: Some researchers think homework designed with parents in mind could help.
““Interactive homework” encourages students to share interesting things they are learning in class with family members, friends, peers, or others in the community (Epstein, 2001). The Teachers Involve Parents in Schoolwork (TIPS) process is one design for interactive homework that guides students to conduct conversations and interactions with family partners in math, science, language arts, or other subjects (Epstein et al., 1995)”
Q: That sounds like a lot of work to design on a nightly basis.
A: Doesn’t it?
Q: So, let me get this straight. For the youngest kids, homework matters a lot to parents but probably has less of an impact on achievement. Parents are often helpful, but sometimes it can turn into a negative experience at home. To handle that, teachers can assign higher quality assignments that won’t trigger negative interactions. Sounds tough, but OK.
For adolescents, classes that assign homework frequently are associated with more learning. But not classes that ask for more time on homework. And not classes that assign more homework that students think is more challenging. But yes classes where students think the homework is interesting or well-selected. And students reporting they put more effort into homework is associated with learning.
It sounds like teachers need to thread the needle for teens. They need to frequently assign homework that is purposeful – it can’t be busy work – but it shouldn’t be too hard. And there’s a possibility that homework isn’t really as much about practice as it is about taking the class seriously, feeling in control, taking responsibility for their own learning.
Q: And people feel strongly about homework?
Loveless, T. (2003). The 2003 Brown Center Report on American Education: How Well Are American Students Learning? With Special Sections on Homework, Charter Schools, and Rural School Achievement. Volume I, Number 4. Brookings Institution.
“In 1998, Newsweek ran an article called “Homework Doesn’t Help,” which begins by telling the story of Adam, whose “long, sad battle with homework” reached a crescendo of three hours per night in fourth grade. The article warns that “the trend among schools to pile on more homework, starting in kindergarten, could backfire.” Then Time published a 1999 piece, “The Homework Ate My Family: Kids Are Dazed, Parents Are Stressed, Why Piling It On Is Hurting Students.” In 2003, People produced “Overbooked: Four Hours of Homework for a Third Grader? Exhausted Kids (and Parents) Fight Back.” Newspapers have contributed, too. Since 2001, feature stories about onerous amounts of homework have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Sun-Times, Los Angeles Times, Seattle Times, Raleigh News and Observer, The Tennessean, Lexington Herald Leader, and Tampa Tribune.”"Question of Homework for Children." Eagle Library 28, no. 3 (March 1913): 34-45. Reprinted from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
“One result of homework is curvature of the spine.”“Inefficient teachers blamed by parents for heavy homework burden.” Balding v. State. (1887). 4 S.W. Reporter (p. 579): Texas Court of Appeals. [Content Warning: School violence, assault on teachers]
“It appears from the testimony that the injured party was a teacher in the public schools of De Witt county; that the appellant, who was 13 years old, was one of his pupils; that on Monday of the week the teacher assigned to his class in arithmetic two examples to be worked at home over night, and returned next morning; that all the members of the class save defendant worked the examples. Defendant said that he did not want to work examples at home. The teacher then assigned him two other examples to be worked over night, and returned next day, and warned him that a whipping would be the penalty of non-compliance. When the examples were called for the next day, the defendant said that he would work them in school if allowed to, but would not work them at home, giving no excuse for his contumacy. The teacher undertook to chastise the defendant, and struck him one blow with a switch, when the defendant drew a butcher knife, and stabbed the teacher under the shoulder blade, and in the thigh.”
Q: Why then are there such strong feelings around homework?
[to be continued]