Like all teachers, I’ve spent many hours correcting homework. Yet there’s a debate over whether we should be setting it at all.
I teach both primary and secondary, and regularly find myself drawn into the argument on the reasoning behind it – parents, and sometimes colleagues, question its validity. Parent-teacher interviews can become consumed by how much trouble students have completing assignments. All of which has led me to question the neuroscience behind setting homework. Is it worth it?
Increasingly, there’s a divide between those who support the need for homework and those who suggest the time would be better spent with family and developing relationships. The anxiety related to homework is frequently reviewed.
A survey of high-performing high schools by the Stanford Graduate School of Education, for example, found that 56% of students considered homework a primary source of stress. These same students reported that the demands of homework caused sleep deprivation and other health problems, as well as less time for friends, family and extracurricular pursuits.
When students learn in the classroom, they are using their short-term or working memory. This information is continually updated during the class. On leaving the classroom, the information in the working memory is replaced by the topic in the next class.
Adults experience a similar reaction when they walk into a new room and forget why they are there. The new set of sensory information – lighting, odours, temperature – enters their working memory and any pre-existing information is displaced. It’s only when the person returns to the same environment that they remember the key information.
But education is about more than memorising facts. Students need to access the information in ways that are relevant to their world, and to transfer knowledge to new situations.
Many of us will have struggled to remember someone’s name when we meet them in an unexpected environment (a workmate at the gym, maybe), and we are more likely to remember them again once we’ve seen them multiple times in different places. Similarly, students must practise their skills in different environments.
Revising the key skills learned in the classroom during homework increases the likelihood of a student remembering and being able to use those skills in a variety of situations in the future, contributing to their overall education.
The link between homework and educational achievement is supported by research: a meta-analysis of studies between 1987 and 2003 found that: “With only rare exceptions, the relationship between the amount of homework students do and their achievement outcomes was found to be positive and statistically significant.”
The right type of work
The homework debate is often split along the lines of primary school compared with secondary school. Education researcher Professor John Hattie, who has ranked various influences on student learning and achievement, found that homework in primary schools has a negligible effect (most homework set has little to no impact on a student’s overall learning). However, it makes a bigger difference in secondary schools.
His explanation is that students in secondary schools are often given tasks that reinforce key skills learned in the classroom that day, whereas primary students may be asked to complete separate assignments. “The worst thing you can do with homework is give kids projects; the best thing you can do is reinforce something you’ve already learned,” he told the BBC in 2014.
So homework can be effective when it’s the right type of homework. In my own practice, the primary students I teach will often be asked to find real-life examples of the concept taught instead of traditional homework tasks, while homework for secondary students consolidates the key concepts covered in the classroom. For secondary in particular, I find a general set of rules useful:
- Set work that’s relevant. This includes elaborating on information addressed in the class or opportunities for students to explore the key concept in areas of their own interest.
- Make sure students can complete the homework. Pitch it to a student’s age and skills – anxiety will only limit their cognitive abilities in that topic. A high chance of success will increase the reward stimulation in the brain.
- Get parents involved, without the homework being a point of conflict with students. Make it a sharing of information, rather than a battle.
- Check the homework with the students afterwards. This offers a chance to review the key concepts and allow the working memory to become part of the long-term memory.
While there is no data on the effectiveness of homework in different subjects, these general rules could be applied equally to languages, mathematics or humanities. And by setting the right type of homework, you’ll help to reinforce key concepts in a new environment, allowing the information you teach to be used in a variety of contexts in the future.
5 Reasons Kids Need Homework and 5 Reasons They Don't
The benefits of homework has been debated by teachers and parents for years as the very word evokes very negative connotations to every involved, students, parents and teachers. Although many people think of homework as doing more harm than good by causing copious amounts of unnecessary stress to everyone, others believe that it has great advantages for children by encouraging them to think more independently outside the classroom.
The first benefit of homework is that it allows students and teachers to work more closely together. They can discuss their assignments or any problems that they are having with parts of their textbooks, before or after classes.
The second benefit is that it can bring families closer together as students may ask their parents or siblings for help on their homework. Not only will this help the students get a better understanding of their work with any parts they are stuck on, it will also allow parents to get more involved in their child's educational life.
Thirdly, doing homework will prepare students for the big end tests. If a child does poorly on an assignment then they will learn what is necessary to do well on the next test without being punished. It also provides students with the opportunity to practice at what it takes to be successful in school. Like they say, practice makes perfect.
Doing homework is also a great way to develop responsibilities. By being assigned work one day and knowing that it has to be done by the next day, they will develop a sense of punctuality by turning their work in on time.
And finally it allows parents to see how their children are being educated and they can develop a better idea of how they can help their child. However, some parents, students and even some teachers feel that after 7-8 hours of lessons in school, it is unfair to expect students to come home and work for another three hours.
The Potential Harm
The first reason that children should not be given homework is that they need time to relax and take their minds off work. The pressure of having to complete homework every night is quite daunting for most children and they need time to refresh their minds and bodies.
Secondly, it reduces the amount of time that children could be spending with their families. Family time is especially important to a growing child and without it social problems can crop up and a family unit can be compromised by a lack of time being spent together.
Thirdly, homework can cause conflict between children and parents when the parent wants to the child to do their homework but meets resistance from the student to do an overwhelming task.
Too much homework can encourage cheating because children end up copying off one another in an attempt to finish all their assignments. They then end up being rewarded for cheating which doesn't benefit them at all.
And finally, a lot of teachers don't often have the time to grade papers properly as they are too busy with designing lesson plans and consulting teaching resources in order to just manage lessons. So by the time students are getting their papers back, the class has moved on to a new topic.