Student Achievement

Homework Clouds Students’ Summer Vacation

By Kathryn Baron — August 21, 2014 2 min read
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It’s summertime and the living isn’t so easygoing anymore for students. Homework is cutting into their 8-week video game and hanging-out time, but the debate isn’t over on the efficacy of vacation assignments, according to Great Schools, a nonprofit organization geared toward parents.

It’s not just light summer reading anymore, where kids get to select a book of their choice and write a five-paragraph essay. In many high schools, Advanced Placement courses, for instance, load up students with weeks’ worth of work before the school year begins.

An incoming senior at a Florida high school had to complete 100 calculus problems, read Madame Bovary, and complete “a packet of art history questions,” according to a recent article in the Orlando Sentinel.

“I haven’t started any of it and school starts Monday, and I’m freaking out,” the student, Lauren Duffy, told the Sentinel.

Meanwhile, summer preparation for sophomores taking AP U.S. History at Shaker Heights High School in Ohio, called for reading six chapters of the textbook, supplemental reading, and developing four essay outlines. Students entering the school’s International Baccalaureate program had to read two books for one class and watch two documentaries and take graded notes for another, according students interviewed in June for the student newspaper, the Shakerite.

A Great Schools article by Leslie Crawford last summer described one student whose summer workload included reading five novels for AP English and one book for AP U.S. History, completing packets of problems for AP Calculus and Chemistry, and writing summaries of scientific principles for Honors Physics.

Homework’s Effects

There are no academic studies looking at the extent of summer homework, but it’s on the rise, researcher Harris Cooper told Great Schools. He’s the chairman of the psychology and neuroscience department at Duke University and the co-author of a leading meta-analysis on the effect of homework during the school year on academic achievement that was featured earlier this year over at the Inside School Research blog.

Cooper’s analysis, presented in the Review of Education Research, found “there was generally consistent evidence for a positive influence of homework on achievement.”

Summer homework has evolved as a response to the growing body of research on the harmful effects of summer learning loss, especially among low-income children.

When it comes to summer homework, the question is, however, is it just busy work or do students get tangible benefits? That depends on how much students and parents buy into it, Stanford University’s Denise Pope explains in Crawford’s Great Schools report.

“In order for any learning to be retained, there has to be engagement on the part of the students,” said Pope.

It’s not just the amount of work creeping into vacation that causes students to balk, it’s that they often have no guidance from teachers should they have questions or run into problems.

“You’re just handed over a textbook and sort of forced to figure it out yourself,” junior Bess Aronoff told the Shakerite.

However, some of her classmates find it helpful to get a leg up on the subject before classes start, even if they’re not thrilled with the idea of summer homework.

“There are some classes, especially AP and IB classes, where you do kind of need it to get started and introduce the material before the year starts,” sophomore Max Markey told the Shakerite. “With the [economics’ documentaries], it should be interesting, but for the most part it’ll be horrid.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Time and Learning blog.