Study Finds High School Homework Helps, Harms Students in Affluent Communities

By Holly Kurtz — March 12, 2014 3 min read
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For students at competitive high schools in upper middle-class areas, homework may be a double-edged sword.

The authors of a study published in the peer-refereed Journal of Experimental Education concluded that, on the one hand, heavy homework loads and associated pressure to achieve in these schools are providing the students with “the skills required to get ahead in a competitive, achievement-focused society” and “will serve them well in maintaining their status as part of an elite middle class.” On the other hand, students who devoted more time to homework also experienced more academic stress and problems with physical health, in part because they did not get enough sleep. They had less time to spend with family and friends. Students who spent more time on homework were not less likely to participate in extracurricular activities. However, they did more frequently report dropping “activities or hobbies they enjoyed in order to focus on their academic work.”

“Our findings on the effects of homework challenge the traditional assumption that homework is inherently good,” write authors Mollie Galloway of Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore., Jerusha Conner of Villanova University in Pennsylvania, and Denise Pope of Stanford University.

The study was based on multiple-choice and open-ended survey responses from 4,317 students at ten Northern California public and private high schools. The schools served areas in which the median household income exceeded $90,000 per year and college attendance rates hovered above 90 percent. All the participating schools had volunteered to be part of a university-based intervention aimed at supporting “adolescent academic integrity, engagement, and mental and physical health in communities where achievement pressure is particularly high.”

“In these school settings, learning becomes secondary to getting ahead,” said first author Galloway.

“Many schools in these communities confuse ‘rigor’ with ‘load,’ ” added Pope.

Pope appeared in the documentary Race to Nowhere, which helped inspire a movement to, among other things, reduce homework loads. She also helped found Challenge Success, a nonprofit organization that works with schools, students, and parents to maintain a “balanced and academically fulfilling life” and to “identify problems and implement best practices for school policies, curriculum, assessment, and a healthy school climate.”

“We use this research on students’ perceptions of homework to help schools examine the benefits and drawbacks of their homework assignments and to consider how much homework is actually necessary to achieve rigor and mastery of learning, and how much may be harmful to students” Pope said. “The good news is we have seen teachers in Advanced Placement classes known for high levels of homework load cut their homework by one-third to one-half without any negative effects on AP test scores.”

The Journal of Experimental Education study participants reported spending an average of 3.11 hours per weeknight on homework. The mean amount of weeknight homework time ranged from 2.49 hours for males in their senior years to 3.66 for females in their junior year, when homework time peaked for both genders. Yet according to a 2008 research synthesis that Harris Cooper wrote for the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, homework benefits plateau at two hours per night for secondary school students. Homework is also more beneficial when students find it meaningful and/or relevant. However, just 6 percent of respondents to the Galloway, Conner, and Pope survey reported that homework was “very useful” for learning or preparation for tests, papers or projects. There was no connection between hours spent on homework and enjoyment of school. Indeed, students complained that much of their homework was busy work. “Waste of time,” “often trivial-seeming,” “repetitive,” “redundant,” “tedious,” “mindless,” and “nonsense” were words and phrases frequently used to describe homework.

The authors note that complaints about homework overload are nothing new. Since the early 1900s, schools have experienced cycles of reforms that call for abolishing or increasing homework. What is new about this study is that the authors examined the nonacademic impacts of homework for members of a particular social class—students attending competitive schools in affluent areas. Galloway, Conner and Pope suggest that it’s time for parents, teachers. and administrators in the type of communities they studied to re-examine “why the default practice of assigning heavy homework loads exists, in the face of evidence of its negative effects.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.