What’s the Right Amount of Homework? Many Students Get Too Little, Brief Argues

By Sarah Schwartz — October 10, 2018 3 min read
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Arguments against homework are well-documented, with some parents, teachers, and researchers saying these assignments put unnecessary stress on students and may not actually be helping them learn.

But a new article for the journal Education Next argues that many American students don’t have too much homework—they have too little.

Anxiety about overscheduled students with upwards of three or four hours of homework a night has overshadowed another problem, writes Janine Bempechat, a clinical professor of human development at the Boston University Wheelock College of Education and Human Development: Low-income students aren’t getting enough homework, and they may be suffering academically as a result.

“Eliminating homework is probably not as big a problem for high-income kids, because they have parents who will expose them to what they may not be getting after school,” Bempechat said in an interview with Education Week. “It’s lower-income students who are hurt the most when people argue that homework should be entirely eliminated.”

A widely endorsed metric for how much homework to assign is the 10-minute rule. It dictates that children should receive 10 minutes of homework per grade level—so a 1st grader would be given 10 minutes a day, while a senior in high school would have 120 minutes.

It’s hard to say exactly how closely American teachers hew to those guidelines. A 2013 study conducted by the University of Phoenix found that high school students are assigned about 3.5 hours of homework a night. But results from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment found that 15-year-olds in the U.S. say they have much less than that—about six hours of homework a week.

But the averages obscure the range in assigned work between low-income and high-income students, Bempechat argues. According to the PISA results, disadvantaged students in the U.S. spend three hours less a week on homework than advantaged students (five hours versus eight hours).

Some students may be receiving even less than that. In interviews with low-income students at two low-performing high schools in northern California, Bempechat and her colleagues found that most students reported receiving what she called “minimal homework": “perhaps one or two worksheets or textbook pages, the occasional project, and 30 minutes of reading per night.”

This is a problem, she writes, because high-quality homework—the kind that allows students to problem solve and comes with clear instructions and strategies for working through difficult problems—helps students develop key academic skills. Some research supports this claim: In a 2004 study, researchers at Columbia University and Mississippi State University found that homework can prepare students with the perseverance they would need to hold jobs in the future.

The research on whether homework leads to increased academic achievement is mixed: a 2006 meta-analysis found that at-home assignments led to increased scores on some tests in some grades, but other studies show no relationship for elementary age students.

But goal-setting, self-regulation, and “resilience in the face of challenge” can all be learned through homework, said Bempechat. These skills only become more important as students progress into higher grades with greater expectations for learner autonomy, she said.

Some critics of homework raise concerns that assigning outside work puts low-income students at a disadvantage, because their parents may not be able to offer as much guidance as higher-income parents.

Bempechat writes that it’s more important that parents support homework completion rather than give hands-on help with assignments. She cites a 2014 study by researchers at the City University of New York that found that low-income parents providing structure around homework was a significant predictor of middle school students’ math grades.

But other barriers to home-based assignments persist for low-income students, including the “homework gap:" the inequality between students who have internet at home and those who don’t, and the difficulty that students without access face in completing assignments. About 40 percent of students didn’t have internet access at home as of 2015. But most teachers—70 percent—assign homework that requires connectivity, according to a 2016 survey from the Consortium for School Networking, a national association for school technology leaders.

Teachers should be mindful of the resources students have at home, said Bempechat, and not assign work that requires tools they don’t have—whether that be internet access or even crayons and markers.

Image: Getty

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.