Alfie Kohn writes about what a new homework study really says — and what it doesn’t say. He is the author of 12 books about education and human behavior, including “The Schools Our Children Deserve,” “The Homework Myth,” and “Feel-Bad Education… And Other Contrarian Essays on Children & Schooling.” He lives (actually) in the Boston area and (virtually) at www.alfiekohn.org.
By Alfie Kohn
A brand-new study on the academic effects of homework offers not only some intriguing results but also a lesson on how to read a study — and a reminder of the importance of doing just that: reading studies (carefully) rather than relying on summaries by journalists or even by the researchers themselves.
Let’s start by reviewing what we know from earlier investigations. First, no research has ever found a benefit to assigning homework (of any kind or in any amount) in elementary school. In fact, there isn’t even a positive correlation between, on the one hand, having younger children do some homework (vs. none), or more (vs. less), and, on the other hand, any measure of achievement. If we’re making 12-year-olds, much less five-year-olds, do homework, it’s either because we’re misinformed about what the evidence says or because we think kids ought to have to do homework despite what the evidence says.
Second, even at the high school level, the research supporting homework hasn’t been particularly persuasive. There does seem to be a correlation between homework and standardized test scores, but (a) it isn’t strong, meaning that homework doesn’t explain much of the variance in scores, (b) one prominent researcher, Timothy Keith, who did find a solid correlation, returned to the topic a decade later to enter more variables into the equation simultaneously, only to discover that the improved study showed that homework had no effect after all, and (c) at best we’re only talking about a correlation — things that go together — without having proved that doing more homework causes test scores to go up. (Take 10 seconds to see if you can come up with other variables that might be driving both of these things.)
Third, when homework is related to test scores, the connection tends to be strongest — or, actually, least tenuous — with math. If homework turns out to be unnecessary for students to succeed in that subject, it’s probably unnecessary everywhere.
Along comes a new study, then, that focuses on the neighborhood where you’d be most likely to find a positive effect if one was there to be found: math and science homework in high school. Like most recent studies, this one by Adam Maltese and his colleagues doesn’t provide rich descriptive analyses of what students and teachers are doing. Rather, it offers an aerial view, the kind preferred by economists, relying on two large datasets (from the National Education Longitudinal Study [NELS] and the Education Longitudinal Study [ELS]). Thousands of students are asked one question — How much time do you spend on homework? — and statistical tests are then performed to discover if there’s a relationship between that number and how they fared in their classes and on standardized tests.
It’s easy to miss one interesting result in this study that appears in a one-sentence aside. When kids in these two similar datasets were asked how much time they spent on math homework each day, those in the NELS study said 37 minutes, whereas those in the ELS study said 60 minutes. There’s no good reason for such a striking discrepancy, nor do the authors offer any explanation. They just move right along — even though those estimates raise troubling questions about the whole project, and about all homework studies that are based on self-report. Which number is more accurate? Or are both of them way off? There’s no way of knowing. And because all the conclusions are tied to that number, all the conclusions may be completely invalid.
But let’s pretend that we really do know how much homework students do. Did doing it make any difference? The Maltese et al. study looked at the effect on test scores and on grades. They emphasized the latter, but let’s get the former out of the way first.
Was there a correlation between the amount of homework that high school students reported doing and their scores on standardized math and science tests? Yes, and it was statistically significant but “very modest”: Even assuming the existence of a causal relationship, which is by no means clear, one or two hours’ worth of homework every day buys you two or three points on a test. Is that really worth the frustration, exhaustion, family conflict, loss of time for other activities, and potential diminution of interest in learning? And how meaningful a measure were those tests in the first place, since, as the authors concede, they’re timed measures of mostly mechanical skills? (Thus, a headline that reads “Study finds homework boosts achievement” can be translated as “A relentless regimen of after-school drill-and-skill can raise scores a wee bit on tests of rote learning.”)
But it was grades, not tests, that Maltese and his colleagues really cared about. They were proud of having looked at transcript data in order to figure out “the exact grade a student received in each class [that he or she] completed” so they could compare that to how much homework the student did. Previous research has looked only at students’ overall grade-point averages.
And the result of this fine-tuned investigation? There was no relationship whatsoever between time spent on homework and course grade, and “no substantive difference in grades between students who complete homework and those who do not.”
This result clearly caught the researchers off-guard. Frankly, it surprised me, too. When you measure “achievement” in terms of grades, you expect to see a positive result — not because homework is academically beneficial but because the same teacher who gives the assignments evaluates the students who complete them, and the final grade is often based at least partly on whether, and to what extent, students did the homework. Even if homework were a complete waste of time, how could it not be positively related to course grades?
And yet it wasn’t. Again. Even in high school. Even in math. The study zeroed in on specific course grades, which represents a methodological improvement, and the moral may be: The better the research, the less likely one is to find any benefits from homework. (That’s not a surprising proposition for a careful reader of reports in this field. We got a hint of that from Timothy Keith’s reanalysis and also from the fact that longer homework studies tend to find less of an effect.)
Maltese and his colleagues did their best to reframe these results to minimize the stunning implications. Like others in this field, they seem to have approached the topic already convinced that homework is necessary and potentially beneficial, so the only question we should ask is How — not whether — to assign it. But if you read the results rather than just the authors’ spin on them — which you really need to do with the work of others working in this field as well — you’ll find that there’s not much to prop up the belief that students must be made to work a second shift after they get home from school. The assumption that teachers are just assigning homework badly, that we’d start to see meaningful results if only it were improved, is harder and harder to justify with each study that’s published.
If experience is any guide, however, many people will respond to these results by repeating platitudes about the importance of practice, or by complaining that anyone who doesn’t think kids need homework is coddling them and failing to prepare them for the “real world” (read: the pointless tasks they’ll be forced to do after they leave school). Those open to evidence, however, have been presented this fall with yet another finding that fails to find any meaningful benefit even when the study is set up to give homework every benefit of the doubt.
1. It’s important to remember that some people object to homework for reasons that aren’t related to the dispute about whether research might show that homework provides academic benefits. They argue that (a) six hours a day of academics are enough, and kids should have the chance after school to explore other interests and develop in other ways — or be able simply to relax in the same way that most adults like to relax after work; and (b) the decision about what kids do during family time should be made by families, not schools. Let’s put these arguments aside for now, even though they ought to be (but rarely are) included in any discussion of the topic.
2. Valerie A. Cool and Timothy Z. Keith, “Testing a Model of School Learning: Direct and Indirect Effects on Academic Achievement,” Contemporary Educational Psychology 16 (1991): 28-44.
3. Adam V. Maltese, Robert H. Tai, and Xitao Fan, “When Is Homework Worth the Time? Evaluating the Association Between Homework and Achievement in High School Science and Math,” The High School Journal, October/November 2012: 52-72. Abstract at http://ow.ly/fxhOV.
4. Other research has found little or no correlation between how much homework students report doing and how much homework their parents say they do. When you use the parents’ estimates, the correlation between homework and achievement disappears. See Harris Cooper, Jorgianne Civey Robinson, and Erika A. Patall, “Does Homework Improve Academic Achievement?: A Synthesis of Research, 1987-2003,” Review of Educational Research 76 (2006): 1-62.
5. To put it the other way around, studies finding the biggest effect are those that capture less of what goes on in the real world by virtue of being so brief. View a small, unrepresentative slice of a child’s life and it may appear that homework makes a contribution to achievement; keep watching, and that contribution is eventually revealed to be illusory. See data provided — but not interpreted this way — by Cooper, The Battle Over Homework, 2nd ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, 2001).
6. Even the title of their article reflects this: They ask “When Is Homework Worth the Time?” rather than “Is Homework Worth the Time?” This bias might seem a bit surprising in the case of the study’s second author, Robert H. Tai. He had contributed earlier to another study whose results similarly ended up raising questions about the value of homework. Students enrolled in college physics courses were surveyed to determine whether any features of their high schoolphysics courses were now of use to them. At first a very small relationship was found between the amount of homework that students had had in high school and how well they were currently faring. But once the researchers controlled for other variables, such as the type of classes they had taken, that relationship disappeared, just as it had for Keith (see note 2). The researchers then studied a much larger population of students in college science classes – and found the same thing: Homework simply didn’t help. See Philip M. Sadler and Robert H. Tai, “Success in Introductory College Physics: The Role of High School Preparation,” Science Education 85 : 111-36.
7. See chapter 4 (“’Studies Show…’ — Or Do They?”) of my book The Homework Myth (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo, 2006), an adaptation of which appears as “Abusing Research: The Study of Homework and Other Examples,” Phi Delta Kappan, September 2006 [www.alfiekohn.org/teaching/research.htm].
8. On the alleged value of practice, see The Homework Myth, pp. 106-18, also available at http://bit.ly/9dXqCj.
TO GIVE OR NOT TO GIVE HOMEWORK…That is the question!
The amount of homework students are given differs greatly across grade levels and states. Some students are given hours of work while other students are assigned little or no work to be done at home.
So what’s appropriate? What is the purpose of homework? What are the advantages and disadvantages of homework? How much homework should be assigned? How important is the quality of the assignments? And most importantly: Does homework increase student achievement?
These questions represent the ongoing debate surrounding homework for the past two decades. According to a survey by the University of Michigan, homework has doubled over the last twenty years, especially in the younger grades, due to the school’s requirement to meet higher-than-ever achievement goals for children. Although homework has academic and non-academic advantages and disadvantages, the majority of studies conducted reveal inconclusive evidence that assigning homework increases student achievement. Most studies show positive effects for certain students, others suggest no effects, and some even suggest negative effects according to research by Alfie Kohn, an independent scholar (2006).
Let’s begin with the purpose of homework…
Educators assign homework for different reasons and purposes. Homework is assigned either as practice, preparation, extension, or integration of grade-level skills and concepts.
PRACTICE HOMEWORK reinforces learning from the skills and concepts already taught in the classroom. Practice homework promotes retention and automaticity of the concept, skill, and content taught. Examples include practicing multiplication facts or writing simple sentences in order to commit theses skills and concepts to long-term memory.
PREPARATION HOMEWORK is assigned to introduce content that will be addressed in future lessons. However, research suggests that homework is less effective if it is used to teach new or complex skills. For these types of assignments, students typically become stressed which can create a negative perspective towards learning and school.
EXTENSION HOMEWORK requires students to use previously taught skills and concepts and apply them to new situations or projects. For instance, students may use the concept of area and perimeter to build a flowerbed.
INTEGRATION HOMEWORK requires the student to apply learned skills and concepts to produce a single project like reading a book and writing a report on it.
Homework also serves other purposes not directly related to instruction. Homework can help establish communication between parents and children; it can be used as a form of discipline; and it can inform parents about school topics and activities.
The Homework Debate
The homework debate often focuses on how and why homework affects student learning and achievement. Harris Cooper, a professor of psychology, and colleagues (2006) found there are both positive and negative consequences of homework.
Homework provides practice with content, concepts, and skills taught at school by the teacher. It can foster retention and understanding of the academic content. Some studies suggest that homework correlates with student achievement. Cooper, Robinson, and Patall (2006) discovered a positive correlation between the amount of the homework students do and their achievement at the secondary level. Some studies also suggest that assigning homework improves the achievement of low-performing students and students in low-performing schools. However, the correlation between student achievement and homework given to elementary students is inconclusive. Most research only supports homework for middle and high school students (Cooper 1989a; Kohn 2006).
There are also non-academic reasons for assigning homework. Corno and Xu (2004) discovered that homework fosters independence, develops time-management skills, and teaches responsibility. Assigning homework to primary age students can establish better study habits and skills for secondary education (Bempechat, 2004). Homework promotes a positive attitude towards school and keeps families informed about their child’s learning.
The Potential Harm
Homework also has negative associations. It can lead to boredom if the student has already mastered the skills, and it can lead to loss of interest in school due to burnout. Cheating is involved with homework by either copying another student’s work or when help is received from adults in an attempt to finish all the assignments. Also, assigning excessive amounts of homework may result in unneeded stress and pressure on the child, which affects the student’s emotions, behaviors, thinking ability, and physical health.
The correlation between homework and student achievement is inconsistent. In TheBattle Over Homework, Cooper determined that the average correlation between the time primary children spent on homework and achievement was around zero. Not to mention, the amount of homework completed had no effect on test scores. David Baker and Gerald LeTendre, professors of education at Penn State, found that countries that assign minimal amounts of homework, like Japan, were the most successful school systems compared to Greece and Iran school systems where students are given a lot of work.
Another concern surrounding homework is its interference with the student’s time to relax and take their minds off work as well as family time. Students are spending too much time completing homework assignments instead of playing outside or enjoying leisure activities, which teach and enhance important life skills.
In addition, homework decreases the time spent with family. As Alfie Kohn states in The Homework Myth, “Why should children be asked to work a second shift? It’s unconscionable to send children to work for nearly eight hours a day, then have them go home and work for 2-5 more hours. 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.”
The Amount of Homework
The frequency and duration of each assignment does not necessarily suggest a correlation between homework and student achievement. “We found that for kids in elementary school there was hardly any relationship between how much homework young children did and how well they were doing in school, but in middle school the relationship is positive and increases until the kids were doing between an hour to two hours a night, which is right where the 10-minute rule says it’s going to be optimal,” stated Harris Cooper. The 10-minute rule was created by the National PTA which suggests 10 minutes per a grade should be assigned (e.g., 70 minutes for 7th grade). “After that it didn’t go up anymore. Kids that reported doing more than two hours of homework in middle school weren’t doing any better in school than kids who were doing between an hour to two hours,” said Harris Cooper.
Quantity Versus Quality
Effective homework is homework with a purpose. According to Cooper, some teachers assign ‘shotgunhomework’: blanket drills, questions, and problems. Students are given homework that is not furthering the concepts and skills. The homework is assigned because it has been drilled into our collective mind that homework produces higher performing students. However, homework is most effective when it covers material already taught, is given for review, or is used to reinforce skills previously learned. Students should not be assigned homework on concepts and skills they do not grasp.
DataWORKS Educational Research recommends assigning homework to provide additional repetitions of the content to promote retention and automaticity. The reason for homework is to practice the content, NOT to learn the content. Students learn the content (skills and concepts) from the lesson taught at school. Students need to be able to complete the work at home without assistance because some students do not have an English-speaking parents or guardians to help them.
In conclusion, research is inconsistent in determining if homework increases student achievement. As educators, the amount, frequency, and the purpose should be considered prior to assigning homework. Homework should be used effectively! Instead of the quantity of homework, educators should improve the quality of the assignments. Homework assignments must be well-designed. So, when assigning homework, please consider the effectiveness of it, homework should positively impact the student learning. Otherwise, the debate about homework will continue without an answer – to give or not to give!
Kohn, Alfie (2007). Rethinking Homework.
Kohn, Alfie. The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2006).
Cooper, H. (1989). Homework. White Plains, NY: Longman.
Cooper, H., Robinson, J. C., & Patall, E. A. (2006). Does homework improve academic achievement? A synthesis of research. 1987–2003. Review of Educational Research, 76(1), 1–62.
What is your stance on homework? What do you think is an appropriate amount of homework? Why do you assign homework? Please share your experiences in the comment section below.
Author: Patricia Bogdanovich
Patricia has held various positions with DataWORKS since 2002. She currently works as a Curriculum Specialist. Patricia helped develop and create many of the early resources and workshops designed by DataWORKS, and she is an expert in analysis of standards. Patricia plans to blog about curriculum and assessments for CCSS and NGSS, classroom strategies, and news and research from the world of education.