Why Have Homework?

Posted on October 1, 2011
by FeliciaOctocog

Several recent studies on homework have been nothing less than, well, inconclusive.  Studies seem to show that:

  1. Older youth benefit more from homework than younger youth
  2. Lower income youth benefit less than their wealthier peers
  3. Some homework is beneficial but excessive homework has diminishing returns
  4. Quality homework – that is, homework that creatively expands a student’s understanding of material covered in class – is better than drill and kill homework
  5. There are homework benefits that cannot be measured such as learning how to work independently or manage your time better.

When I first read that lower income youth (our population) tend not to benefit at all from homework, I was puzzled at first.  Of course I then realized (and later research backed me up) that low-income students lack many of the tools needed to complete homework never mind actually benefit by it.  There is often no quiet place to study, no computer or Internet available, no parent to help.

On this last point, I thought about how I handled homework with my own son.  When he was in elementary and middle school and early high school, I was always aware of what homework was due and when.  We talked about time management (particularly during that ever difficult 8th to 9th grade transition) and often about how to approach assignments.  I was editor and coach. Fortunately by 10th grade, he worked fairly independently (maybe the work got too hard for me?) and I was relegated to an occasional editing assignment.

My son always excelled in math and would agonize over endless, repetitive math assignments that were nothing but busy work for him.  Each year my son and I would visit with his math teacher and work out different homework assignments to challenge him more. Who came up with assignments?  I did.  With many assignments, I would try to discuss with my son, the relevance of his studies to our world or his interests. How did percentages relate to baseball, fractions to cooking, history to what was happening in Israel or Sudan, etc.  Yes, it is easy to see why homework done in an environment where educated parents can elevate the quality of the assignment and encourage independence and critical thinking would produce more benefits.

We find that at CyberSpace, students don’t understand the material and proceed to “bang out” homework that is incomplete, hastily done, and largely incorrect.  We correct the homework and make sure it is understood.   Often the students don’t understand the assignment and cannot articulate it to us.    Because many of our students are English Language Learners in mainstream classes, assignments are not easily understood even when written on the blackboard.  We appreciate the teachers that have clearly spelled out assignments with associated rubrics on a handout.  Without these we are often left to guess at what the assignment might be.

At Salem CyberSpace we spend 4 hours per day helping middle and high school students do homework assignments.  Eight years ago, we started out emphasizing enrichment activities but the student angst of getting homework done made us shift our emphasis to become a drop in homework center firstwith enrichment  activities available only when there was time.

As an after –school homework center,  I do see the value of homework. Our students definitely need the reinforcement of concepts learned at school.  Some repetition is valuable but only once the material is understood and I do see diminishing returns when assignments get overly long and repetitive.  If I did have one wish is that assignments could be made more relevant to the student, perhaps linked to a career or other interest.  For example, rather than drilling and killing 30 percentage problems, have students select from baseball, shopping, or crime and come up with 10 ways percentages are used – have them come up with their own problems in an area of interest to them.

With more financial and human resources,  I would prefer to have emphasize enrichment and homework equally. Not one at the expense of the other.  All students could benefit so much from more academic enrichment that contextualizes their learning.

We like to say that we act as a second set of parents at Salem CyberSpace.  I wish I had enough staff to work individually with each child to excite them about learning, show them the relevance and importance of understanding the concepts that seem so meaningless and out of reach to them.  Most of our older low-income students lack access to academic help after-school.  For many, the benefit of homework is minimal and maybe even harmful.  Clearly this is yet another example of playing field that is nowhere near level.