The Science of Learning Blog

September 13, 2011

The Great Homework Debate: Is Homework Helpful or Harmful to Students?

BY Cory Armes, M.Ed.

An image of a stack of textbooks with a ruler, pencil and apple sitting on top.

Sometimes, I feel as if I have been doing homework my entire life.  As a child growing up, I moved from worksheets, dioramas and book reports to essays, major projects and term papers.  When I began teaching, I had lessons to prepare and my students’ homework became my homework for grading.  (And, on occasion, it was quite obvious that I was putting a bit more effort into MY homework than they put into theirs!)  As my children reached school age, “Mom’s rules” on homework included:  homework comes first, don’t wait until the last minute on a project, etc.  But somehow their homework still bled over into my life…

So, how important is this icon of education?  Is homework helpful or harmful?  Is it something that, as many students claim, just eats up their time and energy for no real purpose?  Do we, as educators, need new practices that move away from homework or are we simply afraid to change, stuck on those famous eight words, “But, we’ve never done it that way before…”?

In support of the view of homework as helpful, many educators stress that specifically aligning homework to the learning task is part of the strategy for building understanding.  The website Focus on Effectiveness cites several studies showing that in elementary school, homework helps build learning and study habits (Cooper, 1989; Cooper, Lindsay, Nye, & Greathouse, 1998; Gorges & Elliot, 1999).  Also noted is the point that 30 minutes of daily homework in high school can increase a student’s GPA up to half a point (Keith 1992).  Many students need time and experience to develop the study habits that support learning, and homework can provide that as well as the ability to cope with mistakes and difficulty (Bempechat, 2004).  Those teachers who take the time to add instructive comments to their feedback to homework get the greatest return on their efforts in after-school work. (Walberg, 1999).

But what about the students who are doing it wrong and then have to “unlearn” incorrect information?  When considering the view that homework is harmful, author and speaker Alfie Kohn states that there is no real evidence showing homework to be beneficial to elementary students.  In an EdWeek article, he writes that he found no correlation between homework and improved standardized assessment scores.  Regarding secondary students, Kohn said that there is a slight correlation between homework and improved test scores and grades but there is no evidence that the improvement is because of homework rather than other activities.  Stating that there is no proof that homework benefits students in other ways such as good study habits, independence or self discipline, Kohn could find no disadvantage to reducing or even eliminating homework altogether but finds the homework trend continues to grow. 

So, what is the answer – is homework helpful or harmful?  Do we continue current practices or throw homework out altogether? 

A balanced perspective most likely is the best response.  Time spent on homework should align with the student’s age – a short time spent in elementary school, up to 90 minutes for middle school or junior high aged students and between 1½ and 2 ½ hours per night (not per subject!) in high school (Harris, 2006). Another suggestion is to multiply the student’s grade by ten to determine the appropriate number of minutes of homework per night (example – a fifth grader should have no more than 50 minutes of homework per night). If we want the best results, we’ll keep homework time within these time ranges with allowances made for individual needs of students and families. 

Key takeaways:

  1. Remember the main purposes of homework:  to build rote memorization and automaticity; to provide time to deepen understanding though elaboration and to increase readiness for new information.
  2. Assign homework that includes very few concepts so students can learn them on a deeper level (Healy, 1990).
  3. Match homework to the learning goal for a more focused learning experience.
  4. Provide appropriate and timely feedback.  Students need to know what was correct, what needs to be changed, etc., and they need this information sooner rather than later.  Waiting several days or even weeks to provide feedback limits or even eliminates the effectiveness of the assignment.
  5. Parental involvement should be limited to facilitating the completion of homework – not teaching content or doing the work for a child.   Parents who get too involved in an assignment inhibit rather than enhance learning.

Related Reading:

Students who Struggle in the Mainstream: What their Homework Patterns May Tell You

Building a Foundation for School Readiness for Low Income Children  

4 comments on “The Great Homework Debate: Is Homework Helpful or Harmful to Students?”

  1. Homework doesn't teach you as much as real life experiences. I know this first hand. If you are given an asignment over fire safety you wont learn as much through that as you will through having to learn it first hand.

  2. Hello! Elizabeth Maya Walter thats not a very good exmaple to use considering the fact that kids are taught fire saftey pretty much everywhere. Plus first hand expriences are ment to give people more experince than reading off a newspaper or book.

  3. Does the same concept apply for skydiving or flying a plane? If you are given a assignment to help teach you how to skydive or fly a plane you just ignore it and hope of the best? Your statement applies to some instances but not all.

  4. Homework is helpful because homework helps us by teaching us how to learn a specific topic.

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