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What Does the Research Say?

Homework is one of the sacred cows of education (Conrath, 1992). According to Shultz (1995), students view it as a monster, and it is the bane of all parents. With the school year in full swing, children are being assigned homework, and parents are coping or facilitating its completion as best they can.

Parents often have questions about why homework is assigned, how beneficial it is, and how they may best help their child complete homework. A recent study reported on five major themes of parents' thinking about homework:
(1) concern about their child's unique characteristics as balanced with school demands, (2) questions about the appropriate level of independent work assigned to their child,
(3) concerns about how they can best structure homework activities,
(4) concerns about how involved they should be in helping their child complete homework, and (5) reflections on what it means to them when they are or are not successful at being able to help their children complete assignments (Hoover-Dempsey, Bassler, & Burow, 1995).

Corno (1996) reports five widespread misconceptions about homework:

The best teachers give homework regularly. Actually, the best teachers vary homework assignments according to the task at hand, and many teachers view homework policies that state it must be assigned on a regular basis as undermining their curricular goals and personal teaching style.

More homework is better than less. The amount of work assigned has not been proven to be a reliable indicator of increased academic performance.

Parents want their children to have homework. Parents want their children to do well in school, but that desire cannot be interpreted to mean that they want their children to have homework if it is not going to improve their academic achievement.

Homework supports what students learn in school. Teachers give different reasons for why they assign homework, and many homework assignments do not serve to help students reorganize and extend their learning.

Homework fosters discipline and personal responsibility. There is little evidence to support this widely held idea. Corno (1996, p. 28) says that this finding is only "one small piece of the bigger pie" and that parents foster these characteristics in larger, broader ways than through "doing homework."

In a review of research on homework, Cooper (1994) notes that homework can lead to greater parental involvement in school, but it can also result in increased differences between high and low achievers. In their study of academic achievement of eighth-grade students, Bruce and Singh (1996) found that homework improved, not only the student's grades, but also their scores on standardized tests. Cooper (1994) lists the benefits researchers attribute to homework:

Immediate effects on achievement and learning, including:
(1) better retention of factual knowledge,
(2) increased understanding,
(3) better critical thinking concept formation, (4) better information processing, and
(5) curriculum enrichment.

Long-term academic effects, including:
(1) learning encouraged during leisure time,
(2) improved attitude toward school, and
(3) better study habits and skills.

Nonacademic long-term effects, including:
(1) greater self-direction,
(2) greater self-discipline,
(3) better time organization,
(4) more inquisitiveness, and
(5) more independent problem solving.

Cooper (1994) also lists these negative effects, as reported by researchers:

Satiation, which leads to loss of interest in academic material and physical and emotional fatigue.

Denial of access to leisure time and community activities, as evidenced by parental interference, pressure to compete and perform well, and confusion on instructional techniques.
Cheating through copying from other students or through having a tutor provide help beyond tutoring.

Looking at achievement on standardized tests and grades, the research studies that compare the achievement of students who receive homework with those who do not receive homework indicate that homework effects varied according to grade level:

Students in high school who receive homework outperform those who do not receive homework by 69%. Time spent on homework outside of school had greater effects than time spent studying at school. Achievement effects increased according to the amount of time spent on homework.

Students in junior high who receive homework outperform those who do not receive homework by 35%. Homework was more effective than in-school supervised study. Achievement effects increased as time spent on homework increased to two hours, but more than two hours spent on homework did not increase achievement.

Students in elementary school who receive homework perform no differently than those who do not. In-school supervised study had a greater impact on achievement than homework, and achievement did not increase if they spent more time on homework. Cooper cautions that this finding does not mean that elementary school students should not receive homework; rather parents should not expect homework to affect achievement. At this level, homework is important because it promotes good study habits and positive attitudes toward school, and because homework makes it clear to the student that learning can also take place outside of the school environment.

Clearly, homework is a complex issue that brings together the child, parent, and teacher in planned and unplanned ways, with positive and negative outcomes. Homework is widely written about in newspaper columns for parents, and a plethora of books are available on the subject. Indeed, a search of one of the largest online bookstores, using the word "homework," resulted in 71 titles related to homework. Some were children's books (such as The Berenstain Bears and the Homework Hassle), but the majority were "how to" books written for parents.

Perhaps parents with concerns about homework can consider doing more than reading "how to" books. They can set up an appointment to talk with the teacher to discuss school policies. By getting involved, perhaps by forming parent/teacher committees to look at the reasons teachers assign homework and school policies for homework, parents can help schools develop more helpful and useful policies.

For further information:

Helping with Homework: A Parent's Guide to Information Problem-Solving, by Robert E. Berkowitz, can be viewed at http://ericir.syr.edu/ithome/digests/helphome.html.

Helping Your Child with Homework, by the U.S. Department of Education, can be viewed at http://www.ed.gov/pubs/parents/Homework/index.html.

Sources

Bruce, Franklin A., Jr., & Singh, Kusum. (1996). Academic achievement: A model of school learning for eighth grade students. Research in Middle Level Education Quarterly, 19(3), 95-111.

Conrath, Jerry. (1992). Effective schools for discouraged and disadvantaged students: Rethinking some sacred cows of research. Contemporary Education, 63(2), 137-141.

Cooper, Harris. (1994). Homework research and policy: A review of the literature. Research/Practice, 2(2) [Online]. Available: http://carei.coled.umn.edu/ResearchPractice/v2n2/homework.html [1997, October 20].

Corno, Lyn. (1996). Homework is a complicated thing. Educational Researcher, 25(8), 27-30.

Hoover-Dempsey, Kathleen V., Bassler, Otto C., & Burow, Rebecca. (1995). Parents' reported involvement in students' homework: Strategies and practices. Elementary School Journal, 95(5), 435-450.

Shultz, Eileen. (1995). Be an advocate for your child. PTA Today, 20(4), 10-11.
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