Does homework improve student achievement?

October 8, 2010

Since 1987, educators around the world have conducted studies to answer a simple question: Does homework help or hinder a student’s ability to learn? As simple as the question seems to be, the answer is quite complex. So many variables affect student achievement. Although most Canadian parents would agree that some homework is valuable, difficult questions remain: How much homework is necessary? Does homework really help my child?

In 2009, the Canadian Council on Learning analyzed 18 studies to update Harris Cooper’s 2006 research on this contentious topic. These studies suggest that some homework does help students to achieve but (1) only in the case of some children, (2) only for a reasonable period of time and (3) only if the homework is meaningful and engaging and if it requires active thinking and learning.

Elementary—Kindergarten to Grade 7

Research suggests that, with two exceptions, homework for elementary children is not beneficial and does not boost achievement levels. The first exception is in the case of a student who is struggling to complete classroom tasks. The second is when students are preparing for a test. For example, students might review a list of words for 10 minutes in preparation for a spelling test the next day. Parental help with homework appears to be beneficial only if the child has already learned the concepts and simply needs more time to complete the assignments.

Homework for most ­elementary children should be limited to 30 minutes per night. In fact, some evidence suggests that K–4 students who spend too much time on homework actually achieve less well. For students in Grades 6 and 7, up to an hour of meaningful homework per night can be beneficial. More than that can be ­detrimental.

Grades 8 to 12

Things change in high school. Most studies involving high school students suggest that students who do homework achieve at a higher rate. Once again, however, the amount of time spent on homework should be reasonable and the homework should be suited to the child’s ability to learn. Based on his research, Cooper (2006) suggests this rule of thumb: homework should be limited to 10 minutes per grade level. In other words, Grade 1 students should do a maximum of 10 minutes of homework per night, Grade 2 students, 20 minutes, and so on. Expecting academic students in Grade 12 to occasionally do two hours of homework in the evening—especially when they are studying for exams, completing a major mid-term project or wrapping up end-of-term assignments—is not unreasonable. But insisting that they do two hours of homework every night is expecting a bit much.

Research suggests that homework benefits high school students most in the following situations:

  • When it is used to enhance short-term retention (such as reviewing for an exam) rather than to learn new content.
  • When it involves constructive activities (such as active problem solving or working on a creative project) as opposed to rote or repetitious tasks (such as completing copy work or practice sheets).
  • When students understand the content but need more time to complete work that they began in class.
  • When the homework is assigned to the whole class as opposed to a few learners who are deemed to require remedial help. At the same time, most studies (Eren and Henderson, 2006) agree that homework benefits lower-achieving students more than it does high achievers.

While the debate continues, one thing remains clear: children who receive support and encouragement from their parents are more likely to realize their educational goals than children who do not receive such support. For that reason, assigning students some homework can be beneficial. However, how much homework a child should do and how often are questions that can be answered only after taking into account the unique needs of the child and his or her learning style, goals and challenges. Cooper’s basic rule of thumb is a useful guide. However, in determining the right amount and type of homework for their child, parents should ask the child what he or she needs and work with the child’s teachers.

References

Bennett, S. and N. ­Kalish. 2006. The Case Against Homework: How Homework Is Hurting our Children and What We Can Do About It. New York: Crown Publishers.

Canadian Council on Learning (CCL). 2008. “Parents’ Role in Their Children’s Homework.” Accessed February 7, 2008, from www.ccl-cca.ca/CCL/Reports/LessonsInLearning/LinL20080206_Homework.htm?Language=EN.

Cooper, H. 2006. Homework Helps Students Succeed in School, As Long as There Isn’t Too Much. Durham, NC: Duke University.

Eren, O. and Daniel J. Henderson. 2006. “The Impact of Homework on ­Student Achievement,” Econometrics Journal 11: 326–48.

Kohn, A. 2007. The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Life Long.

Maclean’s. November 28, 2007. “Homework Hysteria: Too Much? Parents, Who See It as Evidence of Quality ­Education, Share the Blame.”