What About Homework?

Back when I was a youngster, lo, these many years ago, homework was the bane of my existence. In fact, I tell people, truthfully, that I only did homework for two classes in high school – Trigonometry and Medieval Literature. That I graduated at all is a miracle. That I got college scholarships is even more of a mystery. Now I believe that homework itself is a mystery. At least in elementary school.

How much homework is too much? Should we send homework at all? What kind of work should be homework? Should there be policies regarding homework in elementary schools? See what I mean? Mysteries. When I talked with the LEA (Local Education Agency – that is fancy talk for school districts and charter schools) mathematics supervisors a few months ago it became clear that most LEAs haven’t thought a lot about homework policies or practices for quite a while.

The research on homework is an extremely mixed bag. In the Winter 2012 edition of the Harvard Graduate School of Education magazine Ed. the following quote appears, “As Cathy Vatterott, the author of Rethinking Homework, points out, ‘Homework has generated enough research so that a study can be found to support almost any position, as long as conflicting studies are ignored.’ ”

The same article quotes Alfie Kohn, the author of The Homework Myth, as saying “The fact that there isn’t anything close to unanimity among experts belies the widespread assumption that homework helps.” Mr. Kohn believes strongly that schools should never assign homework.

However, in the same article, Howard Gardner, a professor in the Harvard Graduate School of Education says, ““America and Americans lurch between too little homework in many of our schools to an excess of homework in our most competitive environments — Li’l Abner vs. Tiger Mother,” he says. “Neither approach makes sense. Homework should build on what happens in class, consolidating skills and helping students to answer new questions.”

Educational Leadership, the journal of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, notes the following recommendations for homework:

Research provides strong evidence that, when used appropriately, homework benefits student achievement. To make sure that homework is appropriate, teachers and principals should follow these guidelines:

  • Assign purposeful homework. Legitimate purposes for homework include practicing a skill or process that students can do independently but not fluently, elaborating on information that has been addressed in class to deepen students’ knowledge, and providing opportunities for students to explore topics of their own interest. Teachers should never assign homework that introduces a new skill or asks students to practice concepts they still find difficult to understand.
  • Design homework to maximize the chances that students will complete it. For example, ensure that homework is at the appropriate level of difficulty. Students should be able to complete homework assignments independently with relatively high success rates, but they should still find the assignments challenging enough to be interesting.
  • Involve parents in appropriate ways (for example, as a sounding board to help students summarize what they learned from the homework) without requiring parents to act as teachers or to police students’ homework completion. If parents feel they must teach their children a concept the homework, at least in the younger grades, is probably not appropriate.
  • Carefully monitor the amount of homework assigned so that it is appropriate to students’ age levels and does not take too much time away from other home activities. The authors note that many research studies recommend the “10 minutes times the grade” rule. In other words, in first grade all homework combined should not take more than 10 minutes per night. In second grade the time allowed could raise to 20 minutes, and so on. However, the studies also note that positive effects of homework in junior high top out at 90 minutes. More time spent on homework over that time limit actually had a negative effect on achievement. In high school the limit seems to be 1 1/2 to 2 hours a night, depending on the study.

The point here is that elementary teachers should be very careful with what they assign as homework and with how much homework they assign. Parents should be made aware of the purpose of the homework assignments, the length of time the student should spend, and what the expectations are. Parents should feel free to call a halt to homework assignments if their child is getting frustrated, spending an inordinate amount of time on homework, or obviously doesn’t understand what to do. Sending a note or an e-mail to the teacher is entirely appropriate in those cases and teachers should respond positively.

As well, there are many technological solutions to help solve the homework mystery. In Cache School District, for example, many elementary teachers use an app called Educreations on their iPads to record lessons. They then post them either on the Educreations website or on their teacher blogs. I saw an outstanding example of that approach last October while visiting McKenzie Sorensen’s  fifth grade class at Summit Elementary in Smithfield. Here is my description of the event:

Ms. Sorensen was using her iPad and Educreations to teach long division with decimals. Her iPad  was connected to the projector and she was not only recording her voice but was using the iPad as a kind of smart board. She was writing on the iPad as she taught. She also recorded student comments, their answers to questions, and so on. Mr. Pugmire, the principal, was standing right next to me and told me she would post that lesson on her blog that night so students could refer back to it, so that those who missed class could see and hear what happened, and so that parents could understand what their students were doing and help them with their homework. It was a good thing, too, because she was teaching division with decimals in a mathematically correct and conceptual way, very different from how most of us were taught. Instead of just telling the students to move the decimal point she emphasized that they were changing the place value of the digits in both the divisor and the dividend by multiplying them by a power of ten. She stressed that they could have done the problem without changing the place value, but doing so made the problem easier to do because they didn’t have to worry about keeping track of the decimal point.  They were also able to preserve place value, which doesn’t often happen in long division.

Other teachers in Cache record short messages for parents and/or students about what they taught that day and how they taught it. Such messages can help parents understand the strategies and teaching methods they use to help students understand concepts.

Other teachers I have talked to record a short video on their smart phone at the end of the day and explain the homework for that night. They post that on their website and parents know to check for it. Others simply send an e-mail message. Others direct the parents to websites such as LearnZillion that have short videos made by master teachers explaining mathematical concepts. Jordan District, for example, has linked both the Utah Core Standards and their textbook to LearnZillion videos. Many textbook publishers also have websites for parents that can help. Contact your LEA to see if their adopted textbook has such a site.

So, to recap. The research isn’t clear about whether homework in the elementary grades has any correlation to student achievement. One researcher, Duke University Professor Harris Cooper, found that for elementary school students, “the average correlation between time spent on homework and achievement … hovered around zero.” So some elementary schools are eliminating homework other than nightly reading and citing research to do so. Still, it is hard in an era of “raise the bar” academic standards to think about forgoing homework altogether. Those elementary schools that do give homework should think very carefully about the recommendations given above. It is hard to justify homework outside of the given recommendations.

By the way, I am not endorsing Educreations. There are other apps like Doceri and Explain Everything that do the same thing. They are called interactive white board or screencasting apps. Happy mathematics learning to all!


http://www.gse.harvard.edu/news-impact/2012/01/are-you-down-with-or-done-with-homework/#ixzz333M9Gvtk Illustration from the same source. 

Marzano, Robert J. and Pickering, Debra J. “Special Topic: The Case for and Against Homework. Educational Leadership. March 2007, Volume 64, Number 6, Pages 74-79 Accessed 5/28/2014 at http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/mar07/vol64/num06/The-Case-For-and-Against-Homework.aspx

Cooper, Harris. “Does Homework Improve Academic Achievement? If So, How Much is Best?” Accessed 5/29/2014 at http://www.sedl.org/pubs/sedl-letter/v20n02/homework.html


About MathDavidUtah

Husband of 1 gorgeous woman. Father to four intelligent boys. Father in law to three. Grampy to 7 (Charlie, Meili, Camden, Grayson, Marick, Diem, Remi)! Ham radio callsign K7CMG. Educational Leadership Specialist at the Utah State Board of Education.
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