Homework: A New User's Guide

Sep 19, 2015
Originally published on September 23, 2015 1:25 pm

If you made it past the headline, you're likely a student, concerned parent, teacher or, like me, a nerd nostalgist who enjoys basking in the distant glow of Homework Triumphs Past (second-grade report on Custer's Last Stand, nailed it!).

Whoever you are, you're surely hoping for some clarity in the loud, perennial debate over whether U.S. students are justifiably exhausted and nervous from too much homework — even though some international comparisons suggest they're sitting comfortably at the average.

Well, here goes. I've mapped out six, research-based polestars that should help guide you to some reasonable conclusions about homework.

How much homework do U.S. students get?

The best answer comes from something called the National Assessment of Educational Progress or NAEP. In 2012, students in three different age groups — 9, 13 and 17 — were asked, "How much time did you spend on homework yesterday?" The vast majority of 9-year-olds (79 percent) and 13-year-olds (65 percent) and still a majority of 17-year-olds (53 percent) all reported doing an hour or less of homework the day before.

Another study from the National Center for Education Statistics found that high school students who reported doing homework outside of school did, on average, about seven hours a week.

If you're hungry for more data on this — and some perspective — check out this exhaustive report put together last year by researcher Tom Loveless at the Brookings Institution.

An hour or less a day? But we hear so many horror stories! Why?

The fact is, some students do have a ton of homework. In high school we see a kind of student divergence — between those who choose or find themselves tracked into less-rigorous coursework and those who enroll in honors classes or multiple Advanced Placement courses. And the latter students are getting a lot of homework. In that 2012 NAEP survey, 13 percent of 17-year-olds reported doing more than two hours of homework the previous night. That's not a lot of students, but they're clearly doing a lot of work.

That also tracks with a famous survey from 2007 — from MetLife — that asked parents what they think of their kids' homework load. Sixty percent said it was just right. Twenty-five percent said their kids are getting too little. Just 15 percent of parents said their kids have too much homework.

Research also suggests that the students doing the most work have something else in common: income. "I think that the debate over homework in some ways is a social class issue," says Janine Bempechat, professor of human development at Wheelock College. "There's no question that in affluent communities, children are really over-taxed, over-burdened with homework."

But the vast majority of students do not seem to have inordinate workloads. And the ones who do are generally volunteering for the tough stuff. That doesn't make it easier, but it does make it a choice.

Do we know how much homework students in other countries are doing?

Sort of. Caveats abound here. Education systems and perceptions of what is and isn't homework can vary remarkably overseas. So any comparison is, to a degree, apples-to-oranges (or, at least, apples-to-pears). A 2012 report from the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development pegged the U.S. homework load for 15-year-olds at around six hours per week. That's just above the study's average. It found that students in Hong Kong are also doing about six hours a week. Much of Europe checks in between four and five hours a week. In Japan, it's four hours. And Korea's near the bottom, at three hours.

How much homework is too much?

Better yet, how much is just right? Harris Cooper at Duke University has done some of the best work on homework. He and his team reviewed dozens of studies, from 1987 to 2003, looking for consensus on what works and what doesn't. A common rule of thumb, he says, is what's called the 10-minute rule. Take the child's grade and multiply by 10. So first-graders should have roughly 10 minutes of homework a night, 40 minutes for fourth-graders, on up to two hours for seniors in high school. A lot of of schools use this. Even the National PTA officially endorses it.

Homework clearly improves student performance, right?

Not necessarily. It depends on the age of the child. Looking over the research, there's little to no evidence that homework improves student achievement in elementary school. Then again, the many experts I spoke with all said the same thing: The point of homework in those primary grades isn't entirely academic. It's about teaching things like time-management and self-direction.

But, by high school the evidence shifts. Harris Cooper's massive review found, in middle and high school, a positive correlation between homework and student achievement on unit tests. It seems to help. But more is not always better. Cooper points out that, depending on the subject and the age of the student, there is a law of diminishing returns. Again, he recommends the 10-minute rule.

What kinds of homework seem to be most effective?

This is where things get really interesting. Because homework should be about learning, right? To understand what kinds of homework best help kids learn, we really need to talk about memory and the brain.

Let's start with something called the spacing effect. Say a child has to do a vocabulary worksheet. The next week, it's a new worksheet with different words and so on. Well, research shows that the brain is better at remembering when we repeat with consistency, not when we study in long, isolated chunks of time. Do a little bit of vocabulary each night, repeating the same words night after night.

Similarly, a professor of psychology at Washington University in St. Louis, Henry "Roddy" Roediger III, recommends that teachers give students plenty of little quizzes, which he says strengthen the brain's ability to remember. Don't fret. They can be low-stakes or no-stakes, says Roediger: It's the steady recall and repetition that matter. He also recommends, as homework, that students try testing themselves instead of simply re-reading the text or class notes.

There's also something known as interleaving. This is big in the debate over math homework. Many of us — myself included — learned math by focusing on one concept at a time, doing a worksheet to practice that concept, then moving on.

Well, there's evidence that students learn more when homework requires them to choose among multiple strategies — new and old — when solving problems. In other words, kids learn when they have to draw not just from what they learned in class that day but that week, that month, that year.

One last note: Experts agree that homework should generally be about reinforcing what students learned in class (this is especially true in math). Sometimes it can — and should — be used to introduce new material, but here's where so many horror stories begin.

Tom Loveless, a former teacher, offers this advice: "I don't think teachers should ever send brand-new material that puts the parent in the position of a teacher. That's a disaster. My own personal philosophy was: Homework is best if it's material that requires more practice but they've already received initial instruction."

Or, in the words of the National PTA: "Homework that cannot be done without help is not good homework."

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Sorry to spoil a weekend morning for any children who might be listening, but we're going to spend a few minutes on homework now. We asked some parents what they think.

SHELLEY LATHAM: Just seeing my daughter sitting on her bed, you know, with stacks of books and the laptop open and the graphing calculator, and it's 10:30 at night and it's just like, you know, why?

MONICA PURSLEY: I mean, they have so much homework sometimes that I will just grab the paper and do it myself

LAURA COFFY: By the time we are done with our day, it's so late at night that there's just no time. Even if there was time for the children to do their homework with them, they're exhausted because they've been up since before 8 a.m. since their school day starts at 8.

PURSLEY: It's like they're managing a multimillion-dollar stock portfolio with some of these homework assignments, and the stress on their face is just not worth it to me.

SIMON: That was Shelley Latham of Blue Hill, Maine, Monica Pursley of Boise, Idaho, and Laura Coffy of Boca Raton, Fla. There is a perennial debate in the U.S. over whether American students have less homework than, say, South Korean, Japanese students and those who say many American students are just exhausted from too many hours of homework. So we asked Cory Turner from the NPR Ed team to look into the matter during regular work hours. Cory, thanks for being with us.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: I'm happy to hopefully provide some clarity here.

SIMON: How much homework do U.S. students get?

TURNER: Well, I think the best answer comes from something called the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP. In 2012, students in three different age groups - 9, 13 and 17 - were all asked how much time did you spend on homework yesterday. The vast majority of the 9 year olds and the 13 year olds, and still a majority of the 17 year olds, all reported doing an hour or less of homework the day before. And then there's another study from the National Center for Education Statistics who found that high school students who reported doing homework outside of school did again on average about seven hours a week.

SIMON: But those horror stories which we just heard, I think any parent will tell you they're not isolated. Where do they come from?

TURNER: Well, so they are a very vocal minority. I think what we see happening in high school these days is really a bifurcation of students between those who choose or find themselves tracked into less rigorous coursework that just doesn't have a lot of homework and then those students who enroll in honors classes and not one, not two AP courses, but even more. In that NAEP survey I mentioned, 13 percent of 17 year olds reported doing two hours or more of homework a night. And I think it's safe to say that big chunk of that 13 percent - those are our honors and AP kids. And that tracks with the survey from 2007 put out by MetLife that asked parents what they think of their kids' homework. Now, we heard the parents in your intro. In this MetLife survey, just 15 percent of parents said too much homework. And I think the thing we have to keep in mind here is when we're talking about honors and AP - and this may be the most controversial thing I say to this morning, Scott - it's voluntary.

SIMON: Yeah, but not if you want your kids to get ahead.

TURNER: (Laughter) Not if you want your kids to go to Yale.

SIMON: Do educators have an opinion about how much homework might be too much?

TURNER: They do. The person I spoke with, who was most helpful on this count, his name is Harris Cooper. He's at Duke University. And he's done some of the best work on homework. He and his team reviewed dozens of studies looking for consensus on what works and what doesn't. And a common rule of thumb that he told me is what's called the 10-minute rule. You take the child's grade and you multiply it by 10 - so first graders should have 10 minutes of homework, 40 minutes for fourth graders on up to two hours for seniors in high school. Lots of schools use the 10-minute rule. It's even officially endorsed by the National PTA.

SIMON: But is there a correlation between homework and student performance?

TURNER: Looking over the research, there's very little, if any, evidence that homework improves student achievement in elementary school. Then again, the many people I spoke with all said the same thing, which is that the point of homework in those early grades isn't entirely academic. It's about building soft skills, like time management, consistency, self-discipline - that sort of thing. But by high school, the evidence shifts. I mentioned Harris Cooper and his massive review of those more than 60 studies. He found a positive correlation in middle and high school between homework and student achievement on unit tests, so it does seem to help some students, especially in some subject areas.

SIMON: What kinds of homework seem to be most effective in helping students learn something, not just get through the assignment and get graded?

TURNER: Sure. There are a few big ideas that education and researchers have really been rallying around. First, there's something called the spacing effect. You say a child has to do a worksheet on vocabulary words once a week, right? That's not the best way to learn. Research shows that the brain's better at remembering not when we study in big isolated chunks but when we repeat in little bits and pieces. You do a little vocabulary each night, every night. Make sure you repeat the same words. It's about long-term repetition. There's also one more thing I want to mention, Scott. It's something called interleaving. And this is really big in the debate over math homework because I don't know about you, but I remember when I was in high school doing my math homework, we learned - I was taught by focusing really on one concept at a time. So I get a worksheet with 30 problems on it, and they'd really be about using that one strategy I learned.

SIMON: Over and over again.

TURNER: Over and over and over again.

SIMON: That was supposed to help us learn the system.

TURNER: It was. Well, interleaving is this really interesting idea that says that's not really how kids learn. Kids learn - instead of 30 problems, make it 10. And instead of using just that one strategy that students learned in class that day, maybe some used what they learned the day before or the week before. And it's the process of having to decide what strategy to use that the really deep learning happens.

SIMON: I'm exhausted just listening to all this (laughter).

TURNER: That makes two of us.

SIMON: Cory Turner reports for the NPR Ed team. Thanks so much.

TURNER: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.