There aren’t many areas as heavily scrutinised as education. The job of shaping the minds of the next generation means that teaching has huge implications. For this reason, it is frequently drawn into heated political and cultural debates.
One of the largest areas of contention in this climate is the issue of homework. Go on Google and you can find strong arguments for and against—some believe that it should be mandatory, while others say it should be abolished altogether.
There are many factors to consider, but in a general sense, we can look to John Hattie’s meta-analysis of academic studies around setting homework. The conclusion is that there can be a positive effect for students—especially older ones—when it serves a defined purpose and considers the needs and capabilities of the specific class.
Benefits of homework
As mentioned above, there are many arguments for giving students take-home tasks. Here are some of the most prominent.
Helps cement knowledge learnt in class
While teachers often set unfinished tasks from class for students to do at home, this is regarded by the experts as sub-standard practice. Rather, work should be given that reinforces what was learnt in class, not necessarily covering new ground. This repetition means that more of the information and skills covered in the lesson will be retained.
Teaches students self-directed study habits
Being directed to do a task and then monitored is very different to undertaking that task in your own time, where you may not have any supervision. Homework is one way for students to develop the ability to create their own work environment and stay on task.
Part of the reason why the benefits are greater for high school students is that younger learners have not yet learnt how to effectively study on their own. This is why it is not enough for teachers to give homework, but also model good study habits.
Gives students more ownership over their studies
According to a 2013 study on the non-academic benefits of homework in high socio-economic schools, doing a significant amount each day resulted in greater behavioural engagement in class. One theory explaining this phenomenon relates to educational psychology. Homework gives students the feeling of agency and a chance to take ownership of their work, leading to greater focus and quality.
Allows learners to receive targeted attention
Especially in public schools, overcrowded classes of 30-35 students don’t give educators the chance to give individuals much attention. A recent article in Child magazine interviewing experts and practising teachers talks of the fact that homework can be a chance for younger learners to get one-on-one attention from a parent, tutor, or peer.
Of course, the article rightly goes on to point out that homework may also place pressure on already overworked parents, that is if they are able to help at all. This benefit is highly dependent on the makeup of the class.
Negatives of homework
Despite the benefits, the idea of setting homework is more contested than ever before. It is no longer a given that teachers will provide students with home tasks as some of the negative aspects are given more prominence.
Increase in stress
This is one of the most common points advanced when arguing against homework, as students reportedly struggle with greater anxiety. It could be said that learners may simply be better at recognising and articulating their feelings than in the past, but it is undeniable that academic results-based competition within most schools is high, with after-school study adding to this pressure.
Less time for other activities
Child magazine quotes developmental psychologist Dr. Peter Gray in saying, “Play is how children learn to take control of their lives…promoting independence and self-development.” Homework can take away the time to explore and play or attend extra-curricular activities such as music lessons or interest-based groups.
Lack of resources/assistance
Homework can exacerbate inequity in the classroom. As reported by the Pew Research Center in 2018, 17% of students didn’t have the high-speed internet connection needed to consistently complete their work. This digital divide was again highlighted during the pandemic. We can also consider the fact that some students may have to look after siblings or sick parents, impacting their ability to work after school.
How much homework should students have?
If you’re an educator, you probably have a good idea of how to structure homework tasks to offer the best chance of success while minimising any downsides; however, one question remains: how much homework should students actually be assigned?
Of course, what constitutes the perfect amount is subjective. While some teachers and parents may think a couple of hours is adequate, others may say this is too much. So, how can we get rid of this subjectivity? What are the experts saying?
According to the American National Education Association, which is backed up by other authoritative sources in the education space, a good rule of thumb is to start with no more than 30 minutes a day in Year 3, increasing by 10 minutes each year.
By the final years of high school, students are recommended to do up to two hours a day, but with a focus on quality, rather than quantity.
On the other side, education experts John Hattie and Dr Misty Adoniou both say that the benefits of homework in primary school are negligible. If assigned for the purposes of setting up habits and expectations for later life, there is some value; but, depending on your preferences, setting work every day may seem excessive.
Should we get rid of homework?
We’ve established that homework has benefits, nothing that this is only when the right type of task is assigned and children have the resources and know-how to successfully complete it.
This leads us to the question, are the modest gains found from after-school study worth it? After all, as some critics note, Finland, the beacon of progressive high-quality education, has largely done away with it. Digging a little deeper, however, Finland’s success is not necessarily correlated with a reduction in homework, as the country is operating in a completely different landscape to that of Australia, the US, and the UK. Class sizes are smaller, teachers are treated as respected professionals, the private education sector is miniscule, and standardised testing is kept to a minimum.
What this tells us is that context is important. Does the practice fit in with the overall direction of the education system you’re a part of, and is it more worthwhile than activities students typically undertake outside of school in your community? There is no straightforward answer, which leads us to our last point.
Flexibility is key
In the end, it’s up to the individual teacher to decide whether to set homework at all, and if they do, how much. These decisions should be made not from gut feelings or biases, but by following expert advice and consulting widely.
Each class has its own dynamics, so it’s the job of the educator to find out what works best for students, offer guidance, show why the work is relevant and necessary, and get feedback in order to make improvements. Above all, flexibility should be valued, allowing students to work around any extra-curricular activities or out-of-school commitments.