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Does Homework Improve Academic Achievement? If So, How Much is Best?

By Harris Cooper

A recent poll conducted for the Associated Press found that about 57% of parents felt their child was assigned about the right amount of homework. Another 23% thought it was too little, and 19% thought it was too much.

Educators should be thrilled with these numbers. Pleasing a majority of parents regarding homework and having equal numbers of dissenters shouting “Too much!” and “Too little!” is about as good as they can hope for.

What the Research Says
But opinions cannot tell us whether homework works; only research can. My colleagues and I have conducted a combined analysis of dozens of homework studies to examine whether homework is beneficial and what amount of homework is appropriate for our children.

The homework question is best answered by comparing students assigned homework with students assigned no homework but who are similar in other ways. The results of such studies suggest that homework can improve students’ scores on the class tests that come at the end of a topic. Students assigned homework in second grade did better on math; third and fourth graders did better on English skills and vocabulary; fifth graders on social studies; ninth through 12th graders on American history; and 12th graders on Shakespeare.

However, 35 less-rigorous studies suggest little or no relationship between homework and achievement for elementary school students.

Why might that be? Younger children have less developed study habits and are less able to tune out distractions at home. Studies also suggest that young students who are struggling in school take more time to complete homework assignments simply because these assignments are more difficult for them.

How Much Homework?
So, how much homework should students do? The National Parent Teacher Association and the National Education Association have a parents’ guide called Helping Your Child Get the Most Out of Homework. It states, “Most educators agree that for children in grades K–2, homework is more effective when it does not exceed 10–20 minutes each day; older children, in grades 3–6, can handle 30–60 minutes a day; in junior and senior high, the amount of homework will vary by subject.” Many school district policies state that high school students should expect about 30 minutes of homework for each academic course they take (a bit more for honors or advanced placement courses).
These recommendations are consistent with the conclusions reached by our analysis. Practice assignments do improve scores on class tests at all grade levels. A little amount of homework may help elementary school students build study habits. Homework for junior high students appears to reach the point of diminishing returns after about 90 minutes a night. For high school students, the positive line continues to climb until between 90 minutes and 2.5 hours of homework a night, after which returns diminish.

Keeping It Balanced
Beyond achievement, proponents of homework argue that it can have many other beneficial effects. They claim it can help students develop good study habits so they are ready to grow as their cognitive capacities mature. It can help students recognize that learning can occur at home as well as at school. Homework can foster independent learning and responsible character traits. And it can give parents an opportunity to see what’s going on at school and let them express positive attitudes toward achievement.

Opponents of homework counter that it can also have negative effects. They argue it can lead to boredom with schoolwork because all activities remain interesting only for so long. Homework can deny students access to leisure activities that also teach important life skills. Parents can get too involved in homework—pressuring their child and confusing him or her by using different instructional techniques than the teacher.

My feeling is that homework policies should prescribe amounts of homework consistent with the research evidence, but they should also give individual schools and teachers some flexibility to take into account the unique needs and circumstances of their students and families. In general, teachers should avoid either extreme.

Harris Cooper is a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, where he also directs the Program in Education, and author of The Battle over Homework: Common Ground for Administrators, Teachers, and Parents (Corwin Press). He is also a member of the National Partnership for Quality Afterschool Learning’s steering committee.

Read this story in the January 2008 issue of Afterwords.

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