Ask an eleven-year-old whether homework is a bad thing, and you'll likely be greeted with vigorous nodding and not a hint of ambiguity. But do grown-up experts agree?
As with so many things, the answer is mixed.
"Very simply, too much of anything can be harmful," says Gerald LeTendre, head of Penn State's Education Policy Studies department. "What Harris Cooper has advised—and he's one of the leading researchers who has some very good, accessible books on the subject—is it's best to have no homework for kindergarten through second grade, and then maybe 10 minutes per day, increasing by 10 minutes as you go up each grade, so that you're up to an hour or hour and a half of homework by middle school."
More than that and there can be negative effects, studies suggest. Overburdened by homework, children may become disillusioned with school and lose motivation. And excessive homework can interfere with time otherwise spent connecting as a family by playing games, taking walks, or just talking about the day. This was a complaint LeTendre heard frequently as he conducted studies of homework amount and frequency.
Among other things, these studies found that the popular opinion that America does less homework than other nations is simply not true. "There are myths about the "lazy Americans," LeTendre notes, "but our findings about amount of homework were that the U.S. tends to be in the middle, not too far to one end or the other."
"Lyn Corno at Columbia University had an article that said 'homework is a complicated thing,' says LeTendre. "We think of homework as something very simple, almost like an afterthought. It's not. It can be a very effective tool, but it is complicated."
One of the complicating factors is age. "Most small children and early adolescents have not yet developed the kind of self-reflective or self-monitoring skills to get the benefit out of either homework or self study," Le Tendre explains. "But as you move into high school, individuals are increasingly self-aware and can better self-monitor."
But age alone will not predict the usefulness of homework. "If the homework isn't addressing the child's actual academic problem, the child is going to continue to fall further behind and get hopelessly lost," LeTendre cautions.
The problem, he adds, is that most teachers use "the shotgun approach," photocopying worksheets and giving each student the same assignment. And many neglect to go over the homework after it's completed, opting instead to merely check off whether or not it was done at all.
"That's not very effective," says LeTendre. "Let's say you assigned a worksheet on addition of two-digit numbers. If that's what the child's been having difficulty with, then maybe the child, by doing it over and over, can figure it out and make some improvements. But maybe not. Maybe the child still doesn't get it and you need to talk about carrying the one. Or maybe the child knows how to do it and is bored to tears. If there's no feedback and no monitoring, the homework is probably not effective."
What is effective, believes LeTendre, is identifying the specific area where the child needs skill-building work, assigning that homework at an individual level, and then going over it with the child at regular periods to be certain that they're making progress.
"That kind of homework is exemplary," notes LeTendre, "and you don't see it very much."
The more teachers individualize homework, in terms of its focus and monitoring, the better, LeTendre says, and the same goes for parental monitoring. There is no one-size-fits-all approach, and the level of parental involvement that suits your ten year-old may not suit your teenager. Recent studies have found that parental involvement may be positive for elementary and high school students, but negative for middle school kids. "In other words," laughs LeTendre, "don't nag your pubescent children about homework. Kind of common sense."
What's important at all ages is communication. Figuring out what the best homework is takes some time and a little bit of research on the part of both parents and of teachers. According to LeTendre, it is crucial for parents and teachers to be on the same page.
"Read Harris Cooper's books, such as The Battle Over Homework. That would be my first recommendation for parents," he says. "The other would be to go talk to the teacher. Ask the teacher to clarify the goals for this homework. Ask what the expectations are for the parents, and then be up-front with the teacher about what effect this has on the family. Try to negotiate something that works for everyone."
Unfortunately—at least from the perspective of your eleven-year-old—there will still likely be some amount of homework involved.
Gerald LeTendre, Ph.D., is a professor of Education and International Affairs, and Chair of the Education Policy Studies department at Penn State's College of Education. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Piling on the homework doesn't help kids do better in school. In fact, it can lower their test scores.
That's the conclusion of a group of Australian researchers, who have taken the aggregate results of several recent studies investigating the relationship between time spent on homework and students' academic performance.
According to Richard Walker, an educational psychologist at Sydney University, data shows that in countries where more time is spent on homework, students score lower on a standardized test called the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA. The same correlation is also seen when comparing homework time and test performance at schools within countries. Past studies have also demonstrated this basic trend.
Inundating children with hours of homework each night is detrimental, the research suggests, while an hour or two per week usually doesn't impact test scores one way or the other. However, homework only bolsters students' academic performance during their last three years of grade school. "There is little benefit for most students until senior high school (grades 10-12)," Walker told Life's Little Mysteries.
The research is detailed in his new book, "Reforming Homework: Practices, Learning and Policies" (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).
The same basic finding holds true across the globe, including in the U.S., according to Gerald LeTendre of Pennsylvania State University. He and his colleagues have found that teachers typically give take-home assignments that are unhelpful busy work. Assigning homework "appeared to be a remedial strategy (a consequence of not covering topics in class, exercises for students struggling, a way to supplement poor quality educational settings), and not an advancement strategy (work designed to accelerate, improve or get students to excel)," LeTendre wrote in an email. [Kids Believe Literally Everything They Read Online, Even Tree Octopuses]
This type of remedial homework tends to produce marginally lower test scores compared with children who are not given the work. Even the helpful, advancing kind of assignments ought to be limited; Harris Cooper, a professor of education at Duke University, has recommended that students be given no more than 10 to 15 minutes of homework per night in second grade, with an increase of no more than 10 to 15 minutes in each successive year.
Most homework's neutral or negative impact on students' academic performance implies there are better ways for them to spend their after school hours than completing worksheets. So, what should they be doing? According to LeTendre, learning to play a musical instrument orparticipating in clubs and sports all seem beneficial, but there's no one answer that applies to everyone.
"These after-school activities have much more diffuse goals than single subject test scores," he wrote. "When I talk to parents … they want their kids to be well-rounded, creative, happy individuals — not just kids who ace the tests."
Follow Natalie Wolchover on Twitter @nattyover. Follow Life's Little Mysteries on Twitter @llmysteries, then join us on Facebook.