Getting the Most Out of Homework
Much of what has been said about making in-class work more engaging can also be said of homework: out-of-class assignments should have a clear purpose, should be relevant to students’ lives, and should be at the same time challenging and manageable (Black, 1996). Homework carries with it some added complications, though. Not only does successfully engaging in homework depend a great deal on students’ home environment, but homework experiences may also have a significant impact on students’ long-term attitudes toward school (Corno, 1996; Paulu, 1998).
In recent years there has been much debate about the value of homework. While some parents and educators firmly believe that assigning homework is an important part of school, others call the practice into question. Some critics of homework observe that not all students go home to a quiet and supportive study environment, and thus have little chance of being successful with out-of-school assignments (Lenard, 1997). Still others point out that homework may contribute significantly to students’ negative attitudes toward school, particularly if it is a source of conflict between students and parents, or is linked to punishment and other consequences at school (Black, 1996; Corno, 1996).
Proponents of homework, on the other hand, argue that homework serves a number of purposes and can benefit students when used appropriately. The main purposes generally associated with homework are as follows:
To give students a chance to “review and practice what they have learned” (Paulu, 1998)
To prepare students for the next day’s lesson (Paulu, 1998)
To provide opportunities to identify and learn to use resources, such as the library, the Internet, reference books, and other community resources (Paulu, 1998)
To allow for more in-depth exploration of topics than is possible during class time (Paulu, 1998)
To help students develop time management, study, and organizational skills (Black, 1996; Paulu, 1998)
As might be expected, the effectiveness of different types of homework varies according to students’ age and ability level. Cooper’s study (as cited in Black, 1996) found that homework raises achievement “substantially” for high school students, but only about half that for students in the middle grades. Cooper found no effect on academic achievement for students in grades 1-6 (Black, 1996). This is not to say that homework doesn’t benefit younger students in different ways. Other studies have found that homework is most useful for elementary school students when it focuses on developing study habits and organizational skills (Butler, 1987; Paulu, 1998).
How much is enough?
The first step in maximizing the effectiveness of homework is determining the appropriate amount of work to assign. More time, the research tells us, doesn’t necessarily lead to higher achievement (Black, 1996; Corno, 1996; Paulu, 1998). In Helping Your Students with Homework, a guide for teachers sponsored by the Office of Educational Research and Improvement in the U.S. Department of Education, Paulu (1998) establishes the following guidelines for how long students should spend on homework each night:
Grades 1-3: no more than 20 minutes per night
Grades 4-6: 20 to 40 minutes per night
Grades 7-9: no more than 2 hours per night
Grades 10-12: 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 hours per night
Tips for success
Once you have established a reasonable length of time for students to spend on homework, consider the following list of “best practices” for making homework a more engaging and ultimately more positive learning experience for students.
Expectations. At the beginning of the school year, communicate your expectations for homework to both students and parents (Patton, 1994; Paulu, 1998). Which days do you collect homework? What are the penalties for late or incomplete homework? How can parents and students reach you if there is a problem?
Consistency. Be as consistent as possible throughout the school year (Paulu, 1998). Getting students accustomed to a regular homework pattern early in the year is helpful to all students, but may be especially important for students with learning disabilities (Patton, 1994).
Purpose. Make sure the purpose of homework assignments is clear to students (Paulu, 1998). Students and parents alike are less likely to become frustrated when they understand the value and the objectives of an assignment (Black, 1996).
Time. Don’t underestimate the length of time it will take for students to complete assignments (Black, 1996). Include time for gathering supplies and organizing materials in your calculation of how long your students will take to complete an assignment.
Explain. Take time to explain instructions to students, and give them an opportunity to ask questions before the end of class (Black, 1996). When possible, give students time to get started on homework assignments in class, so you can be sure they understand what they are being asked to do (Patton, 1994).
Variety. Provide a variety of homework assignments throughout the school year to prevent homework from becoming boring or monotonous (Patton, 1994; Paulu, 1998).
Coordinate. Make an effort to coordinate with other teachers, so students aren’t overwhelmed with long assignments for several classes all on one night (Patton, 1994; Paulu, 1998).
Evaluate. Finally, evaluate homework assignments and give students feedback on their work. When assignments are just checked off as completed, students perceive them as meaningless, which leads to frustration and low-quality work (Butler, 1987; Lenard, 1997; Patton, 1994).
Getting Parents Involved in Homework
Active parent involvement has been associated with numerous benefits for students, including increasing student motivation and engagement in school. When it comes to homework, though, parent involvement can take many different shapes, not all of which have a positive impact on learning. When working to increase student engagement and motivation, it is important to include parents and discuss ways they can support their children’s learning both at school and at home (Patton, 1994; Paulu, 1998).
First, it is important that parents understand what role teachers expect them to play, especially in terms of homework (Gaillard, 1994; Paulu, 1998). What one parent views as helping out, a teacher might perceive as interference or cheating. And what a teacher might take for granted that parents can do-such as signing off on homework or checking spelling words-a parent may not have the skills or the time to follow through on. Clearly, it is important to communicate with parents about how to best help children learn. It is also necessary for educators to be sure their expectations are realistic, given parents’ skills and schedules (Paulu, 1998).
It is equally important to be clear with parents about what kinds of involvement are actually beneficial to students. Studies have shown that parents who offer rewards for grades, or who punish students for poor performance, may actually decrease students’ motivation to do well (Dev, 1997; Patton, 1994). Fear of punishment, anxiety about meeting parents’ expectations, and worrying about being compared to siblings not only cause stress for students, but can also detract from their intrinsic motivation and interest in learning (Dev, 1997). This is not to say that parents shouldn’t be invested in how their children are doing in school. Rather, it suggests that there are more productive ways for them to be involved and show their interest in students’ progress.
To help children be successful with work at home and at school, parents can:
Create a place at home that is conducive to studying (Patton, 1994; Paulu, 1998). Good study environments are well-lit and quiet. Although every child’s learning style is different, most educators agree that students do best when the television is off and the student is free from distractions (Gaillard, 1994; Paulu, 1998).
Set aside a specific time for homework each day (Paulu, 1998). This might involve limiting television-watching or phone calls until homework is finished (Gaillard, 1994). Parents should be careful, though, not to pit homework against activities students enjoy, or to create situations in which students rush through their work in order to get back to other activities (Black, 1996). Paulu (1998) notes that family routines — which include set homework times — have been linked to higher student achievement.
Make sure students have all the supplies they need (Paulu, 1998). Parents should check in with students ahead of time about the kinds of projects they will be doing: It might be tough to find a calculator or a report cover at 9:00 the night before an assignment is due.
Be available if students have questions. Parents can support their children by looking over homework and giving suggestions, but should not do the homework for them (Paulu, 1998).
Make an effort to communicate regularly with teachers (Corno, 1996). If necessary, parents should ask teachers to clarify their expectations. It is also a good idea to find out ahead of time what kinds of resources — such as tutors or services for second language students — are available to students if they need help.
Avoid linking rewards or punishment to school performance (Dev, 1997). While it is important for parents to recognize students’ achievements, they should avoid external motivators for performance. Instead, parents should emphasize the value of learning and show they appreciate their child’s hard work (Patton, 1994).