Does Homework Really Enhance Learning?

While it may be a bugbear for children and parents alike, there are several benefits of doing homework.

By Aruna Raghuram

Does Homework Really Enhance Learning?

I’d rather take baths with a man-eating shark
or wrestle a lion alone in the dark
Eat spinach and liver, pet ten porcupines
than tackle the homework my teacher assigns
From a poem by Jack Prelutsky, American writer of children’s poetry

It was closing in on 8 pm. Deepa, 9, had been looking fitfully at the clock for the past half-an-hour. Her mother Radha had also been looking at the clock for the same reason. They were both asking the same question – when would homework get done? While Deepa just wanted to get done with her work and watch her favourite television show, Radha was worried about preparing dinner and winding up for the day. Why was the school giving homework that took three hours to complete each evening? It left her daughter no time for any physical activity or to play with friends.

Are you one of the parents who are in this predicament? ‘Homework’ is a dreaded word in many households. And homework time is feared by some parents as much as a toddler’s bedtime tantrum is! Then, there is the ongoing debate about whether homework has value or not. Does homework really aid the learning process? Does it make a child develop good study habits and teach him responsibility?
American psychologist Dr Ross W. Greene has spoken out emphatically against a heavy load of homework: “No kid should be getting three or four hours of homework a night. There’s no breathing time, there’s no family time, there are just extracurriculars and homework and then go to bed.”

BENEFITS OF HOMEWORK
Dr Harris Cooper, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University in the US, believes that homework does increase understanding and retention. He conducted an extensive review of homework studies in 2006 to find out whether homework is beneficial, and how much homework children should be given.
The studies were conducted in the US. A majority of the research found that homework was linked to higher academic achievement. A stronger correlation was found in grades 7-12 than in grades K-6. The probable explanation could be that younger children have less developed study habits and are more prone to get distracted at home.

The positives

  • Dr Janine Bempechat, clinical professor of human development in the US, writes that developmentally appropriate homework plays a critical role in the formation of “positive learning beliefs and behaviours”. Homework enables a child to believe in her academic ability, confront complex tasks, motivates her to work towards mastery, and have higher aspirations for her future. In short, homework is a key vehicle through which we can help shape children into mature learners, she observes
  • Among the learning strategies, one that applies to homework is ‘retrieval practice’ – trying to recall information and concepts you have learnt. Ideally, this should be done not immediately after learning, but after a time gap. This is where homework proves useful
  • Students who do homework are reportedly more attentive in class and work harder
  • They get an opportunity to review what they have learnt and practice skills they have acquired in class
  • Homework helps students develop good study habits. It fosters independent learning and teaches children responsibility. Homework also builds time management skills
  • It gives parents an opportunity to get involved in school life
  • Homework gives teachers feedback on areas where students may require more support

COUNTERVIEW
Whether homework is really beneficial is a hotly debated topic. American author and lecturer in the areas of education, parenting, and human behaviour, Alfie Kohn is of the view that research does not support major benefits. In his book The Homework Myth, he observes: “Overall, the available homework research defines “beneficial” in terms of achievement, and it defines achievement as better grades or standardised test scores. It allows us to conclude nothing about whether children’s learning improves.”

Kohn cites the following reasons why research studies that are pro-homework may have their weaknesses:

  • At best, most homework studies show only an association, not a causal relationship
  • Homework studies confuse grades and test scores with learning
  • Even where they do exist, positive effects are often quite small.
  • There is no evidence of any academic benefit from homework in elementary school
  • Homework seems to be more beneficial when it involves rote learning and repetition rather than real thinking
  • Studies have not tried to address the question of whether homework enhances the depth of a student’s understanding of concepts or their passion for learning

The negatives

  • Children spend long hours in school and commuting. In addition, there is homework. This leaves children with hardly any leisure time. Important life skills are picked up during the course of leisure time activities
  • Homework can lead to boredom with schoolwork and learning
  • If homework is given without concepts being explained properly in class, it could lead to students feeling helpless and losing interest in studies
  • Parents can get too involved in homework – pressuring their child and confusing him by using different instructional techniques from the teacher
  • Too much homework could cause physical health problems like headache, stomach troubles, and sleep deprivation in students
  • Can result in anxiety and stress for children
  • Homework puts children from less educated and less affluent families at a disadvantage as their parents may not be able to help them academically or with access to technology

Perceptions of Homework
An interesting project ‘Perceptions of Students and Teachers with respect to Homework Assignments – A Comparative Study’ was undertaken by Ammu Santosh and Ritu Parmar, teachers of Vidyashilp Academy, Bengaluru, in 2018, when they were doing a course at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. The study found a positive correlation between the submission of homework assignments and average class marks. For instance, for Grade 11 students when homework submissions fell from 76% to 41%, the class average in economics fell from 83% to 67%.
Teachers felt the objective of giving homework was to reinforce concepts taught in class. While students agreed with this, they also strongly believed that doing homework was to get internal assessment marks.
Ten out of 21 students surveyed preferred having no homework because:

  1. Homework reduces time for self-study and recreation
  2. Homework is repetitive and unproductive. It is unnecessary as concepts are already understood in class
  3. It adds pressure
  4. Class tests are more useful than homework

The remaining students who supported homework had this to say:

  1. Homework helps keep concepts fresh in mind and reinforces learning
  2. It improves understanding and helps in learning a topic well. It helps in revision
  3. Homework that does not burden students is good for learning

Suggestions that came up from the study were:

  • Homework assignments should be matched to the skills, interests, and needs of the students. Varied assignments should be given
  • Students preferred short assignments, and textual questions and research work
  • They said they preferred one homework assignment per subject per week
  • The assignments should be focussed and well-structured
Does Homework Really Enhance Learning?

How much homework is too much?
Irrespective of the ongoing debate on the merits of homework, looks like homework is here to stay, at least in mainstream schools. In fact, if such a school does not give sufficient homework, some parents may feel it is not doing a good job.
But what is an appropriate amount of homework? Dr Cooper and colleagues recommend the ‘10-minute rule’ – a maximum of 10 minutes of homework daily per grade level. For instance, children in grade 1 would do 10 minutes of homework while those in high school would do around two hours. It has been found that too much homework can stop bringing in academic benefits.

Quality is the key
Apart from the ideal quantum, homework quality is of great importance. If homework assignments are interesting and fun a child is likely to enjoy them. If it is just repetition and memorising a child will get bored and feel it is a burden. It is important to make homework about understanding and applying concepts and learning in a creative way.
A 2013 study by Pope and Galloway, covered over 4300 students from 10 high-performing high schools in the US. The students did on an average more than three hours of homework each night. It found that only 20-30% of students felt their homework was useful and meaningful.

Good quality and effective homework is interesting and relevant. It should make a child think and solve problems in the real world. Children could be given a choice and a degree of autonomy to motivate them to do homework.

Homework assignments could be various kinds – fill in the blank worksheets or answering multiple choice questions to projects and quizzes students have to take without consulting their textbook or notes. Shorter assignments are more effective if they are designed well as they hold the interest of students.

MAKING HOMEWORK FUN
Teachers need to give students interesting home assignments that get them thinking. And, parents, on your part, you can enliven the homework hour so that both you and your child start looking forward to it!

Before we describe how homework can be made less of a chore, let’s examine how the parental role and attitude to homework impacts a child. According to Dr Bempechat, the type of parental help in homework matters. She says that ‘supportive’ help predicts higher achievement, while ‘intrusive help’ is linked to lower achievement. Also, how parents view homework also makes a difference. Children do better in school when their parents are focussed on ‘mastery’. If parents focus on their child’s performance relative to his peers, he is likely to avoid challenges.

Here are some tips for parents to make homework a more enjoyable and relaxed activity for both you and your child:
Connect with the teachers: It is important for parent and teacher to collaborate for optimal learning outcomes of children. Talk to the teachers if you feel the homework given is excessive. Or, if it is uninteresting and repetitive. Also, ask the teachers how you can help with homework – how best you can reinforce the skills taught in school.

Turn homework into a game: If your child finds homework boring, try to make it lively by making it a fun game. Experienced teacher Marty Newport’s book Homework Games gives parents tips and suggests games on making learning fun. Her aim: to make children stop complaining about homework and get them excited about doing it.

Provide structure: Fix timings for homework in consultation with your child. Some children may want to dive into homework in the afternoon so that they can go out to play in the evening. Others may want rest in the afternoon, finish play and do their homework in the late evening.

Find the right place: Assign a quiet, well-lit spot for homework with minimum distractions. Ensure your child has all the books and stationery handy.

Follow homework with a preferred activity: According to the Premack Principle, highly preferred activities are effective as reinforcers for less preferred ones. So if homework is followed by an activity your child likes, such as a trip to the nearby park, half an hour of watching television, or playing with you, it could motivate him to complete his homework.

Invite his friends over: The tedium of homework can be vastly reduced for your child if she has a friend doing it with her. Of course, you will have to set a few rules so that too much time is not wasted in getting distracted.

Guide him to think for himself: Be available to provide help when your child gets stuck or asks a question. Guide him in the right direction if he seems lost, but do not assist too much and make it too easy for them. That will rob them of a sense of achievement of figuring out a problem on their own.
You could also get learning Apps that could help your child understand concepts he may be struggling with and make homework less intimidating.

Break up the tasks: Divide the homework into pieces that they can do with 20-minute breaks in-between to prevent fatigue and tedium. Get them to start on the difficult assignments first when they are more mentally alert. Give them healthy snacks they like. This will not only serve as a break but will give them energy to work attentively.

Sit with them and do your own work: You can bring your own pending tasks and complete them while supervising your child’s homework. This way they know they are not the only ones working.

Maintain a positive attitude: If you tell your child that doing homework will help him learn better, he is also likely to feel positively about it. However, if you criticise his teachers for giving homework or make it sound like a burden your child is bound to dislike homework. At the same time, keep it light. Do not make too much of an issue of homework and marks. Your child’s overall development and well-being is what is important.

Finally, doing away with homework completely may not be the right solution. Instead, homework should be structured to be short and interesting so that it doesn’t become a burden for a child.

In a nutshell

  • Whether homework is really beneficial is a hotly debated topic
  • But there is agreement that too much homework can have a negative impact
  • Also, the quality of homework is of utmost importance when it comes to holding the interest of a child and promoting learning

What you could do right away

  • Work with the teachers to ensure homework is of an appropriate quantity
  • Ensure your child gets sufficient time to unwind and have fun
  • See that your child does not develop anxiety issues or stress about homework

About the author:
Written by Aruna Raghuram on 4 December 2019.
Raghuram is a journalist and has worked with various newspapers, writing and editing, for two decades. She has also worked for six years with a consumer rights NGO. At the time of writing this article, she was a freelancer with ParentCircle.

About the expert:
Reviewed by Meghna Singhal, PhD on 4 December 2019.
Dr. Singhal is a clinical psychologist and currently heads the Content Solutions Zone at ParentCircle. She has a doctorate degree from NIMHANS (Bangalore) and holds a post-doctorate in parenting from the University of Queensland (Australia).

Join our Circles to share, discuss, and learn from fellow parents and experts!

Looking for expert tips and interesting articles on parenting? Subscribe now to our magazine. Connect with us on Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | YouTube