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Actionable Strategies for Equity and Impact
School, teaching, and homework—these are pillars of education that have long been accepted without question. But in an era where evidence-based practices are paramount, isn't it time we scrutinize the research on homework?
Before delving in, jot down your current beliefs about assigning homework and its value to your students, to learning, and to academic outcomes. Revisit them at the end.
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Traditional homework often falls short in catering to the diverse needs of students, thereby contributing to educational inequity. Here are some key concerns related to homework concerns:
High-achieving students often find homework to be mere busy work and boring.
Struggling students may find homework too challenging, especially without adequate support at home.
Homelife adversity can significantly hinder a student's ability to complete homework. When faced with challenges to physical or psychological safety, academic tasks like homework understandably become a lower priority.
If you are not interested in research, skip to the last section where I share lots of applicable ideas for making homework equitable, engaging, and worth while.
What the Research Says About Homework
The effectiveness of homework is a complex issue, influenced by various factors like quality of teaching, parental support, and student engagement. This complexity makes it difficult to pinpoint what most significantly determines its success. Given these variables, early research often used the amount of time spent on homework as a measure of its effectiveness. In this section, we'll delve into the research, spotlighting both the limitations and the proven elements of homework that impact student learning and academic achievement.
Unpacking Research Relating to Time
While a common assumption in education is that more time spent on homework should naturally lead to better academic performance, research doesn't necessarily support this view. In fact, there's a 'sweet spot' when it comes to homework duration. Below, we outline key research findings that highlight the limitations affecting the positive impact of homework.
Summary of Key Insights
Elementary: Researchers do not agree as to the value of homework in elementary school. In a 2006 meta analysis, Duke University researchers concluded, “That homework does have a positive effect on student achievement” (Cooper, 2006). They suggest following the 10 minute rule per grade level. While authors Alfie Kohn and Denise Pope each have written books regarding homework, and they conclude, “There is no evidence of any academic benefit from homework in elementary school.”
One Exception: Reading for pleasure has been shown to significantly impact children's cognitive development, particularly in vocabulary (Sullivan & Brown, 2013, p. 2).
The Middle and High School Divide: Cooper's 2006 meta-analysis suggests that middle school students benefit from up to an hour of homework, while for high school students, the benefits extend up to two hours.
Diminishing Returns: Cooper’s 2006 meta-analysis indicates that the benefits of homework diminish after one hour for middle schoolers and two hours for high schoolers.
Therefore, coordinating large assignments and assessments among teachers could benefit students (Challenge Success, 2020).
Stress: In a survey involving 50,000 students, 80% of high schoolers reported elevated stress levels when homework exceeded three hours (Challenge Success, 2020, p. 5).
Lastly, although not related to time directly, Ronning (2008) found that homework tends to widen existing achievement gaps, disproportionately benefiting higher-income students due to greater parental support and resource availability.
The Effective Elements of Homework
Not all homework is created equal. Research suggests that the characteristics of the homework assignments can be a decisive factor in both student engagement and learning outcomes. Here are some key elements that contribute to making homework more effective.
Perception: When homework assignments were thoughtfully selected and interesting to students, they were more engaged and spent more time it (Xu, 2022; Bempechat et al.,2011; Dettmers et al., 2010).
The type of homework matters more than the amount, emphasizing the need for quality assignments (Challenge Success, p. 4).
Relevance: Dettmers et al. (2010) discovered when homework was made relevant students were more engaged, resulting in better academic performance.
Student relevance: A survey of 50,000 high school students - Only 33% rated homework as relevant and valuable to their learning (Challenge Success, 2020).
Transfer Learning: Homework should encourage real life application to reinforce the purpose for learning.
Reading for pleasure: This has been shown to correlate with higher standardized test scores for students of all ages (Jerrim & Moss, 2018; Sullivan & Brown, 2015)
Flipped Learning: This learning approach combines video-based instruction outside the classroom with interactive, group-based activities inside the classroom. This model shifts direct instruction to an individual setting, thereby increasing opportunities for active, collaborative learning during class time.
Difficulty: When students find homework too easy or too difficult they are more likely to disengage. Strive for the “just-right” challenge to ensure that homework can be done without help - not all students have equal access to help. (Success Challenge, 2020).
Autonomy and Responsibility: A less controlling approach from teachers fosters greater student engagement and autonomy in completing tasks (Trautwein et al., 2009; Bempechat et al., 2011).
Choice: Increase engagement by clarifying the purpose of the homework and allowing students choice — problems to complete, topics, or type of project.Additionally, providing choice caters to different learning styles, making homework more inclusive.
How Teachers Can Design Effective Homework
This section outlines key questions and strategies for teachers to enhance the effectiveness and equity of homework.
How To Improve Homework Practices
Educators may consider the following ideas and strategies for improving the effectiveness of homework:
Independence: Can all students complete the task on their own? If not, consider one, or a combination, of the below accommodations to prevent certain failure:
Create a short, informal instructional video that guides students through the problem-solving process or shows them how to find the answer. This approach allows students to work at their own pace and increases their likelihood of success.
Allow students to choose a subset of problems to complete.
Allocate time for peer collaboration the next day.
Offer optional sessions for extra help during non-class hours.
Class vs Home: Should this be done at home or in class?
Evaluate if the assignment is better suited for in-class completion, where immediate feedback and correction are possible.
If in-class is preferable, consider frontloading the content through a short instructional video.
Enable students to pause the video to take notes or attempt problem-solving.
This approach benefits all students by:
Allowing self-paced learning.
Creating class time for active, collaborative learning experiences.
Time Management: How long should the assignment take?
Consider the difficulty of the assignment and the diverse skill levels of your students.
Instead of assigning a specific amount of work, place a time limit on the assignment.
Explain all students are to work up to (number) minutes. Once they have done that they may consider the assignment complete.
Consider starting it in class, providing insights into how much time each student realistically needs.
Forewarn students - if they take advantage of this opportunity it will not be extended to them in the future.
Purpose and Value: Do students understand the assignments importance and relevance?
Clearly outline the assignment's learning goals.
Connect the assignment to real-world scenarios.
Involve students in assignment creation.
The effectiveness of homework is complex and varies among schools, classrooms, and students. This article offers educators practical strategies to make homework more equitable and impactful. As well, many of the above strategies will also benefit students who have missed class.
As we move forward, it's essential to critically analyze the homework policies for your classroom to ensure they are beneficial to all students. Maybe consider creating an anonymous survey for students to learn:
How much time students are spending on homework altogether?
How much time are they spending on your homework specifically?
Do they have an adult in the home who can help them complete the homework correctly?
Do they have a quiet place and materials to do homework?
Do they feel their homework is engaging and relevant?
Do they believe their homework helps improve their learning of the subject matter?
Adopting a reflective and evidence-based approach will improve both the quality and fairness of your homework assignments.
Does Homework Improve Academic Achievement? - Cooper et al., 2006
The Homework Myth - Alfie Kohn
Students’ Achievement and Homework Assignment Strategies - Fernández-Alonso et al., 2017
Quality Over Quantity: Elements of Effective Homework - Challenge Success, 2020
Does Homework Improve Learning - Alfie Kohn, Chapter 2, 2006
Overloaded and Underprepared - Denise Pope, 2020
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