Homework is, once again, in the hot seat. A recent Education Week blog post described a new homework policy in an elementary school in Quebec that is giving its students a year off from homework. Just last year, NJ.com reported that French President Francois Hollande proposed eliminating homework in all French elementary and junior high schools. And, according to the NY Daily News, Townsend Harris High School, a high performing school in Queens, has mandated no homework nights. What does the research tell us about homework and what are the implications for schools?
In Chapter 7 of A Handbook for Classroom Instruction That Works (2nd ed.), Bj Stone and I outline four essential homework strategies that are informed by research. First, in general, homework is more effective for older students than for younger students. Second, when learning a skill or process, students need a great deal of practice to achieve mastery, but much of that should be guided practice. Third, teachers should communicate the purpose of homework to students and parents; students should know exactly how the homework they have been assigned is directly connected to the learning objectives in the class. Finally, teachers should provide feedback and comments on homework. Students should know what they have done right, what was wrong, and what they should do next.
On the flip side, Pamela Coutts’ research, published in Theory Into Practice, highlights negative aspects of homework, including disruption of family time, stress, conflicts between student and parent, and restricted access to community and leisure time.
Still, some parents often put pressure on schools to provide an hour or more of homework every night, viewing homework as a way to show rigor. Teachers should resist assigning “busywork” homework just to appease parents. In a previous post on McREL’s blog, I suggested four tips for teachers that aligned with the research on homework:
- Always ask, “What learning will result from this homework assignment?” The goal of your instruction should be to design homework that results in meaningful learning.
- Assign homework to help students deepen their understanding of content, practice skills in order to become faster or more proficient, or learn new content on a surface level.
- Check that students are able to perform required skills and tasks independently before asking them to complete homework assignments.
- Consider parents and guardians as your allies when it comes to homework. Understand their constraints, and, when home circumstances present challenges, consider alternative approaches to support students as they complete homework assignments (e.g., before- or after-school programs, additional parent outreach).
Schools often struggle with determining how heavily, or even if, homework should affect a student’s grade. When I surveyed teachers on this issue, responses ranged from zero all the way up to 50% in total grade weight. Considering that teachers really can’t know who actually completes homework assignments, is it good practice to allow homework to potentially account for up to half of a student’s grade? My colleagues at McREL and I recommend that homework should not account for more than 10% of a student’s final grade.
Are schools correct in totally banning homework? Is there a place for homework in your school? Ask yourself the following questions when considering your homework policy. When your students go home to do homework, will there be a quiet place for them to work? What is the time load you are imposing and how will that fit with family time, part-time jobs, and extra-curricular activities? Remember that homework has its place, but think about the research considerations and don’t just assign students homework because “that’s the way we have always done it.”
A former elementary and middle school principal, Dr. Howard Pitler is McREL’s chief program officer. He is co-author of the second editions of Using Technology with Classroom Instruction That Works (2nd ed.) and Classroom Instruction That Works (2nd ed.), and was the lead developer of McREL’s Power Walkthrough® classroom observation software. He can be followed on Twitter at @hpitler.