What is the Purpose of Homework?

If you walk into a typical teachers’ workroom and ask the question, “What’s the purpose of homework?” you’ll likely find that most teachers have a definite opinion. But ask them what research says about homework, and you’ll get less definitive answers. What does research really say about homework as a strategy to improve student achievement?

The effects of homework on student achievement are not entirely clear; a number of factors, such as degree of parental involvement and support, homework quality, students’ learning preferences, and structure and monitoring of assignments can affect the influence of homework on achievement (Hong, Milgram, & Rowell, 2004; Minotti, 2005).

One synthesis of research on the relationship between homework time and achievement showed some gains at the middle and high school levels, but less so at the elementary school level (Cooper, Robinson, & Patall, 2006). Others have found that homework can help students strengthen their self-regulation skills such as managing time, setting goals, self-reflecting on their performance, and delaying gratification (Ramdass & Zimmerman,  2011).

On the flip side, there’s some research highlighting negative aspects of homework, including disruption of family time, stress, conflicts between student and parent, and restricted access to community and leisure time (e.g., Coutts, 2004; Warton, 2001).

So what’s the best approach to take? In Cathy Vatterott’s 2009 book, Rethinking Homework: Best Practices That Support Diverse Needs, she outlines practices she refers to as her “New Paradigm for Homework”:

  • design quality homework tasks;
  • differentiate homework tasks;
  • move from grading to checking;
  • decriminalize the grading of homework;
  • use completion strategies; and
  • establish homework support programs.

If you take Vatterott’s recommended practices along with our research-based recommendations (found in Classroom Instruction That Works, 2nd ed.), you can begin to view homework differently,  as an extension of practice and a chance to deepen understanding of a topic. Consider these tips:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Check that students are able to perform required skills and tasks independently before asking them to complete homework assignments.
  4. Consider parents and guardians to be 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).

Because the research on homework is mixed, teachers should think carefully about what tasks they assign for homework, and what the purpose of that homework truly is. Remember that it’s essential for students to receive feedback on their homework so they know what they did correctly, what they did incorrectly, and what they need to do next to improve.
Howard Pitler, Ed.D., is chief program officer at McREL, co-author of Classroom Instruction That Works (2nd ed.), and lead author of Using Technology with Classroom Instruction That Works.


Cooper, H., Robinson, J. C, Sc Patall, E. A. (2006). Does homework improve academic achievement? A synthesis of research, 19872003. Review of Educational Research, 76, 1-62.

Coutts, P. (2004). Meanings of homework and implications for practice. Theory into Practice 43(3),182–188.

Hong, E., Milgram, R. M., & Rowell, L. L. (2004). Homework motivation and preference: A learner-centered homework approach. Theory into Practice, 43, 197–204.

Minotti, J. L. (2005). Effects of learning-style-based homework prescriptions on the achievement and attitudes of middle school students. NASSP Bulletin, 89, 67–89.

Ramdass, D., & Zimmerman, B. (2011) Developing Self-Regulation Skills: The Important Role of Homework. Journal of Advanced Academics, 22(2), 194-218,354-355.

Vatterott, C. (2009). Rethinking homework: Best practices that support diverse needs. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Warton, P. M. (2001). The forgotten voices in homework: Views of the students. Educational Psychologist, 36(3), 155–165.

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