Regarding Homework…

April 7, 2015

Why do teachers give homework?

I was a middle school classroom teacher for the first eleven years of my teaching practice. The longer I taught, the less homework I assigned. That’s not to say I didn’t give students assignments–but they rarely had to do them at home. I’m curious about how teachers use homework, and what role it really plays in students’ learning.

It seems to me that teachers generally assign homework because they feel some pressure to do so. They may put that pressure on themselves; they believe that assigning homework for their students will afford the practice they need to master certain content or skills. Others feel pressure from colleagues: “The other 6th grade teachers are assigning homework…so I guess I should too!” Others may feel pressure from parents who don’t want their kids left behind somehow. Still others may feel pressure from their school or district; there may be school- or district-wide policies in place requiring a certain amount of homework at different grade levels.

The argument often goes that homework will improve achievement–that students will learn more if they have homework.

The thing is, I’m not convinced that much of what is assigned as homework really does improve learning. (Many folks agree with this idea, by the way. Alfie Kohn is a particularly clear voice arguing against homework. You should also check out Pernille Ripp’s page arguing against homework.)

Don’t get me wrong; I’m a fan of kids practicing. “Practice makes permanent,” after all. And much homework probably falls into the category of “practice.” The real question in my mind is this: how does homework support learning?

Let’s explore this a bit.

As an example: many teachers believe that students in the early elementary grades should memorize basic math facts for addition and subtraction, because once they have mastered these facts, children can compute more quickly and fluently. Practice will certainly help them to memorize these facts. But consider two approaches to practicing math facts:

The teacher assigns four worksheets with 100 addition facts each that must be completed during the week (at home) and turned in on Friday.

The teacher pre-assesses students to find out which math facts they have already mastered and which ones they still need to learn. Students then create flash cards in school for the facts they don’t yet have committed to memory, and practice these for 5 minutes each night during the week (at home) and have a post-assessment on Friday to ensure their learning of these facts with which they had been struggling.

While the second assignment certainly takes more effort on the teacher’s part, it is more responsive to the needs of the individual learner. If a student already knows the math facts, how tedious those hundreds of problems must be? And if a student doesn’t know the math facts, will staring at a sheet of 100 exercises inspire them to want to learn them? How daunting that would be!

I’m not really arguing that 7-year olds shouldn’t memorize math facts, but I would argue that the former assignment will likely turn them off to math. (Or maybe it just turns me off to math. 400 math exercises a week in elementary school–outside of school hours? Ugh.) Most kids don’t need to do worksheets of 100 addition facts every night to commit these facts to memory. It may be true they should practice their math facts, but what is the purpose of the practice? Why should they memorize these facts? If the intent is that they will be able to compute fluently, knowing their basic facts will likely be helpful. But once they have the facts memorized, do they need to continue doing hundreds of addition exercises outside of school hours every week?

Another example: many teachers middle school and high school teachers often assign readings from a textbook to prepare for lectures and class discussions. Again, two approaches for encouraging students to read:

The teacher assigns several pages of reading, and assigns the comprehension questions at the end of the section. The students hand in their answers to these questions the next day in class, and await a lecture on the topics from the readings.

The teacher assigns several pages of reading, explaining that students will be working in groups the next day in class to put the ideas from the reading into practice.
In my own experience as a student, readings with comprehension questions quickly became “skim the reading to find enough of an answer to satisfy the teacher’s quick check over our papers.” I was enough of a people-pleaser to (usually) still do the whole reading, but the comprehension questions felt like jumping through hoops. If the intent is that students will actually do the reading, perhaps the second approach might be more useful? Particularly if the students really do work with the ideas in the readings in groups–there may be some positive interdependence that is fostered by sharing ideas from reading assignments this way.

Homework is complicated.

I think it’s because there are quite a few interrelated issues going on here. Teachers feel pressure (from parents, from colleagues, from themselves) to assign homework. Parents (perhaps because of their own school experiences?) think that their kids should have homework. Students themselves may not like homework, but often have been conditioned to expect homework as a normal part of school. Politicians who rail about raising standards sometimes invoke homework as a means of doing so. Homework is often seen as an institutionalized part of schooling–it has a long and proud tradition! (Or something like that…)

Is there compelling evidence that homework improves learning?

I guess I’m just not convinced it does. I’d love to hear about your experiences with homework. Did you feel like you learned more in courses that required a lot of homework? Do you feel like your kids learn more when they have homework? What kinds of homework seem to make the most sense?

This article was previously published on Dave’s personal blog: Originally published April 29, 2013. Used with permission.

Dig Deeper

What do you think about the Common Core? How about Standardized Testing? Read more in this three part education series from Ed Starkenburg on “The Common Core: Good or Bad?” and from Steve Holtrop on “Standardized Tests: Help or Harm?”.

About the Author
  • Dave Mulder serves as Professor of Education at Dordt University, where he teaches pre-service teachers in the undergrad program and works with practicing teachers in the Master of Education program. His interests in education are varied, but include educational technology, online learning, STEM education, faith formation, and teaching Christianly. 

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  1. Great comments, Dave. I tend to be suspicious of keeping something just because it’s something we’ve always done or because it supposedly builds discipline and character. I think we’ve probably over-used homework with these rationales. On the other hand, as a high school English teacher, I could get a lot deeper into a novel’s themes if the students read it at home. Something too tough to assign as homework, like a Shakespeare play, could take up a ton of class periods if we tried to read every word of it. So finding the balance was always my challenge. A newer concept involving homework vs. class time is the whole flipping the classroom thing. That kind of requires pretty solid out-of-class preparation by the students so they’re ready for class time to take them to the next level with the content. I’d be interested in your comments on this type of homework.

    1. I’m glad you raised the point about homework to teach responsibility or self-discipline. One of my twitterfriends has put it this way: “I hate homework given to teach kids “responsibility”. Give them an egg to take home and bring back. Same result.” (Here’s another post from my blog on that topic:

      I raise the question of the value of homework in general because I think that much of the work that is assigned as homework is doled out without a lot of thought about the *quality* of the work. If it’s just busy work or low-level thinking, I’m not sure it’s actually adding value for learning.

      Now that I’ve said that, I think there *are* some valuable homework assignments. The sort you mention, Steve, seem like valuable ways to spend time (I’m generally in favor of reading!) and particularly if it’s going to be an integral part of the in-class learning in the next time the class meets up. In that way, I’m also very interested in the flipped classroom model; when the learning tasks are well-designed, moving the “content-delivery” parts of class (whether readings, video, podcasts, online lectures, etc.) to the “outside-of-class” time does free up time for more interactive work with the ideas in the content in the in-class times. And an added bonus: students are then doing that work with their teacher, instead of with a parent’s support at home…or perhaps even on their own. (This is a whole separate aspect I didn’t address in my piece; I have concerns about the inequity that comes with some parents over-involved in their kids’ homework, while other kids–through no fault of their own–simply do not have parental support for homework.)

      Two helpful resources to continue thinking about homework:
      1. This post from John Spencer (a thoughtful, reflective educator in Phoenix, AZ) has 10 reasons to consider for abandoning homework, and five alternatives to consider instead:
      2. The article “The Case For and Against Homework” by Robert Marzano and Debra Pickering (Marzano is a well-known education researcher) is a balanced look at the pros and cons of homework, based on a synthesis of educational research into the effectiveness of homework at different grade levels. (I understand the authors’ perspective, but I confess, I was not dramatically swayed by their case “for” homework…which may not surprise you.) However, I think this piece provides some helpful suggestions for what “good” homework looks like:

      Thanks for taking the time to comment!