The Million-Dollar Question: “Is Homework Worth It?”

“is homework worth it?”

That’s the million-dollar question (quite literally, as I will outline below)… but to answer it, we first have to define “worth what?” What does one have to “pay” or give up in order to do homework?

Well, lately I’ve seen a lot of buzz about parents, schools, even teachers simply “calling it quits” on homework. Why? Here are some of the given reasons (aside from the more egregiously ridiculous ones), along with responses outlining how these stated challenges do not necessarily need to be problems:

  • “Kids don’t get enough time for play, and they need up to 10 hours of sleep per night.”  School is about 7 hours long. Even if a student gets 60 minutes of homework, this leaves 16 hours of the day remaining. If you advocate for 10 hours of sleep for a growing student, this still leaves them a whole 6 hours for meals, exercise, relaxation, hobbies, and fun. That’s a lot of time! (and, on weekends, it becomes 34 hours of free time, even if the kids are assigned homework on Friday and sleep for 10 hours each night)
  • “Homework is frustrating/stressful for students and/or parents.”  This can sometimes be true, so we have to address the source of frustrations, and then homework will no longer be stressful for students nor their families. Homework is generally meant to serve one of a couple of purposes:
    • (a) Independent practice. Cognitive science studies show us that repetition (ie. practice) transfer short-term/working memory into long-term memory, ie. true learning. The stressor (and real problem) here is that successful independent practice isn’t possible if a student doesn’t know the material well enough and doesn’t have support/guidance to help or check along the process. In this scenario, a student will, at best, complete all work — but do most of it wrong, thus reinforcing erroneous skills or behaviors (this is the opposite of what we want homework to do!) At worst, they will simply give up and not finish the homework at all.
      The solution, for a long time, has been to ensure that the student has a mentor/helper — such as a parent, older sibling, tutor, etc. But this is where the “stress/frustration” comes in for them, too. They not only have to give up their own time to help with the process, but also may not even be capable or comfortable enough with the material to provide sufficient assistance. All of these used to be very valid concerns… but they can be alleviated (or removed altogether) if we use 21st century tools! (see below)
    • (b) Sufficient time to work on larger projects (products such as research reports, models, etc. could take more time than is necessarily available during the school day.) The main cause of stress here usually has to do with time management or constraints — ie. getting the work done in time. If the teacher sufficiently “chunks” the work into smaller checkpoints or benchmarks that are due within shorter timespans, this can be alleviated.
  • “There’s no telling if the student is the one responsible for the work turned in. It could have been copied from a friend, done by a parent/sibling, or had their hand held through the whole process.”  This is (or, at least, has been) true, and it has been one of my major gripes about homework (especially paper-based, worksheet-style), for a long time. However, this is an “old school” way of thinking about homework, assuming it is all “pencil and paper” work. With modern technology, some of these problems can be alleviated (however, keep in mind: you can never really monitor who is completing the work. It is for that reason that I firmly believe homework should be used solely as independent practice — not as a summative assessment tool — and that it should, accordingly, make up a small portion of a student’s grade.)

the value of homework:
$1 million
($422 per hour!)

Despite the complaints and frustrations that some people feel, the overwhelming body of research-based evidence shows that homework is beneficial!

Why would teachers go through all of the effort to assign, grade, and otherwise deal with homework (especially given all of the challenges above), if there weren’t research-based proof that it was good for students?  Here are some of the facts:

  • “It turns out that parents are right to nag: To succeed in school, kids should do their homework.

    Duke University researchers have reviewed more than 60 research studies on homework between 1987 and 2003 and concluded that homework does have a positive effect on student achievement

    ‘With only rare exception, the relationship between the amount of homework students do and their achievement outcomes was found to be positive and statistically significant,’ the researchers report in a paper that appears in the spring 2006 edition of ‘Review of Educational Research.'” (Duke University)

  • Homework helps your child do better in school when the assignments are meaningful, are completed successfully and are returned to her with constructive comments from the teacher. An assignment should have a specific purpose, come with clear instructions, be fairly well matched to a child’s abilities and help to develop a child’s knowledge and skills.In the early grades, homework can help children to develop the good study habits and positive attitudes described earlier. From third through sixth grades, small amounts of homework, gradually increased each year, may support improved school achievement. In seventh grade and beyond, students who complete more homework score better on standardized tests and earn better grades, on the average, than do students who do less homework. The difference in test scores and grades between students who do more homework and those who do less increases as students move up through the grades.” (US Dept. of Education)
  • The National PTA recommendations fall in line with general guidelines suggested by researcher Harris Cooper: 10-20 minutes per night in the first grade, and an additional 10 minutes per grade level thereafter (e.g., 20 minutes for second grade, 120 minutes for twelfth). High school students may sometimes do more, depending on what classes they take (see Review of Educational Research, 2006).” (NEA.org)
  • College graduates earn $1 million dollars more over their lifetime than high school graduates. This gap is widened even further if you consider that STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics) majors earn $3.4 million more than the lowest-paying majors. (Georgetown University, reported via Marketwatch)

What does this mean?  It means, in short, that doing homework is worth it, because doing homework increases the chances for better grades and higher test scores, which in turn increases the chances for college admissions, which increases your lifetime income by an average of $1 million.

Since my main subject of focus this year is math, I will use some math to show you exactly how much it is worth, using this formula:

$1,000,000 /
[180 days of homework per year — assuming homework every school night!)
* (the recommended homework minutes per grade level: 10 in K up to 120 in 12th)
/ 60 minutes per hour ]
= earnings per hour of homework

1,000,000/[180*(10+10+20+30+40+50+60+70+80+90+100+110+120)/60] =
$421.94 per hour

That’s how much homework is worth. Still think it’s “not worth it” to spend maybe 20 minutes, maybe an hour, maybe even 2 hours (in high school), doing some reading, writing, and arithmetic each night for a few years?

How going digital can help

Maybe not all, but many of the “problems” people have attributed to homework can simply be attributed to using the inefficient, outdated homework methods of the past!

Pencil-and-paper worksheets to practice and show what you know have many, many drawbacks:

  1. Students get no feedback about whether they are doing things correctly or not! Thus they could be practicing a skill incorrectly over and over again. Cognitive and behavioral psychology tells us that this will only reinforce the wrong way of doing things!
  2. There is very little (often zero) built-in guidance/scaffolding/support to provide help if you do need it. So, if you do need assistance, it all comes down to: (a) how well the textbook explains things (if you have access to one); (b) notes you have taken in class or have been given to you; (c) support/help you can get from someone like a parent or tutor.
  3. Students can simply copy the answers from each other. Most of the time, the same worksheet is given to each student. Because of this, students can simply copy the answers if they want to…

But this is a centuries-old way of doing homework that doesn’t take advantage of modern tools and technology! There are many, many educational technology tools that will provide the following benefits:

  1. Instantaneous feedback to students. Students will instantly know if they are doing things correctly or not, and can immediately correct their practice instead of reinforcing bad habits.
  2. Built-in support / help tools. Many programs include built-in supports to provide instruction or guidance (via tutorials, videos, etc.) when students need help. Thus, there is no longer the need for an additional person to provide tutoring and assistance…
  3. Students work independently. In many programs, such as our digital math curriculum (Pearson Digits), the problems given to students are dynamically generated. In other words, they change from student to student — the concept/skill may be the same, for example, but the numbers or details change. This provides an opportunity to practice the same problem again if they get it wrong, as well as preventing the ability to copy answers from another student.
  4. Studies show that the above factors do provide benefits over traditional pencil-and-paper work! “…given the large effect size, it may be worth the cost and effort to give Web-based homework when students have access to the needed equipment, such as in schools that have implemented one-to-one computing programs.” (studies like this one can be found at ERIC.ed.gov)

There are many digital tools that allow for the above, and many of them are free. Some of the ones I use are: Newsela, Quizlet, Quill.org, Khan Academy, Prodigy, SumDog, iXL, and there are many more…

Some people might say “That’s all well and good, but what if my students don’t have access to technology and internet to make the digital tools possible?” The answer is: in many cases, access can be made possible! Schools can provide inexpensive devices (and there are grant/donation systems such as Gasser Grants and DonorsChoose that can help pay for these), internet service, or even just an open computer lab after school, or a homework help club/session that provides the 1:1 technology. Public libraries offer computer access, and broadband providers currently offer discounted internet service for low income families, which range in cost from $0-$15 per month. (I will write more details about accessibility and closing the digital divide in my next post!)

When I give your child homework, I am literally giving them the opportunity to obtain a million dollars!

As you can see, there are ways to give independent practice/homework and have it be a successful, low-stress experience. Considering the very real long-term and financial benefits, why would any parent, teacher, or administrator in their right mind want to do away with that?

[NOTE: When I refer to “homework” herein, what I am actually referring to is “independent practice” — it’s not work that has to be done at home, but it generally requires additional time on top of the regular instructional schedule. This work time could be at home, could be in an after-school homework club or tutoring session, or could be minutes that schools decide to add onto the end of the existing school day.]

 

 

Comments are closed.