Homework: a low return-on-investment activity

Students spend a lot of time on homework. But are they getting enough benefit to justify it? (Public domain image via Pixabay.com)

Students spend a lot of time on homework. But are they getting enough benefit to justify it? (Public domain image via Pixabay.com)

As teachers, we’re so used to assigning homework. Students are used to doing it. It’s what we’ve come to expect as the norm.

Why do we do it? We hope that kids will improve. We hope they’ll be smarter, or more resilient, or develop positive skills that will prepare them for the future.

But does it work? Some of the research suggests that homework, in some situations, shows results. In two analyses of dozens and dozens of studies on homework (1989, 2006), Harris Cooper concluded that:

  • homework, in general, can improve students’ scores on class tests,
  • homework and academic achievement have little to no correlation with elementary school students
  • high school students (9-12) see positive gains in test scores when assigned homework, and
  • junior high students (6-8) see some gains, but only half of those by high school students.

With high school students — the group most affected by homework — the positive effect on test scores has its limits.

Example: Put a student in a class of 25 students that’s given homework regularly, Cooper wrote. Then, move that student into a class that’s given no homework. The effect of that change, according to the research? A student ranked 13th in achievement in the “homework class” would improve to 8th when moved to the “no homework class.” (See page 4, middle column.)

From 13th to 8th. In junior high, it would only go from 13th to 10th.

At what cost? Cooper’s research shows that homework reaches a point of diminishing returns after 90 minutes a night for junior high students.

For high school students, that line is somewhere between 90 minutes and 2.5 hours.

Let’s do the math. Ninety minutes of homework a night across a 180-day school year is 270 hours of homework. That’s more than 11 full, 24-hour days of a junior high student’s life.

At 2.5 hours per night, that’s 450 hours of a high school student’s life — about 18 days of his/her life.

Here’s where my brain keeps going after looking at this research …

We can get some results from assigning students tons of homework. But at what cost? And is that cost worth it?

I don’t think we’re getting enough return on investment in homework to justify it.

Let’s think of it this way (and forgive my imprecise example here) …

Imagine that a factory paid its workers $15 per hour to create a product. Imagine that, for each hour of work each worker put in, the company was able to profit $3.

Would the company earn some revenue for all its work? Yes. Money would be coming in the door for its efforts.

Would it be a good use of company resources to continue paying out $15 per hour to bring in $3? Clearly not.

How long would a company continue to do business this way? Probably until it came to its senses or inevitably went out of business.

In a way, that’s how so many of our classrooms have conducted the business of homework. We send worksheets home with students and ask them to do 1-30 (odd numbers only). Students see little benefit in doing the work and it isn’t very stimulating, so they only put forth the bare minimum required effort to complete it. It hasn’t engaged their brains, so very little (if any) learning has happened.

What did they get? Effort expended, but very little to show for it. Hours of extra work. Frustration. At times, reinforcement of mistakes. And anything but the creation of independent, lifelong learners.

We have to do better.

Imagine this: What if we made our classes more efficient and effective so that the need for homework became less and less, maybe to the point where we could ditch our homework entirely?

And what if students had the time at home to pursue what they were interested in through their own free will?

Think about it. Our students do homework all the time. They research. They experiment. They refine. They share. Work done at home. But it’s all on different topics than what they study at school.

They’re learning how to create masterpieces on Minecraft. They’re problem-solving their way through a complex video game. They’re picking up new skills like playing the guitar or doing tricks with a yo-yo. And if they’re doing it with friends, they’re building social and teamwork skills.

All despite their formal education. All without grades and class credit.

And those are the skills, we’re told, that will serve productive citizens in the changing workforce. 

So, what can we do as educators? Here’s what I’m thinking …

  • Free up time in kids’ schedules to let them satisfy their own curiosities.
  • Suggest some stimulating, interesting activities that they could do with their free time (if they need ideas).
  • Ask students what they do when they’re not at school. Then, ask them how they’re growing from it to reinforce how they’re learning when they don’t even realize it.
  • Support parents in doing the same, to help their children see how their choices outside of school make them better people.

Or, we could continue to give traditional homework. Worksheets. 1-30 odd. Because they do produce results, according to the research. Thirteenth to eighth in the class. Improvement on class tests.

But is that what we want kids to do? Score highly on tests for our class — or big standardized tests? Is that the measurement we should be concerned most about?

I want to see my own kids develop into critical thinkers. Good teammates. Kind, compassionate human beings.  And I know that there are better ways to do that than assigning them worksheets.

[reminder]What do you think? Is homework a low return-on-investment activity? How can we do better?[/reminder]

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