How much homework students should get has long been a source of debate among parents and educators. In recent years, some districts have even implemented no-homework policies, as students juggle sports, music and other activities after school.
Parents of elementary school students, in particular, have argued that after-school hours should be spent with family or playing outside rather than completing assignments. And there is little research to show that homework improves academic achievement for elementary students.
But some experts say there’s value in homework, even for younger students. When done well, it can help students practice core concepts and develop study habits and time management skills. The key to effective homework, they say, is keeping assignments related to classroom learning, and tailoring the amount by age: Many experts suggest no homework for kindergartners, and little to none in first and second grade.
Value of Homework
Homework provides a chance to solidify what is being taught in the classroom that day, week or unit. Practice matters, says Janine Bempechat, clinical professor at Boston University‘s Wheelock College of Education & Human Development.
“There really is no other domain of human ability where anybody would say you don’t need to practice,” she adds. “We have children practicing piano and we have children going to sports practice several days a week after school. You name the domain of ability and practice is in there.”
Homework is also the place where schools and families most frequently intersect.
“The children are bringing things from the school into the home,” says Paula S. Fass, professor emerita of history at the University of California—Berkeley and the author of “The End of American Childhood.” “Before the pandemic, (homework) was the only real sense that parents had to what was going on in schools.”
Harris Cooper, professor emeritus of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University and author of “The Battle Over Homework,” examined more than 60 research studies on homework between 1987 and 2003 and found that — when designed properly — homework can lead to greater student success. Too much, however, is harmful. And homework has a greater positive effect on students in secondary school (grades 7-12) than those in elementary.
“Every child should be doing homework, but the amount and type that they’re doing should be appropriate for their developmental level,” he says. “For teachers, it’s a balancing act. Doing away with homework completely is not in the best interest of children and families. But overburdening families with homework is also not in the child’s or a family’s best interest.”
Negative Homework Assignments
Not all homework for elementary students involves completing a worksheet. Assignments can be fun, says Cooper, like having students visit educational locations, keep statistics on their favorite sports teams, read for pleasure or even help their parents grocery shop. The point is to show students that activities done outside of school can relate to subjects learned in the classroom.
But assignments that are just busy work, that force students to learn new concepts at home, or that are overly time-consuming can be counterproductive, experts say.
Homework that’s just busy work.
Effective homework reinforces math, reading, writing or spelling skills, but in a way that’s meaningful, experts say. Assignments that look more like busy work – projects or worksheets that don’t require teacher feedback and aren’t related to topics learned in the classroom – can be frustrating for students and create burdens for families.
“The mental health piece has definitely played a role here over the last couple of years during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the last thing we want to do is frustrate students with busy work or homework that makes no sense,” says Dave Steckler, principal of Red Trail Elementary School in Mandan, North Dakota.
Homework on material that kids haven’t learned yet.
With the pressure to cover all topics on standardized tests and limited time during the school day, some teachers assign homework that has not yet been taught in the classroom.
Not only does this create stress, but it also causes equity challenges. Some parents speak languages other than English or work several jobs, and they aren’t able to help teach their children new concepts.
“It just becomes agony for both parents and the kids to get through this worksheet, and the goal becomes getting to the bottom of (the) worksheet with answers filled in without any understanding of what any of it matters for,” says professor Susan R. Goldman, co-director of the Learning Sciences Research Institute at the University of Illinois—Chicago.
Homework that’s overly time-consuming.
The standard homework guideline recommended by the National Parent Teacher Association and the National Education Association is the “10-minute rule” – 10 minutes of nightly homework per grade level. A fourth grader, for instance, would receive a total of 40 minutes of homework per night.
But this does not always happen, especially since not every student learns the same. A 2015 study published in the American Journal of Family Therapy found that primary school children actually received three times the recommended amount of homework — and that family stress increased along with the homework load.
Young children can only remain attentive for short periods, so large amounts of homework, especially lengthy projects, can negatively affect students’ views on school. Some individual long-term projects – like having to build a replica city, for example – typically become an assignment for parents rather than students, Fass says.
“It’s one thing to assign a project like that in which several kids are working on it together,” she adds. “In (that) case, the kids do normally work on it. It’s another to send it home to the families, where it becomes a burden and doesn’t really accomplish very much.”
Private vs. Public Schools
Do private schools assign more homework than public schools? There’s little research on the issue, but experts say private school parents may be more accepting of homework, seeing it as a sign of academic rigor.
Of course, not all private schools are the same – some focus on college preparation and traditional academics, while others stress alternative approaches to education.
“I think in the academically oriented private schools, there’s more support for homework from parents,” says Gerald K. LeTendre, chair of educational administration at Pennsylvania State University—University Park. “I don’t know if there’s any research to show there’s more homework, but it’s less of a contentious issue.”
How to Address Homework Overload
First, assess if the workload takes as long as it appears. Sometimes children may start working on a homework assignment, wander away and come back later, Cooper says.
“Parents don’t see it, but they know that their child has started doing their homework four hours ago and still not done it,” he adds. “They don’t see that there are those four hours where their child was doing lots of other things. So the homework assignment itself actually is not four hours long. It’s the way the child is approaching it.”
But if homework is becoming stressful or workload is excessive, experts suggest parents first approach the teacher, followed by a school administrator.
“Many times, we can solve a lot of issues by having conversations,” Steckler says, including by “sitting down, talking about the amount of homework, and what’s appropriate and not appropriate.”