The Costs Of Too Much Homework

It’s a hard time for homework. Though it’s still one of the cornerstone elements in the lives of our students, the last few years have seen countless attacks on the cost -- mental and physical -- and the educational value of take-home assignments. In an era when global competition is inspiring a lot of rethinking about educational priorities and methods, the venerable nightly assignment has not escaped scrutiny. Nor should it.

A recent study in The Journal of Experimental Education (which charges $39 to purchase the article but synopses can be found on the NYTimes Motherlode Blog and CNN), coauthored by Denise Clark Pope of Stanford, suggests that traditional homework, especially in the volumes at which it is heaped on our most ambitious students, is not only paying few dividends but might, in fact, but undermining student success and student health. Working with Mollie Galloway of Lewis and Clark College and Jerusha Conner of Villanova University, Pope interviewed 4317 students from high-achieving high schools in California (four public and six private). The researchers polled them about their study habits, the hours of work they did in an average night, and their general physical and mental welfare. The results gleaned from both the qualitative and quantitative should inspire a major rethink about the way our schools are approaching and assigning work.

One of the things that comes through in the body of prior research discussed is just how tenuous the case for traditional homework is, at least as anything other than an end in itself. For instance, studies have found that “behavioral engagement” (i.e., completing homework) correlates to better academic performance (i.e., grades) most strongly when the completion of homework is a major constituent in calculating grades. Take a second to get your head around that one and remember, grades are one thing and learning is another. Here, things are pretty shaky. The strongest case in the literature is made for assignments that have demonstrable value or real world application. Rote, repetitive busy work is a major loser.

But even “good” homework itself can be a hindrance to learning. Among other things, in reading Pope’s study, we learn that whatever the benefits of homework, students enter a period of diminishing returns around two hours in on any given night. Researchers set the optimal homework time at 90-150 minutes. That’s a far cry from the 3.1 hours, on average, Pope and her colleagues found their sample high school students to be doing. Anecdotes from our own kids in New York suggest homework loads at least as heavy. it makes sense to question what portion of that time is squandered instead of sleep, relaxation, and other (well-established and documented) cognitively beneficial activity. In opportunity costs alone, too much homework looks counterproductive.

And all of that is before we get to the heart of Pope’s study, a qualitative exploration of the nonacademic costs of the burden: stress, exhaustion, anxiety, familial strife, physical health. The study’s focus on the voices of the students gives us the chance to hear what’s going on for this sample group of kids. One that the researchers single out is reported as saying,

There's never a time to rest. There's always something more you should be doing. If I go to bed before 1:30 I feel like I’m slacking off, or just screwing myself over for an even later night later in the week … There's never a break. Never.

And there’s the other costs, the reports of kids feeling constantly physically “lousy” or “like [they’re] drowning.” Add in the sleep deprivation (at a time when sleep is critical for physical and cognitive development) and the bargain that we seem to be striking for minimal academic returns is absurd. We hear these things in our own tutoring sessions. Our families hear them daily, especially with high schoolers. It’s heartbreaking.

So what do we do? At this point, the culture of homework is deeply entrenched. Tradition and “intuition” tell us that this is just how learning is done. Making a change, particularly in the highly competitive and driven environs that Pope’s study focuses on (and we find in NYC), is going to require audacious action. We might hearken back to the stalled proposal by French president Fran├žois Hollande upon taking office in 2012. A central plank of his educational reform platform was banning homework. His primary interest was in minimizing the undue advantage that homework granted students of means over their less privileged peers who were harder pressed to find the time, space, and stability to get the most out of les devoirs. Taken with Pope’s findings, the proposal doesn’t sound so ludicrous, but it’s not something we’re likely to see.

More promising, perhaps, are some other ideas that have been gaining purchase in American pedagogical circles. The flipped classroom is among the most intriguing. In this model, students do their first encounter learning at home: they study concepts and watch lectures online or through materials provided by their teacher and then apply that learning in class, under teacher supervision, doing what once would have been homework. This approach allows several things to happen: first, students can learn the primary material on their own time, going over the concepts they find difficult multiple times or breezing more quickly through things they master promptly; second, it lets teacher be on hand while their students are doing the more precise work of refining and perfecting their command. Often, in traditional classrooms, teachers find that they go over a concept once, give it to their students to work over in homework, and then don’t return to it to confirm student retention until test-time. While yoking ourselves too much to tech-driven solutions can send too many of our kids hurtling into the digital divide, there are important lessons to be taken from the benefits of flipping.

Even more compelling are some more revolutionary Socratic methods that have started gaining popularity. We recently discussed Exeter's math program in this context. These methods focus on giving students fewer repetitive problems in favor of more complex problems that rely on their creativity to drive the learning process. The whole relationship between homework, class time, and learning would be upended by a wholesale conversion to Socratic learning. As such, these require a truly radical shift in teacher training, student preparation, and school culture. Whatever the chances of any of these alternatives being adopted, we hope they indicate a broader movement away from some creaky notions about education. Homework is the signal case. Its backwards values need to be examined. Pope and her colleagues give us the chance and the data to start.

Tags: Homework, Progressive Parenting, Pedagogy, Stress & Anxiety
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Homework And The Importance Of Academic Rigor
Helping Children with Schoolwork
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