Homework: A ‘fact of life’
Mention ‘homework’ as a topic, and most educators, administrators, teachers, parents, and students will never be at a loss for words.
Whether in fact justified or not, the age-old debate over the usefulness of homework, when, and how much, has persisted, even as education and technology continue to evolve and adapt to each other in the 21st century. A survey of the spectrum of opinions on the topic invites the inference that the current state of analysis has yet to yield anything akin to reliable consensus. There is plausible argument that studies past and present have not accounted for variables that are easily capable of influencing statistical results (with modest positive differentials at that). Nonetheless, commentators in particular are not shy about ‘cherry-picking’ the research that ostensibly supports their positions, a practice that creates confusion for policy-makers and parents.
Education institutionally is easily equated with experimentation, especially when academic performance seems to be in doubt and ‘under fire’. The ‘Let’s try this and see if it works’ has spilled over into homework, given that some teachers have restricted its hours from ‘accepted time limits’ or eliminated homework entirely. This experimentation also runs counter to the traditional belief that assigning homework is somehow morally right and therefore inevitably beneficial.
‘Accepted time limits’ in Canada hover around the following: Kindergarten – no homework; Grades 1-3 – 20’; 4-6 – 40’; 7-8 – 60’; 9-10 – 20’ per course; 11-12 – 30’ per course “. In the USA, a guideline of 10’ per grade is often cited. Categories of homework are also relevant for some educators: ‘Completion’ (finish what was started in class); ‘Practice’ (reinforcement of concepts/skills recently learned); ‘Preparation’ (exercises assigned as precursors for future learning/assessment); and ‘Extension’ (in upper grades, major independent application of curricula taught in class).
These basic parameters and any prospect for effectiveness and success associated with homework, in my view, mostly depend on the content that is assigned, the atmosphere in which assignments are made, and in how these are given (delivered). I am prepared, as are all Book Smart Tutors, to accept that homework is a ‘fact of life’ (we convey that perspective positively to our students), and more importantly, that beneficial results hugely depend upon how students, their parents, and helpful tutors handle homework. I have always regarded homework as a very personal opportunity for a student (to learn responsibly and with increasing degrees of independence and self-reliance, so necessary for post-secondary study, and as a ‘life skill’), with one-on-one facilitation by a tutor, at all levels. Lest we forget, too, that in an age of ‘ongoing assessment’, homework often counts towards a course grade.
Leaving aside the perpetual controversy over ‘statistical significance’, in my mind, the quality of the ‘homework experience’ is of primary, even paramount, importance. I’ve been privy to advanced English literature assignments that come across as virtually incomprehensible, and certainly at risk of not producing the results intended or required by the curriculum, as well as assignments that are so thoughtfully conceived and drafted that I want to undertake (and have completed) a parallel ‘submission’ myself!
Research from Duke University
Duke University professor of psychology and neuroscience Harris Cooper, who in 2006 studied the studies conducted about homework, perhaps has the best insight: “A good way to think about homework is the way you think about medication or dietary supplements. If you take too little, they’ll have no effect. If you take too much, they can kill you. If you take the right amount, you’ll get better”. (‘Does Homework Improve Academic Performance?’ – September 23, 2006)
Robert MacFarlane is a graduate of Princeton University, and has been associated with Book Smart Tutors, Inc. for several years. He is pleased to report that he did a lot of ‘homework’ in preparation for writing this blog.