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The Never-Ending Homework Debate: Insight and Solution

Academic InsightThe Never-Ending Homework Debate: Insight and Solution

October 12, 2021

“I hate homework,” asserts author and mother Ayelet Waldman in a 2005 opinion piece for Salon titled “Homework hell.”

Similarly strong opinions on homework have swirled around schools for centuries. 

In 1901, in fact, the state of California banned after-school assignments for any student under fifteen after Edward Bok published a scathing critique in the debate against homework. The ban was eventually lifted, consistent with the ebbs and flows of public opinion surrounding this conversation. 

During World War I, homework was deemed an essential mental workout for students, but that trend faded in the 1930, reports Harris Cooper — author of The Battle Over Homework — in a 2015 interview with the National Education Association

“In the 1950s,” Cooper continues, “people were worried about falling behind the communists, so more homework for students was needed as a way to speed up our education and technology. During the 1960s, homework fell out of favor because many thought it inflicted too much stress on kids. In the 1970s and 1980s, we needed more homework to keep up with the Japanese economically. More recently, … homework has come into question again.”

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It’s How We Do Homework That Matters

Critics of homework from Bok onward have cited concerns including interference with family time, undue stress on children and parents, and matters of equity related to uneven home environments for students. We’ve been challenged for decades to consider what homework stands for.

Robert Marzano and Deborah Pickering, however, argue that the discussion around homework for students needs to focus on improving its implementation rather than debating a no-homework policy. 

“Certainly, inappropriate homework may produce little or no benefit,” they concede. “If a district or school discards homework altogether, however, it will be throwing away a powerful instructional tool.” 

Harris Cooper’s landmark 1989 study demonstrated just how powerful homework can be. Cooper analyzed nearly 120 studies on the topic and found a significant link between homework and academic performance at the secondary level. 

“The evidence is clear,” concludes Harris. “Homework has substantial positive effects on the achievement of high school students. Junior high students also benefit from homework but only about half as much.” Joyce Epstein of Johns Hopkins University has demonstrated similar links for elementary-aged students in her studies.

The Correlation Between Homework Quality and Student Achievement

In the context of compelling evidence for its advantages and heated debate about its very existence, the Center for American Progress conducted a nationwide study in 2018 to measure the quality of homework assignments across a broad range of school districts. 

The researchers analyzed a sample of 187 homework assignments and concluded that, while homework assignments are largely aligned to Common Core standards, they tend to focus on low-level skills and fail to challenge students. 

Their report concludes: “In education, homework reform is low-hanging fruit. Research shows that quality homework and increasing student achievement are positively correlated; and yet, the authors’ analysis shows that some schools may not be taking advantage of a valuable opportunity to support student achievement.”

“Instead of mirroring the cognitive demand in rigorous content standards, homework assigned to students is often weak or rote.”

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Online Vs. Traditional Homework

Comparing online and traditional homework has become a mainstay in the debate over homework.

Ongoing research into the benefits of online vs. traditional homework has yielded mixed results so far. In a review of 16 studies observing the effect of online vs. traditional homework assignments on student performance:

  • Nine studies found online homework to improve student performance
  • One study concluded traditional homework was best for supporting strong academic performance
  • Six studies were ultimately inconclusive due to mixed results

Designing Effective and High-Quality Homework

Homework assignments must be thoughtfully designed to make a positive and lasting impact on learning outcomes. 

To enhance your online and traditional homework projects, be sure to implement these tips during the design phase. 

Be Strategic with Assignment Elements

Rather than throwing together homework assignments related to the class topic of the day, take time to intentionally select assignment elements.

Well-designed homework assignments incorporate prior lessons and knowledge to promote the development of new skills and understanding. The most impactful homework assignments also align with classroom learning objectives and when possible, past student performance. 

Don’t Make Time a Limiting Factor

Learning to adhere to deadlines is an important aspect of student development, but overemphasizing due dates and providing short windows to complete homework assignments can negatively impact learning outcomes. 

Research shows that teachers “almost always” underestimate how much time students need to comfortably and confidently complete homework assignments. 

Experts involved with the debate over homework recommend instructors remember that assignment timelines must provide enough time for every student to study prior materials and work through the assignment. If students feel they don’t have enough time to reasonably finish hours of homework, they may decide not to work on it at all

Connect the Dots

Teachers should relate the purposes of homework to students’ educational needs engagingly and interestingly. 

By challenging students with a combination of abstract and real-world applications of practiced skills and concepts, teachers can stimulate creativity, lead students to explore more on the topic, and lay the groundwork for valuable classroom discussions. 

Discussing homework assignments before and after students complete them provides a valuable opportunity for educators to use closing questions to ensure students have a strong grasp on how their assignment fits into recent classwork, which skills are being improved upon, and the resources students should rely on to guide their study and work. 

Best Homework Practices During COVID

COVID has impacted every aspect of education over the last few years, including the best practices for assigning homework. 

To provide engaging and valuable homework assignments that improve learning outcomes despite the challenges presented by COVID, try these three tips. 

Optimize Assignments for Remote Learning

Transitions between in-person instruction and remote learning have come without much warning since the onset of the COVID pandemic. 

By planning and designing homework assignments with remote learning in mind, educators can ease the challenging transition from classroom instruction to remote learning — reducing student frustrations that can inhibit positive learning outcomes. 

Take Advantage of High Dosage Tutoring

High Dosage Tutoring is a proven strategy for reversing learning loss due to prolonged absences from the classroom. 

High Dosage Tutoring emphasizes intensive one-on-one and small group instruction. Students exposed to High Dosage Tutoring receive personalized, question-based instruction that develops deeper conceptual understanding and a stronger grasp on procedural skills. 

High Dosage Tutoring has been linked to rapid skill attainment and long-lasting gains in math test scores and overall GPA and accelerated learning. 

Make Homework Assignments Impactful (and Skip the Rest!)

Since the onset of COVID, students across the nation have faced heightened stress levels and worsening mental health

In a time full of personal challenges, financial instability, and regular disruptions to day-to-day routines, teachers should be sure to only assign homework that is pivotal to students’ learning journey. 

By limiting assignments to reinforce crucial concepts and skills and reevaluating their beliefs about homework, teachers can improve the odds of students taking the time to carefully and intentionally work, rather than rush through it or leave it incomplete.

Power Your Homework Program With Yup

As the Center for American Progress study demonstrates, landing on the right approach to homework can benefit students of all ages. Districts would be wise to enlist support as they evolve their homework programs.

When it comes to accelerating the development of young mathematicians, Yup’s High Dosage Tutoring programs represent an ideal tool to support students at home in ways that mesh neatly with key recommendations from the CAP study, specifically those related to homework rigor and the incorporation of technology, as detailed in the chart below.

Ready to Learn More?

Enhancing your homework assignments can improve learning outcomes, increase classroom engagement, and improve students’ relationship with math and learning. 

To learn more about how Yup’s High Dosage Tutoring can improve the effectiveness and student experience of homework assignments, schedule a demo today. 

Administrators: See how Yup’s services accelerate Math learning. Yup will collaborate with leadership teams to integrate High Dosage Tutoring into the school day and curriculum.

Teachers: Check out what other educators are saying about Yup.

Contact partnerships@yup.com to learn more about bringing Yup to your school or district.


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