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Getting Homework Done Right
By Tiffani Razavi, TIE Staff Writer 05-Oct-16
Coming to grips with the role of homework in the learning process continues to occupy research and commentary. In an interview with the BBC, Professor John Hattie of the University of Melbourne reports on the basis of his meta-analytical research, spanning 15 years and data from over a quarter of a billion students worldwide, that “homework in primary school has an effect of around zero. In high school it’s larger.” He asserts that this observation is not the basis for advocating getting rid of homework, but rather for getting it right. His advice to primary schools and teachers is to ask, “Is it really making a difference?” and to respond to the zero effect by looking for ways to improve the impact. Hattie believes there is an over-obsession with homework and has some clear suggestions for primary school teachers who are ready to take a closer look at how much, what, and why homework is assigned. “Five to ten minutes has the same effect as one to two hours,” he says. “The worst thing you can do with homework is give kids projects. The best thing you can do is to reinforce something you’ve already learned.” The larger effect of homework at older ages, Hattie explains, is to some extent accounted for by the nature of assignments and greater emphasis on practice. Duke University-based social psychologist Professor Harris Cooper’s meta-analyses similarly indicate a weak academic effect for homework at the primary level. He agrees with Hattie’s point about short time expectations when it comes to homework for young children. “There is a limit to how much kids can benefit from home study,” says Cooper. He believes that children should be asked for no more than 10 minutes a night per grade level, starting from about 10 minutes in first grade up to a maximum of about two hours in high school. Cooper says that after that point, there is not much to be gained as children stop really absorbing useful information. In the U.S., both the National Education Association and National Parent Teacher Association approve those limits. According to other research, prolonging the period of homework can have significant downsides, such as boredom, negative attitudes towards school and study, and interference with family life and extracurricular activities. For example, Pressman et al. (American Journal of Family Therapy, 2015) report a positive correlation between homework load and family stress. “At all grade levels, doing other things after school can have positive effects,” Cooper notes. “To the extent that homework denies access to other leisure and community activities, it’s not serving the child’s best interest.” As for the nonacademic learning that might be gained from homework, such as personal responsibility, independent study habits, and time management, hard evidence is inconclusive. It’s hard to tell how schools and teachers are responding to the research. A 2014 report by the Brookings Institution on the issue of homework explored survey data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress and found a slight increase in homework for 9-year-old students between 1984 and 2012, and stable or slight decreases in homework amounts for 13- and 17-year-old students. However, an investigation reported by Pressman et al. (2015) of the 10-minute rule among more than 1,100 students found that primary school students were receiving up to three times more homework than recommended. This patchy pattern of research results—some fairly consistent findings, and other less clear-cut evidence—lends itself to ongoing and often polarized debate over homework in primary school, with the danger that essential questions are clouded. In his 2015 article, Professor Maurice Elias of Rutgers University suggests that what we should really be asking is, “What do we believe should happen after the end of the school day to help ensure that students retain what they have learned and are primed to learn more?” As educators, we want children to understand that they are always learners, and to be enthusiastic about the prospect.
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