Q & A: The Deal with Homework

Cooper: easy on the homework

Cooper: easy on the homework. Megan Morr

Harris Cooper, professor of psychology and director of Duke's program in education, is the co-author of a new report, "Does Homework Improve Academic Achievement?: A Synthesis of Research," and author of a new book, The Battle Over Homework: Common Ground for Administrators, Teachers, and Parents. Both cover students from elementary through high school. As the academic year got into full swing and the homework battles picked up steam, he found himself being quoted and his work cited in the press by homework advocates and opponents alike.

Why is homework so stressful?

I think homework can be stressful because it's something that families have to fit into their lifestyles. For some families, it's difficult to figure out how to carve out the time that children need to do it.

Is homework a good thing?

Homework can be either a good thing or a bad thing, depending upon how much is assigned and what kind it is. Proponents of homework suggest that it accelerates learning and that it teaches skills involved in becoming a lifelong learner, like how to study and how to manage time, and other positive character traits such as responsibility. It also gets parents involved in their children's education.

Opponents say that homework activities remain motivating for only so long, so if we ask kids to do too much of it, it will lose its intrinsic value. They say that it crowds out children's opportunities to take part in other activities like soccer and Scouts, in which they learn important life skills. They also argue that sometimes parents can get over-involved, either by creating pressure for children to do their work at unrealistically high levels or by teaching kids things in a different manner from the way they're being taught at school.

What does the research show?

Research evidence does seem to suggest that there's a limit to homework's effectiveness, and that the amount of homework children can benefit from increases as they get older.

For middle-school children, it shows that the line of progress relating homework to test scores increased until the students were doing about an hour to an hour-and-a-half a night. Middle schoolers who reported that they were doing more than ninety minutes a night were doing no better than the students who reported stopping at ninety minutes. For high-school students, the line of progress kept going up until two to two-and-a-half hours, but then it headed down again.

So parents who think that second-graders are going to benefit from two hours of homework a night are probably going to be disappointed.

How common is it for teachers to assign too much homework?

If you surf the Internet looking for school policies on homework, you find that most of them do conform to what research suggests is good practice. But there are instances in which children are bringing home too much homework, and for those families the concerns are very real.

In those instances, why is it that teachers are assigning so much homework?

Educators will give you a few reasons. They'll say that for every parent who's saying that kids are getting too much homework, they've got another parent who's saying that their child's getting too little. They want their second-grader to get into Duke, and they think that they need to be pushed from the get-go.

It's also the case that the federal legislation requires schools to meet annual progress goals, and expanding the amount of time children spend on academic material is one of the strategies that educators use. And some educators have mentioned to me that their local newspapers have begun printing each school's end-of-grade test scores, which places a lot of pressure on teachers to maximize learning. I really think that, from the educators I've spoken with, they're responding to pressures that are being placed directly on them.

Is there a general way to characterize a good assignment versus a bad assignment?

The research evidence shows that the kinds of things kids learn through practice make for good homework assignments. So spelling, math facts, vocabulary, foreign languages—those kinds of things are ideal. They're not fun assignments, but when practice makes perfect, there's no reason why it can't be done at home.

It's also the case that homework can be used in more creative ways. Obviously, in high school, students will get longer-term assignments that ask them to integrate multiple skills, the kinds of things that will get them ready both for college and for work in the adult workplace. But for young children, you can use homework to show them that the things that they're learning in school have applications to things they enjoy doing out of school.

Can you give an example?

Most kids who are in Little League keep track of their batting average. So teachers might use sports as a context for studying percentages and winning rates or predicting how many home runs someone is going to hit in a particular season.

What should parents' role in homework be?

The parents' role in homework is going to vary as a function of how well the child is doing in school and how individually motivated [she is]. For children who are doing well in school, my advice is that parents stay away unless the teacher has suggested a particular role or the child has asked for help, in which case they give guidance and not answers. When children are struggling, it's likely that there will be more requests for help from teachers and from children, and in those instances parents should be expected to play a more active mentoring role.

Sometimes parents forget that it's also possible to enlist the aid of older siblings. I remember in my family when my younger daughter asked for assistance with her geometry homework. It was far beyond me, but it wasn't beyond her older brother, so we traded off some household chores, and big brother helped little sister with her geometry homework.

You've been cited in newspapers across the country arguing alternately for more homework and less homework. Please explain.

One of the interesting things about homework is that it's best when educators avoid the extremes—too much or too little—and we know that the media like to find those instances of extremes. So, when a news report has uncovered a parent whose second-grader is being sent home with two hours of homework a night, they will cite my work as saying homework is no good without the important qualifications.

At other times, reporters will say, "Here's a kid who doesn't bring home any homework," and they'll cite my work suggesting that that strategy is wrong. So sometimes it's difficult to get a message of "homework is good in moderation" out.

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