Homework Stress Cartoon

Student’s lives are overrun with homework that is essentially meaningless most of the time. Credit: Michael Morales/The Foothill Dragon Press

Homework. Something that every high school student is painfully familiar with. Slow, tedious, busy work that is assigned as a daily torturing session for all of us innocent little children. A little homework can help to grind what a student has learned into their long-term memory, but the hours worth that we get? No way!

Students are expected to get good grades, have a hobby, have family time, go outside, read lots of books, spend time with their friends, and do all of their homework? There is way too much stress put on students, like it or not. If you’re still wondering why teens are rebelling through alcohol and tobacco, look no further. A huge part of the reason for their rebellion is that parents become overbearing, put more pressure on them than they are capable of handling, not allowing them anywhere near as much free time, and still expecting them to play a sport, be social, and have fun. Who can blame the kid for buckling under the weight?

We didn’t have this mountain of homework 30 years ago, so what has changed? Why is it that this generation needs so much homework, as opposed to previous generations?

Is it perhaps because American standardized test scores are lagging? In standardized testing, there were 23 industrialized countries that received superior scores in math, and 16 in science. Trying to find a solution for this would be understandable. Assigning more homework to help test scores looks good on paper. However, this logic has one serious flaw. Most students that are bringing down standardized test scores are the ones who don’t care. They don’t work in class, the don’t pay attention, so of course they don’t do their homework.

More homework being assigned won’t change anything with them. They’ll ignore it just like all of the normal homework. Students that care about doing well, on the other hand, are forced to scramble to keep up with the avalanche of pointless worksheets that they are assigned every day, even on weekends.

Adults talk about how hard being an adult is. Taxes, insurance, a job, yes, definitely stressful. But have they forgotten what it was like to be stressed over school? Honestly, I can’t see how school and work are much different. Even worse, with school, you don’t have anywhere near as much freedom as you do with an actual job. Most people in school (not counting college students) can’t drive, very few can vote, they have to have their parents approval on where they can or can’t go, most can’t get a job, they can’t drink, and they are entirely under the control of the administration when it comes to what classes they can or cannot take.

According to the National Education Association, students should have ten minutes of homework in the first grade, and then have that number increase by ten minutes per grade level. By this math, freshmen should have 90 minutes, sophomores 100, juniors 110, and seniors 120. This rule should be followed. Most teachers do try to follow it, but this rule may not even be necessary if teachers concentrated more effectively on a lesson. This may call for a change in teaching style, a different approach, or just simply for them to stop wasting class time unnecessarily.

Students cannot fulfill all of their obligations with all of the added pressure from too much completely unnecessary and time wasting homework caused by flawed logic and a minority of students who don’t care.

Like all teachers, I’ve spent many hours correcting homework. Yet there’s a debate over whether we should be setting it at all.

I teach both primary and secondary, and regularly find myself drawn into the argument on the reasoning behind it – parents, and sometimes colleagues, question its validity. Parent-teacher interviews can become consumed by how much trouble students have completing assignments. All of which has led me to question the neuroscience behind setting homework. Is it worth it?

'My son works until midnight': parents around the world on homework

Increasingly, there’s a divide between those who support the need for homework and those who suggest the time would be better spent with family and developing relationships. The anxiety related to homework is frequently reviewed.

A survey of high-performing high schools by the Stanford Graduate School of Education, for example, found that 56% of students considered homework a primary source of stress. These same students reported that the demands of homework caused sleep deprivation and other health problems, as well as less time for friends, family and extracurricular pursuits.

Working memory?

When students learn in the classroom, they are using their short-term or working memory. This information is continually updated during the class. On leaving the classroom, the information in the working memory is replaced by the topic in the next class.

Adults experience a similar reaction when they walk into a new room and forget why they are there. The new set of sensory information – lighting, odours, temperature – enters their working memory and any pre-existing information is displaced. It’s only when the person returns to the same environment that they remember the key information.

But education is about more than memorising facts. Students need to access the information in ways that are relevant to their world, and to transfer knowledge to new situations.

Many of us will have struggled to remember someone’s name when we meet them in an unexpected environment (a workmate at the gym, maybe), and we are more likely to remember them again once we’ve seen them multiple times in different places. Similarly, students must practise their skills in different environments.

Revising the key skills learned in the classroom during homework increases the likelihood of a student remembering and being able to use those skills in a variety of situations in the future, contributing to their overall education.

The link between homework and educational achievement is supported by research: a meta-analysis of studies between 1987 and 2003 found that: “With only rare exceptions, the relationship between the amount of homework students do and their achievement outcomes was found to be positive and statistically significant.”

The right type of work

The homework debate is often split along the lines of primary school compared with secondary school. Education researcher Professor John Hattie, who has ranked various influences on student learning and achievement, found that homework in primary schools has a negligible effect (most homework set has little to no impact on a student’s overall learning). However, it makes a bigger difference in secondary schools.

His explanation is that students in secondary schools are often given tasks that reinforce key skills learned in the classroom that day, whereas primary students may be asked to complete separate assignments. “The worst thing you can do with homework is give kids projects; the best thing you can do is reinforce something you’ve already learned,” he told the BBC in 2014.

The science of homework: tips to engage students' brains

So homework can be effective when it’s the right type of homework. In my own practice, the primary students I teach will often be asked to find real-life examples of the concept taught instead of traditional homework tasks, while homework for secondary students consolidates the key concepts covered in the classroom. For secondary in particular, I find a general set of rules useful:

  • Set work that’s relevant. This includes elaborating on information addressed in the class or opportunities for students to explore the key concept in areas of their own interest.

  • Make sure students can complete the homework. Pitch it to a student’s age and skills – anxiety will only limit their cognitive abilities in that topic. A high chance of success will increase the reward stimulation in the brain.

  • Get parents involved, without the homework being a point of conflict with students. Make it a sharing of information, rather than a battle.

  • Check the homework with the students afterwards. This offers a chance to review the key concepts and allow the working memory to become part of the long-term memory.

While there is no data on the effectiveness of homework in different subjects, these general rules could be applied equally to languages, mathematics or humanities. And by setting the right type of homework, you’ll help to reinforce key concepts in a new environment, allowing the information you teach to be used in a variety of contexts in the future.

Helen Silvester is a writer for npj Science of Learning Community

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