Homework: a low return-on-investment activity

Students spend a lot of time on homework. But are they getting enough benefit to justify it? (Public domain image via Pixabay.com)

Students spend a lot of time on homework. But are they getting enough benefit to justify it? (Public domain image via Pixabay.com)

As teachers, we’re so used to assigning homework. Students are used to doing it. It’s what we’ve come to expect as the norm.

Why do we do it? We hope that kids will improve. We hope they’ll be smarter, or more resilient, or develop positive skills that will prepare them for the future.

But does it work? Some of the research suggests that homework, in some situations, shows results. In two analyses of dozens and dozens of studies on homework (1989, 2006), Harris Cooper concluded that:

  • homework, in general, can improve students’ scores on class tests,
  • homework and academic achievement have little to no correlation with elementary school students
  • high school students (9-12) see positive gains in test scores when assigned homework, and
  • junior high students (6-8) see some gains, but only half of those by high school students.

With high school students — the group most affected by homework — the positive effect on test scores has its limits.

Example: Put a student in a class of 25 students that’s given homework regularly, Cooper wrote. Then, move that student into a class that’s given no homework. The effect of that change, according to the research? A student ranked 13th in achievement in the “homework class” would improve to 8th when moved to the “no homework class.” (See page 4, middle column.)

From 13th to 8th. In junior high, it would only go from 13th to 10th.

At what cost? Cooper’s research shows that homework reaches a point of diminishing returns after 90 minutes a night for junior high students.

For high school students, that line is somewhere between 90 minutes and 2.5 hours.

Let’s do the math. Ninety minutes of homework a night across a 180-day school year is 270 hours of homework. That’s more than 11 full, 24-hour days of a junior high student’s life.

At 2.5 hours per night, that’s 450 hours of a high school student’s life — about 18 days of his/her life.

Here’s where my brain keeps going after looking at this research …

We can get some results from assigning students tons of homework. But at what cost? And is that cost worth it?

I don’t think we’re getting enough return on investment in homework to justify it.

Let’s think of it this way (and forgive my imprecise example here) …

Imagine that a factory paid its workers $15 per hour to create a product. Imagine that, for each hour of work each worker put in, the company was able to profit $3.

Would the company earn some revenue for all its work? Yes. Money would be coming in the door for its efforts.

Would it be a good use of company resources to continue paying out $15 per hour to bring in $3? Clearly not.

How long would a company continue to do business this way? Probably until it came to its senses or inevitably went out of business.

In a way, that’s how so many of our classrooms have conducted the business of homework. We send worksheets home with students and ask them to do 1-30 (odd numbers only). Students see little benefit in doing the work and it isn’t very stimulating, so they only put forth the bare minimum required effort to complete it. It hasn’t engaged their brains, so very little (if any) learning has happened.

What did they get? Effort expended, but very little to show for it. Hours of extra work. Frustration. At times, reinforcement of mistakes. And anything but the creation of independent, lifelong learners.

We have to do better.

Imagine this: What if we made our classes more efficient and effective so that the need for homework became less and less, maybe to the point where we could ditch our homework entirely?

And what if students had the time at home to pursue what they were interested in through their own free will?

Think about it. Our students do homework all the time. They research. They experiment. They refine. They share. Work done at home. But it’s all on different topics than what they study at school.

They’re learning how to create masterpieces on Minecraft. They’re problem-solving their way through a complex video game. They’re picking up new skills like playing the guitar or doing tricks with a yo-yo. And if they’re doing it with friends, they’re building social and teamwork skills.

All despite their formal education. All without grades and class credit.

And those are the skills, we’re told, that will serve productive citizens in the changing workforce. 

So, what can we do as educators? Here’s what I’m thinking …

  • Free up time in kids’ schedules to let them satisfy their own curiosities.
  • Suggest some stimulating, interesting activities that they could do with their free time (if they need ideas).
  • Ask students what they do when they’re not at school. Then, ask them how they’re growing from it to reinforce how they’re learning when they don’t even realize it.
  • Support parents in doing the same, to help their children see how their choices outside of school make them better people.

Or, we could continue to give traditional homework. Worksheets. 1-30 odd. Because they do produce results, according to the research. Thirteenth to eighth in the class. Improvement on class tests.

But is that what we want kids to do? Score highly on tests for our class — or big standardized tests? Is that the measurement we should be concerned most about?

I want to see my own kids develop into critical thinkers. Good teammates. Kind, compassionate human beings.  And I know that there are better ways to do that than assigning them worksheets.

Question: What do you think? Is homework a low return-on-investment activity? How can we do better? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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28 thoughts on “Homework: a low return-on-investment activity

  1. Should homework be practice or should a flipped classroom allow for the learning to be done at home and practice with the teacher’s support at school? I have seen both ways and it can be totally dependant upon the student/group. Can they function independently at home? Do they have the tools? Who is supervising for digital etiquette? Are they staying semi on topic?

    I like the free-style learning idea, but have some concerns.

    • Hi Melissa! I’ll throw in my own two cents here, and if anyone else has thoughts, we’d love to see those too.

      I’ll put this out here first: I’ve spent my teaching career as a high school Spanish teacher. So my perspective comes from that and from the stories and conversations I’ve had with other teachers from a variety of facets of education.

      I can see the benefit of the flipped classroom (if students have access to the tech/Internet necessary to make it happen). However, I still go back to taking time at home to do learning that we could do at school. I would rather optimize my time at school the best I can to lessen the burden at home.

      I can also see questions similar to yours about traditional homework … Do they have parents that can support them? Is their learning environment conducive to doing schoolwork? What if they don’t have a good grasp of the material but try to do the assignment anyway?

      I think, in the end, what I come back to is that there are so many variables that skew what we get back from students and detract from the real learning that can happen through assigned homework at home. Those are just some thoughts about this that come to mind right now, and I’m still learning a lot about this, especially through the experiences of other teachers like you.

  2. After looking critically for the last year at the homework my children bring home and the homework that many teachers assign, I have come to the following conclusions:
    1. Most, if not all the homework being assigned has little to do with real material that needs to be covered in class. Much is busywork or grade-generating work that can be eliminated.
    2. Too much of this homework is designed to be summative, with little to no follow-up except to distribute the grade.
    3. If school administrators gave teachers daily work specifically to do at home for the express purpose of evaluation, most teachers would explode.
    4. I would challenge teachers to give the homework they assign to an adult. How much of it would be able to be completed by the adult?
    5. If my Amazon Echo can answer most of the homework, how valuable is it and would you have used it if it were available when you were in school?

    My takeaway is that I really need to look at what I expect kids to do at home and why do I expect that? My children are learning to really dislike school because of the amount and lack of engagement regarding homework.

    • Well John, it is a Saturday afternoon, and I am spending it by doing lesson plans, reading articles about homework and the value of it.(referring to number 3) Lesson plans are required and not enough time is given at school to complete this task. I do get evaluated on my lesson plans also.
      I agree that some of the homework that is given is busy work. I require multiplication fact practice and read anything for twenty minutes (student choice). The student is required to write some kind of response for what they have read (completed in school).

      • This is exactly my point. The presumption is that you do lesson plans on your prep period. Of course it isn’t enough time – it never is – so you do it at home. I would say the same of a student who was given work to do in class and didn’t finish it so had to do it at home. That’s fine. But, if on top of that your administrator mandated that you read articles of his or her choosing and write responses to those readings as part of your evaluation IN ADDITION to doing those duties you would be upset. Your choice to read educational material at home is your choice.

  3. I agree with your thoughts, both as a parent and an educator. Working with struggling students, what I hear from frustrated, discouraged parents leaves me thinking homework is downright disrespectful to families. These mommas and daddies have worked all day, are trying to get supper on the table, shuttle each kid to his or her various activities, probably do a chore or two or run some errands…AND teach math since Junior clearly didn’t master how to solve systems of equations by substitution in class.

    The kids who need the practice aren’t doing the homework anyway. And those mounting missing assignments are one of the biggest frustrations for many teachers.

    However, as an instructional coach, I have to respect our teachers’ right to teach the way they see fit, within the expectations of our state, district, and school, and if that includes assigning homework, I’ll work with them to try to make that homework as meaningful as possible. There ARE some valid ideas out there. And I’ve developed some ideas of my own to make the grading process (whether homework, tests, or in-class work) more meaningful so students actually LEARN from the experience. http://www.teachbeyondthedesk.com/grading-homework

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I imagine this will be an ongoing discussion in our field, but I think any discussion that leads us to evaluate the effectiveness of what we’re doing and why we’re doing it is valuable. It will certainly be good for students.

    • Thanks, Katie, for your thoughtful response. It’s clear that you’ve thought about this a lot, and I appreciate you sharing your homework grading approach for us to learn from .

  4. Yes! 100 times Yes! Homework is useful to a point. I teach math, and you can’t get away from the fact that you have to practice some skills, but I find that assigning the odds and ENCOURAGING my students to look them up in the back of the book helps a lot with not reinforcing bad habits. Please check and please use your support network to figure out what’s wrong. I often post assignments AND the answers to our google classroom because I want you to know BEFORE you walk in the room if you got it, not after. I want you to know what you need help with and I don’t want to waste class time going over the answers. I want to use class time to talk about why we made the choices we made to get to the solutions. I encourage test corrections that explain what you should have done and why because it encourages them to think, not to accept bad grades. The thing I think you’re missing here is that homework is also low-return for me, the teacher. It is not worth the time it takes me to grade and record all of that when done the traditional way. We check our own papers together. Do they cheat? Occasionally, but when empowered with my trust and the encouragement to learn from mistakes, not pretend they didn’t happen, you’d be surprised at how little they cheat. I don’t grade mountains of skill-drill work and my students still learn. And, if you’re a math teacher who isn’t encouraging your students to play with desmos.com, you’re missing out. They’ll make amazing things with equations and be so proud of what they did and learned and it will cost you NOTHING. Try it!

  5. Our school has tried to shift toward lessening homework K – 8 (we don’t have a High School). I have tried to eliminate as much homework as possible and I don’t see the students being any less engaged in class or capable of doing the work I am requiring, and so I believe it has been a positive shift in my teaching. I am less burdened with correcting homework and so I feel better able to address students needs in class.

    • David — This is very much like my own experience. In my own high school Spanish classes, I found that students were just as capable without homework as with … which indicated to me that my assignments probably weren’t the best and that students weren’t motivated to do their best work outside of class.

  6. I teach high school math. I give one homework assignment a week with 10 problems which are review giving them a chance to retain what they’ve learned. Otherwise the homework consists of finishing the daily assignment.

  7. I love this! My daughter’s 2nd-grade teacher did away with homework this year, and as a result, we now have more time for piano lessons, choir practice, weeknight church, basketball, and reading books she actually wants to read. The homework wasn’t much before they did away with it, but it was encouraging to me to see that we may be heading in the right direction when it comes to homework. As for my class, my science class generally has time to work on their assignments in class so I can help them, and it is only homework if they don’t get it done at school. I would rather the students get help from me than try to do it without help at home or have their parents do too much of it for them. I’d like to get away from homework altogether, and I’m working on it. 🙂

  8. Webster defines homework as (1) “an assignment given to a student to be completed outside the regular class period” or (2) “preparatory reading or research (as for a discussion or a debate)”. Therefore, it should not be busy work, drill n’ kill or much less work that requires help from an adult. The second definition leads me to believe that flipped assignments are appropriate for homework. Furthermore, we must differentiate for special populations, diverse learners and the gifted and talented, in order to maximize the experience. Otherwise, it’s pointless. Lastly, it doesn’t necessarily need to be graded.

  9. Sorry, but I disagree. Homework can easily be and seem poor and pointless, so the onus is on teachers to ensure that it is appropriate in purpose and duration, being a valid use of time for consolidation of learning or preparation for the next class; technology can also play a useful part in that. In the junior years, perhaps, there is a valid argument for getting all the work done in class; in middle and senior years, however, the pupils really need to demonstrate their growing accountability to take on tasks and develop study skills by completing homework. Again, the onus is on the teacher (and indeed the teacher working with the pupils) to make it a valid extension of the work done in class and purposeful to develop the learning of the pupils.

  10. I agree with your viewpoint, but I’d like to know how we can develop and create the “better ways to to do that” (to help students “develop into critical thinkers. Good teammates. Kind, compassionate human beings”). I know homework itself can’t accomplish that, but we need to meet this need in some way. In particular, I struggle with the fact that my students rarely show an ability or an interest in thinking deeply and critically on their own. They seem to lack the enthusiasm it requires to “wonder” about something beyond the classroom activities or to show an interest in digging deeper into a subject I introduce in class. Thank you for addressing this issue.

  11. I agree with you and feel that homework has little benefit for students and will often be the cause of frustration between parents and students. I teach fifth grade students and I do not assign homework and haven’t for several years now. I do encourage my students to read every night. I do not say for how long, nor do I require they keep a reading log. I just want them to read because they want to…not because it’s an assignment. So far…all of my parents have appreciated this and feel a sense of relief and most, certainly not all, get to spend this time with their children without the pressures of more school work.
    I too believe that students should have that time to pursue their own passions. They may not know what those passions are yet, but until they have the time to pursue different ideas, they may never find out.

  12. This is an interesting discussion. What about tech homework? I have been calling it Tech Tuesday and the students enjoy using the various websites. Students sometimes email me the results of a game they played (Hooda Math) and they are still learning. It is 20 minutes or less.

    • To me, whether it’s “tech homework” (done with apps and websites) or “non-tech homework” isn’t really the point. The point is to provide students with effective, engaging learning experiences. Sometimes, that’s done with technology … other times, it’s not. It goes back to that popular phrase: “Technology is a tool, not a learning outcome.” If you’re providing students with something they’re inherently interested in outside of class and they choose to do it, I don’t see any problem with that at all!

  13. Flipping Class is very popular HW with my self-motivated JH students. Those wishing to improve grades and are tutorless take advantage of the Quizlets and Schoology self testing that I set up. Must be the Smartphone…

  14. Students stick with video games because there is a reward – maybe they will stick to homework if they see the reward. What percentage of the overall grade is the homework grade? If you reward students for homework (the question becomes is it graded on accuracy or completeness?) and it benefits them, it will get done. I have graded on accuracy (Social Studies) and showed students how the homework grade can help them pass the class even if they are a poor test taker.

  15. Homework is supposed to be for additional practice to reinforce what was taught and to be used a method of informal assessment. However, it’s pretty much turned into drill and kill…boring and uninspired. I really like the idea of using what they’ve learned in class and asking them to apply it their home lives when they are out of school. Next day, they can come to class, discuss what they’ve come up with. I can assess their learning that way and they enjoy their “home-work” instead of saddling them with a bunch of worksheets. They still do independent learning but stay interested enough to want to learn.

  16. This is an interesting article, but there are many errors in the writing. First, I believe that the reporting of the results of a student moving from 13th to 8th are reported incorrectly. The article states that the student improves when moved to a class without homework, yet the research shows the opposite to be true. Another area of concern is that the author seems to believe that a “profit” of $3 for each hour paid out to employees is not feasible. The company is making a good return by receiving back 1/5 of their payroll after expenses. That is what profit means. I think the author has a good point, but is struggling to explain it to others. Simply put, the students do benefit from practice outside of the classroom, but they can easily become overloaded if every teacher assigns huge amounts of that practice. We (teachers) are here to introduce connections to new ideas/methods/skills. We can do some of that in the classroom. Some of it must be practiced outside of the classroom and should strictly be formative. Those summative assessments must also be changed to reflect student learning and achievement, not simply how well they compare to each other. The “standardized tests” are a tool for comparing individual ability to take that test, not for evaluating student ability to be successful in life.

    • Hi Jeffrey … Regarding a couple of your concerns …
      — I think the research I cited in this blog post is cited correctly. It suggests that if a student was moved from a class where homework was assigned to a class where no homework was assigned that he/she would rise in class ranking. That bit of research suggests that homework does have a positive effect. What I’m arguing in this blog post is that the cost of getting that positive effect might be a higher cost than it’s worth.
      — I understand what profit means … it’s the net effect of expense and income, basically. My example of the hypothetical factory was to illustrate a point, not to show statistical proof of an idea. (And I even stated that my example was imprecise.) Let’s change the numbers to help illustrate the point better. What if the factory was paying $15 per hour and only making 5 cents profit for every hour paid? The point is that they’re not getting enough return on their investment (hence the title of the blog post).
      — Your assertion that “We can do some of that in the classroom” and “Some of it must be practiced outside of the classroom”, also, is the point that I’m raising in this post. This has become an assumption of so many teachers, that we must practice outside of the classroom. I’m suggesting that if we’re more efficient and effective in what we do in the classroom that we can reduce (and in some cases, eliminate) our need to assign that extra work to students after their time at school is done for the day.
      Thanks for your contribution, and thanks for reading, Jeffrey!
      — Matt (the author)

  17. I totally agree; however, teachers and students are being held captive. On the one hand, we teachers are supposed to be doing “homework” such as state-mandated “hoop jumping” in the name of proving our effectiveness as educators, all of which takes valuable time away from engaging with our students, planning for instruction, and formatively assessing learning. On the other, to socialize students to expect no outside work is incongruent with what they will face in terms of college homework. There are not many teachers who don’t want their students to be engaged with their world as critical thinkers. Unfortunately, this is not how students, teachers, schools, and school districts are judged. What a tangle!

  18. It’s not so much the homework, but the motivation of the students to either do well(grades, preparedness in class, external motivation, etc.) OR to learn the material(i.e. internal motivation). A motivated student will do be happy to do meaningful work. A motivated student abhors busy work. Maybe we can do further research adding motivation as another variable.