District Administration has an article “Homework or Not? That is the (Research)Question.” The article does a good job covering the homework debate, including homework news from around the world. It appears balanced in its approach. In the In Favor of Homework section, the article points to the work of Harris Cooper, who indicates that “Of 35 studies that simply correlated homework and achievement, with no attempt to control for student differences, about 77 percent also found a positive link between time on homework and achievement.” He refers to other studies that control for other factors, such as socioeconomic status, and those also found a positive link. With regard to elementary school students, Cooper notes that there is no link whatsoever between homework and success.
In reviewing these studies, there are two things we should be kept in mind. First, we need to understand what it means for a study to be correlational. Second, we need to understand what we mean by time.
Correlational studies show an association between two factors. In this case, the association is between homework doing and success. The fact that there is an association does not tell us whether homework completion breeds success or academic success breeds homework completion. In my writings, I have often focused on the myth of motivation, and pointed out that we do well at things we like to do, and we develop interest things where we have success. To say that the homework noncompliant student is unmotivated is nonsensical without addressing the question about how proficient that student is in doing homework. If the student has difficulties in working memory or processing speed, completing homework is a much more daunting task than it is for the student who comes home knowing what he needs to do and having the skill to do it quickly. The student who gets good scores and gets his homework done, may be completing the homework because he can, and he can complete it because he is already proficient at the topics involved.
The second issue is time. The correlational studies Professor Cooper refers talk about homework time, but are they truly talking about time or are they talking about the volume of homework assigned? Professor Cooper has noted at other times in his writings, that there are diminishing returns when homework is excessive. There is just so much time in a day and so much we can expect that students will do. So we need to ask ourselves, are those students, who are performing and learning well, doing so because they put more time into their homework, or is it because they are proficient enough to complete the additional assignments in reasonable amounts of time?
Most school districts have some sort of homework policy and many include a time based standard. Ten minutes per night per grade is the number that frequently gets bandied around. But ten minutes for a high school student (say 100 minutes for a tenth grader) is being divvied between five different teachers, all of whom may be guesstimating that their share is an approximate 20 minutes. We don’t really know how much time that assignment takes the individual student to complete. We don’t know how proficient that student is at organizing and prioritizing assignments to fit them in the 100 minute nightly container. And we don’t know that the poor performing student did not really put in 100 minutes since the only thing we look at is what the student has turned in.
In my experience, the student who does poorly generally puts in the required 100 minutes in September, but comes back with negative grades. A common strategy for that student is to get good grades for a couple of his teachers, but do nothing for the others. The student lacks the skill to balance the different incoming assignments, and we expect that student to somehow figure out how to do that without guidance or instruction. The student starts out feeling motivated, puts the time in, gets pressured by the teachers for whom he does not work, and then stops doing any work at all.
If we truly capped the assignments at 100 minutes for that tenth grader, helped him prioritize his work, possibly even gave him a small study hall during the day to organize work and get some of it done, and had a system in which teachers were told that they had to back off on some of their assignments, we might find different research results.
For more information on Dr. Goldberg's model, read other postings on this blog, visit his website, The Homework Trap, or read his book, The Homework Trap: How to Save the Sanity of Parents, Students and Teachers.