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Homework - the pros and cons for young students

Homework – the pros and cons for young students

The subject of homework – especially for young students – is increasingly a contentious one. That said, the majority of schools do persist with homework programmes. And for the most part, parents appear to accept that the school / education system must know best and do their part to support the policy.

We place a lot of faith in the education system, but how much time have our educators or institutions spent researching the concept, challenging the status quo, or trialling innovative alternatives? Is homework really good for children, or is it time for a re-think?

International Research Studies

Edutopia.org have helpfully summarised findings from some of the most prominent homework research studies as follows:

  • In general, homework has substantial benefits at the high school level, with decreased benefits for middle school students and few benefits for elementary students. (Cooper, 1989; Cooper et al., 2006)
  • While assigning homework may have academic benefits, it can also cut into important personal and family time. (Cooper et al., 2006)
  • Assigning too much homework can result in poor performance, (Fernández-Alonso et al., 2015)
  • A student’s ability to complete homework may depend on factors that are outside their control. (Cooper et al., 2006; OECD, 2014; Eren & Henderson, 2011)
  • The goal shouldn’t be to eliminate homework, but to make it authentic, meaningful, and engaging. (Darling-Hammond & Ifill-Lynch, 2006)

During the above-mentioned Cooper study, conducted at Duke University (Carolina, USA), researchers reviewed more than 60 studies between 1987 and 2003. The analysis concluded that overall, homework does have a positive effect on student achievements (such as test scores). However, it was noted that the focus of the research was based on achievement rather than evaluation of the effect of homework on the process of learning, and the benefits were mostly observed in older students. It was also noted that many other factors may have contributed to academic success, and could not necessarily be attributed to a routine of regular homework.

Positive outcomes identified in Cooper’s analysis included improved study habits and self-discipline and increased inquisitiveness and independent problem-solving skills.

However, some of the studies highlighted increased physical and emotional fatigue, more prevalent negative attitudes to learning and limited leisure time for children as a result of homework – noting in younger students the argument for homework was weak. 

Australian Research

Looking closer to home, review studies on homework in schools have been published in New South Wales and Victoria. Both these reviews were unable to demonstrate that homework improved academic performance for primary school students in itself. However, results did suggest that homework has the benefit of engaging parents with their children’s learning, which was perceived to be beneficial.

Interestingly, despite the ongoing debate, findings from Census at School 2008 to 2013 revealed that Australian children spent more time doing homework than in the preceding five years.

The Homework Myth

A popular book by Alfie Kohn examines the ‘accepted’ notion that homework appears to lead to higher achievement, that it can reinforce learning, and teaches study skills and responsibility. But Kohn asserts that these are simply ‘assumptions’ that are not borne out by research, logic or experience. 

Kohn’s concern is that the school day is a long one for children and being subjected to yet more work once they get home, leads to stress, frustration, exhaustion and ultimately, conflict. He suggests that children need a break from a subject to avoid burnout and loss of interest, and that after school time would be better invested in spending quality time with family and recreational activities.

Kohn describes how many schools have demonstrated academic excellence without homework. He believes we need to “rethink what happens during and after school in order to rescue our families and our children's love of learning.”

You can read more from Alfie Kohn on The Homework Myth here.

What's good and not so good about homework?

After considering the various studies available, here’s our summary of what we believe are the pros and cons of homework for younger students…

What is good about homework?

  1. Even though students may have thought they had understood certain topics during class, having to complete homework on the same topic can often reveal gaps in their understanding, which only becomes apparent when they have to work alone at home.
  2. Homework can be a good opportunity for students to connect with parents and/or siblings, to gain support and promote their learning.
  3. Homework teaches responsibility and accountability, as well as time management and planning to ensure the work is submitted on the due date.
  4. Homework consolidates what students have learned in class and aids retention of new concepts and tasks.

What is not so good about homework? 

  1. If children are tired after a full day working at school, having to do yet more work at home can lead to negative attitudes to learning, to their teacher and to the concept of school in general.
  2. Fatigue and over-exposure to schoolwork can also lead to frustration and place a strain on family relationships.
  3. Having to be constantly reminded, or ‘nagged’ to get their homework done, negates any potential benefit of building responsibility.
  4. Too much work can leave children with no down-time, which could make them feel miserable. They need time to just be kids: to relax, to enjoy time with family, and re-charge to tackle the next day at school with enthusiasm.
Homework alternatives to make learning fun

If your child’s school does not set homework, there are a few alternatives, that may help develop his or her learning that won’t feel like work at all:

  1. Encourage fun reading times, allowing your child to choose the book. Make it feel special and something they will look forward to with you. Check out our previous article for ideas on how to make reading time more fun.
  2. Involve your child in the household chores – again, making it fun, which is another great way to teach responsibility. Another idea is to give your child the role of looking after the family pet.
  3. Use everyday events to educate your child on a variety of topics, simply by talking about your day at home or work, and their day at school. 
  4. Take your child to visit the library, to a museum, to watch a children’s play, or sport – particularly if they display an interest in certain activities.
  5. Make arrangements for playdates with friends, to develop your child’s social skills outside of the school environment.
  6. Encourage creative play to expand their experiences.

For more ideas on improving your child's literacy, read our article on learning though fun literacy games.

To summarise, we believe it’s all about balance. Children may well benefit from short homework tasks once or twice a week in certain subjects. If they don’t have to do this every night, they are more likely to tackle the tasks willingly – even enthusiastically.