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When is homework worth the time?

January 8, 2013

A study led by an Indiana University School of Education faculty member in Bloomington finds little correlation between time spent on homework and better course grades for math and science students, but a positive relationship between homework time and performance on standardized tests.

Adam Maltese, assistant professor of science education in the IU School of Education, recently published “When Is Homework Worth the Time?” with co-authors Robert H. Tai, associate professor of science education at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, and Xitao Fan, dean of education at the University of Macau.

The co-authors examined survey and transcript data of more than 18,000 10th-grade students to uncover explanations for academic performance. The data focused on individual classes for students, examining the outcomes through transcripts from two nationwide samples collected in 1990 and 2002 by the National Center for Education Statistics. Contrary to much published research, an analysis of time spent on homework and the final class grade found no substantive difference in grades between students who complete homework and those who do not. But the analysis found a positive association between student performance on standardized tests and the time they spent on homework.

“Our results hint that maybe homework is not being used as well as it could be,” Maltese says.

Maltese says the genesis for the study was a concern about whether a traditional and ubiquitous educational practice, such as homework, is associated with students achieving at a higher level in math and science. Many media reports about education compare U.S. students unfavorably to high-achieving math and science students from across the world. The 2007 documentary film “Two Million Minutes” compared two Indiana students to students in India and China, taking particular note of how much more time the Indian and Chinese students spent on studying or completing homework.

This issue is particularly relevant given that the time spent on homework reported by most students translates into the equivalent of 100 to 180 50-minute class periods of extra learning time each year.

“The results from this study imply that homework should be purposeful,” co-author Tai says, “and that the purpose must be understood by both the teacher and the students. In today’s current educational environment, with all the activities taking up children’s time both in school and out of school, the purpose of each homework assignment must be clear and targeted. With homework, more is not better.””

The co-authors conclude that given current policy initiatives of the U.S. Department of Education, states, and school districts to improve science, technology, engineering, and math education, more evaluation should be done about how to use homework time more effectively. They suggest more research be done on the form and function of homework assignments.

“We’re not trying to say that all homework is bad,” Maltese notes. “It’s expected that students are going to do homework. This is more of an argument that it should be quality over quantity. So in math, rather than doing the same types of problems over and over again, maybe homework should involve having students analyze new types of problems or data. In science, maybe the students should write concept summaries instead of just reading a chapter and answering the questions at the end.”

The co-authors suggest that the types of homework assignments typically given may work better for standardized test preparation than for retaining knowledge of class material. “If students are spending more time on homework, they’re getting exposed to the types of questions and the procedures for answering questions that are not so different from standardized tests,” says Maltese.

“If homework is going to be such an important component of learning in American schools, it should be used in some way that’s more beneficial,” Maltese says. “More thought needs to be given to this, rather than just repeating problems already done in class.”

The full article is published in The High School Journal.

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