Evidence That Too Much Homework Is Bad

Piling on the homework doesn't help kids do better in school. In fact, it can lower their test scores.

That's the conclusion of a group of Australian researchers, who have taken the aggregate results of several recent studies investigating the relationship between time spent on homework and students' academic performance.

According to Richard Walker, an educational psychologist at Sydney University, data shows that in countries where more time is spent on homework, students score lower on a standardized test called the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA. The same correlation is also seen when comparing homework time and test performance at schools within countries. Past studies have also demonstrated this basic trend.

Inundating children with hours of homework each night is detrimental, the research suggests, while an hour or two per week usually doesn't impact test scores one way or the other. However, homework only bolsters students' academic performance during their last three years of grade school. "There is little benefit for most students until senior high school (grades 10-12)," Walker told Life's Little Mysteries.

The research is detailed in his new book, "Reforming Homework: Practices, Learning and Policies" (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

The same basic finding holds true across the globe, including in the U.S., according to Gerald LeTendre of Pennsylvania State University. He and his colleagues have found that teachers typically give take-home assignments that are unhelpful busy work. Assigning homework "appeared to be a remedial strategy (a consequence of not covering topics in class, exercises for students struggling, a way to supplement poor quality educational settings), and not an advancement strategy (work designed to accelerate, improve or get students to excel)," LeTendre wrote in an email. [Kids Believe Literally Everything They Read Online, Even Tree Octopuses]

This type of remedial homework tends to produce marginally lower test scores compared with children who are not given the work. Even the helpful, advancing kind of assignments ought to be limited; Harris Cooper, a professor of education at Duke University, has recommended that students be given no more than 10 to 15 minutes of homework per night in second grade, with an increase of no more than 10 to 15 minutes in each successive year.

Most homework's neutral or negative impact on students' academic performance implies there are better ways for them to spend their after school hours than completing worksheets. So, what should they be doing? According to LeTendre, learning to play a musical instrument orparticipating in clubs and sports all seem beneficial, but there's no one answer that applies to everyone.

"These after-school activities have much more diffuse goals than single subject test scores," he wrote.  "When I talk to parents … they want their kids to be well-rounded, creative, happy individuals — not just kids who ace the tests."

Follow Natalie Wolchover on Twitter @nattyover. Follow Life's Little Mysteries on Twitter @llmysteries, then join us on Facebook.

Is Homework Bad?

Is homework being overassigned in the primary grades? More and more education experts are saying yes. Two new books on the subject are out now, including the latest endeavor by education expert Alfie Kohn. Instructor magazine recently ran an excerpt from the highly anticipated book. "There is no evidence to demonstrate that homework benefits students below high school age," Kohn argues in the book. "Even if you regard standardized test results as a useful measure (which I don't), more homework isn't correlated with higher scores for children in elementary school."

Even at the high school level, Kohn says, the benefits of homework are debatable. "Some studies do find a relationship between homework and test scores," Kohn says, "but it tends to be small. More important, there's no reason to think that higher achievement is caused by the homework."

Opponents of excessive homework argue that it forces parents to sacrifice already scarce family time for the sake of completing assignments, not because they are necessary for students to grasp concepts but because the schools have decided in advance that children must do something for each subject every night whether it's necessary or not.

So as you welcome students and parents back to school this year, do your own homework. Take a look at the new homework books out there and be prepared for those who have read them too. The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing by Alfie Kohn, and The Case Against Homework: How Homework Is Hurting Our Children and What We Can Do About It by Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalisha, are both available now.

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