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What is the Value of Homework? Research and Reality

How do parents know if their children’s homework is contributing to their academic progress or turning them off learning? Education experts have identified a range of approaches that can be considered ‘best practice’ when it comes to homework:

  • Students are given variety and degree of choice in assignments – this is empowering, engaging and reduces the tendency for students to compare their work to their peers.  
  • Homework is designed to ‘spark’ students’ creative thinking, talents, community involvement and problem solving, by encouraging students to work together.
  • Concepts that have already been mastered are reinforced by intermittent learning  - this technique works best when homework problems are spread out over a period of time rather than completed in one sitting.
  • Teachers involve parents in appropriate ways (sounding boards) without requiring them to act as teachers or to police students’ homework completion.
  • Homework is set at an appropriate level of difficulty, is able to be completed independently with relatively high success rates, but remains challenging enough to be interesting.
  • Differentiating homework tasks ensures that teachers meet the needs of individual students.   

Does Your Child Receive Feedback on Homework?

Providing feedback to students is thought to be essential if it is to have value; research indicates that “homework that is reviewed, commented upon, and discussed in class, is three times more effective at improving students’ academic achievement.”  However, when grades are attached to nightly homework there is a tendency for parents to fix their child’s mistake and ‘edit’ their work and there is an incentive for older students to cheat:
“Having students do homework out of fear of negative consequences turns a situation ideal for building intrinsic motivation … into one that implies that the teacher believes students need rewards or punishment in order to complete assignment ... The major purpose should be to identify individual students’ learning problems.”  says Bennet and Kalish. And using homework as a punishment is not recommended. Those authors explain that common punitive practices (like keeping students in at recess for incomplete homework) “communicate to students that schoolwork is boring and aversive.”    A more positive approach is for parents and teachers to work together if they become aware that a student is experiencing problems completing homework.

Homework for Children with Special Needs and Learning Disabilities

Homework is often stressful for children with a learning disability who may have been struggling and compensating all day long. In the view of Bension O’Reilly, co-author of the Australian Autism Handbook:
     “For kids with special needs, just getting through the school day is going to be harder for them: the girl with cerebral palsy will be exerting lots of energy just to stay upright in her wheel chair, the boy with autism will have to control his emotions and attend to what the teacher is saying, the girl with learning disabilities will be using all her cognitive resources just to answer a few simple maths questions and make it to the end of a basic school reader.  In theory homework could reinforce the lessons they learned earlier that day, but I wonder how often you’d be looking at the law of diminishing returns. After a day at school these kids would be too exhausted to take anything in.”

O’Reilly also points out that children with special needs often have to spend considerable time outside of school hours participating in various types of therapy. Making teachers aware of these activities is essential so that together with parents, they can decide how much (if any) homework to assign. Engaging with enjoyable extra-curricular activities may provide a sense of accomplishment that is largely missing from a child’s school experience, and may be of greater benefit than spending time on homework. For example, one study found that for children with ADHD there was “significant improvement in executive function after eight weeks of 40 minutes of vigorous activity after school each day.”

Parents may not understand the latest methodologies for completing long division or learning to read, but most do understand their individual child and the impact homework has on their attitude to school and learning, and their physical and emotional well-being. Putting this understanding at the centre of any homework debate is key to creating approaches to homework that promote happy, healthy and engaged children at school.

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References used for this article included:

Harris Cooper, Homework Research and Policy: A Review of the Literature, Research and Policy (CAREI), Vol 2, No. 2, p 3

Cooper, H., Lindsay, J.J., Nye, B., and Greathouse, S. (1998) "Relationships among attitudes about homework, amount of homework assigned and completed, and student achievement", Journal of Educational Psychology, 90 (1), 70-83.

Changing Times of American Youth: 1982-2003, Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan, 2004

The Balanced View: Research-based information on timely topics, Vol 6, June 2002, Westchester Institute for Human Services and Research, p 3

Robert J Marzano and Debra J Pickering, "Special Topic: The Case for and Against Homework", Educational Leadership, March 2007, Vol 64, No. 6

Mollie K. Galloway and Denise Pope, “Hazardous Homework? The relationship between homework, goal orientation, and well-being in adolescence”, Encounter: Education for Meaning and Social Justice

Jerusha Conner, Denise Pope, and Mollie Galloway, "Success with Less Stress", December 2009/January 2010, Volume 67, Number 4, Health and Learning, Educational Leadership pp 54-58