Written by Associate Professors Richard Walker and Mike Horsley I Photography by rawpixel
Many researchers have conducted studies to ascertain if homework is actually beneficial to a child’s learning. Associate Professors Richard Walker and Mike Horsley review the results of the studies and provide guidance on how parents can assist their children with their homework.
Many parents are concerned about their children’s homework. Some parents are concerned that their children get too much homework and that this interferes with family life and other valued activities such as sport and leisure. These parents often consider that homework places stress on families and children and that these stresses are unjustified because homework does not accomplish the goals for which it is set. Some parents consider that their children do not get enough homework and consider that as a consequence they do not learn as much or as well as children who do more homework. These parents believe that homework benefits their children and they consider that their children may, in the longer term, be disadvantaged relative to other children.
In our recently published book, Reforming Homework: Practices, Learning and Policy, we have argued that while there are problems with the way that homework is currently delivered in schools, there are good reasons why homework should be reformed rather than abolished. Some of these reasons relate to evidence from homework research, comprehensively reviewed in the book, which demonstrate that students can benefit from homework activities. Some of these benefits occur when parents are involved in their children’s homework activities. Homework can also have a detrimental impact on students under some circumstances, including the way that parents are involved in their children’s homework.
This article provides a brief historical overview of parental concerns regarding homework, it then examines the definition of homework and reasons teachers may set homework. The article then presents research evidence relating to these reasons with particular emphasis given to research concerning parental involvement in their children’s homework. The article also provides parents with advice concerning their children’s homework activities.
‘Because parental involvement in their children’s homework can be both beneficial and detrimental, parents need to ask themselves some critical questions about their potential homework involvement.’
A BRIEF HISTORICAL OUTLINE OF PARENTAL CONCERN WITH HOMEWORK Homework appears to have been part of the lives of parents and their children since the advent of mass compulsory schooling which began to occur in English speaking countries from about the 1850’s onwards; for instance, education became compulsory in Victoria in 1872, and in New South Wales in 1880. Although there has been no systematic historical examination of homework in Australia in these early times, the advent of compulsory schooling brought with it the development of education bureaucracies and rules and regulations concerning student learning outcomes. It seems likely that concerns with student learning outcomes would have meant that teachers would have been disposed to set homework activities for their students. There is certainly evidence that teachers were being given advice about the purposes and setting of homework in the late nineteenth century. A historical examination of homework (Gill and Schlossman, 2003) in the United States has shown that parents had three main concerns with homework in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The first concern related to the authority of parents versus the authority of the school to require students to do homework. Homework was seen as a challenge to the authority of parents to determine the activities that their children engaged in outside of school. Organisations which advocated on behalf of parents in the USA ran campaigns in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century against homework which led to court cases in which the authority of the school to require homework was tested. For instance, in 1901 the Mississippi Supreme Court found that a school had exceeded its authority when the school took a student to court for attending church rather than doing required homework in the evenings. This kind of concern led to the banning of homework at this time for students in some grades in some states in the USA.
Another concern with homework at this time was that it prevented students from engaging in outdoor activities after school, and thus represented a threat to the health of students. It was argued that homework created physical and mental distress for students that was harmful to their health. Students spent long hours at school, after which they had to carry home heavy bags of books for their homework, and were unable to partake of fresh air and physical exercise after school.
A final concern was that homework interfered with the activities of families. This latter concern has continued to be an issue with contemporary parents, both in USA and elsewhere. Two books published in the USA over the last ten years have strongly put the case that homework is disruptive to family life. Kravolec and Buell (2000) argued that not only does homework undermine family life, it also undermines social and community life and contributes to social isolation and alienation. In their book Bennett and Kalish (2006) also complained about the impact of homework on family life. They report the results of a survey which showed that approximately twenty to thirty percent of parents considered that their children were expected to do too much homework. Bennett and Kalish (2006) suggest a variety of ways that parents can be advocates for their children when they consider that homework demands are excessive.
Many parents, both historically and in contemporary times, have been supportive of homework, however. Gill and Schlossman (2003) have argued that in the USA only a small proportion of parents have been opposed to homework. In France, in the context of parental protests in 2012 over excessive homework demands, the general secretary of a parent association which supported homework stated that while homework demands needed to be reasonable, homework was beneficial because going back over a lesson was the best way for students to learn things.
THE DEFINITION AND PURPOSES OF HOMEWORK In order to conduct research in a consistent and systematic way, homework researchers have defined what they mean by homework and this definition has been the basis of all the research discussed later in this article. Homework has been defined (Cooper, 1989) as ‘tasks assigned to students by school teachers that are meant to be carried out during non-school hours.’ This definition does not include student preparation and study for examinations, tests and quizzes, nor does it include student involvement in out of school tutoring or engagement in extracurricular activities associated with the school. There are many reasons why teachers may set homework. Epstein and Van Voorhis (2001) have identified the following ten reasons why teachers may set homework: the practice of already learnt skills; preparation for new learning activities; to extend and integrate students’ existing understandings; the development of independent self-directed learning skills and the development of a sense of responsibility; to involve parents in the school related activities of their children; to foster communication between the teacher and parents; to promote learning through interaction with peers; to meet policy requirements; to promote an image of the school which accords with parental expectations; and as a form of punishment.
HOMEWORK RESEARCH EVIDENCE While there are many reasons why teachers may set homework most homework research has addressed the following three questions:
1.Is homework beneficial for student learning outcomes? 2.Does homework help to develop the skills of independent, self-directed learning in students? 3.Is parental involvement in their children’s homework activities beneficial for achievement outcomes and the development of independent, self-directed learning skills?
While the answers to these questions are complex and involve many qualifications, as we note in Reforming Homework: Practices, Learning and Policy, some summary statements may be made. In relation to the first question, homework has no achievement benefits for students up to grade three, negligible benefits for students in grades four to six, weak benefits for students in grades seven to nine, and reasonable benefits for students in grades ten to twelve. While most homework researchers have long considered that more time spent on homework is beneficial for achievement outcomes, the most methodologically sophisticated research conducted to date, German research by Ulrich Trautwein and his colleagues, indicates that more time spent on homework is associated with lower achievement outcomes.
In relation to the second question, homework is associated with independent, self-directed learning skills but these skills are developed when students receive organisational and other assistance from their parents. While schools may help students to develop self-directed learning skills, a small body of research shows clearly that for students to develop these skills in the context of their homework activities, students’ need to receive assistance from parents or others in how to create a suitable homework environment, how to schedule and manage their time, and how to avoid distractions.
In relation to the third question, parental involvement in their children’s homework activities can be both beneficial and detriment for student achievement outcomes depending upon the nature of the parental involvement. The research shows that when parents are over controlling, or interfering, in their homework involvement, this has detrimental effects on student achievement outcomes. This is also true for student motivation in relation to homework activities. The best homework achievement and motivation outcomes are achieved when parents provide both structure and autonomy for their children. As already noted, self-directed learning skills are developed when parents are able to provide appropriate assistance to their children concerning the regulation and management of homework.
RESEARCH ON HOMEWORK ~ IMPLICATIONS FOR PARENTS Because parental involvement in their children’s homework can be both beneficial and detrimental, parents need to ask themselves some critical questions about their potential homework involvement. These questions provide a checklist for parents that makes clear some key choices in the way that they involve themselves in homework that is positive and leads to their children learning, but more importantly, develop in their children the skills of self–regulation and self-management that students require for long term deep learning.
These critical questions include: 1.What is the best way for parents to involve themselves in their childrens’ homework? 2.What types of parental involvement in homework promote student learning and achievement? 3.How is the ‘right’ place for students to do their homework chosen? 4.What parental involvement practices should parents emphasise, and how can parents reduce homework friction? 5.How can parents seek support from the school system, teachers, principals and the community, and other parents? What is the best way for parents to involve themselves in their children’s homework?
Most parents are surprised to learn that some research shows that parental involvement in general school activities (i.e. attending the P&C, helping out in the school canteen, or school fetes) has been shown to be more effective in student achievement than helping their children with homework. This is because some parental homework involvement is to the long term disadvantage of students learning long term self -management and self-regulation skills. Parents whose parental involvement in homework is highly controlling and prescriptive, highly demanding and structured and who take over responding to homework demands, are hindering the development of planning, timing, managing and controlling of homework by the children themselves. Even worse, parents who actually complete students homework are actively stunting the development of these skills. Research conducted by Horsley and Walker showed that children understand this well and suggest that parents be ‘guides on the sides’ or provide only direction and assistance with planning. Some research shows that parental involvement in school generally can be more positive for children’s learning than just focusing on homework involvement. For example touching base weekly with the teacher may be far more effective than significant parental involvement in homework. Homework often occurs in isolation and outside most other forms of parental school involvement.
What types of parental involvement in homework promote student learning and achievement? Following on from the previous paragraph the implications for parental involvement are clear. It is the type and nature of parental involvement in homework that promotes achievement rather than the extent of the involvement. Over controlling restricts the development of student ability to manage their own learning. Less intrusive parental monitoring of homework tends to promote student homework completion. The critical impact of parental involvement in children’s school work is that involvement in students’ academic work not only provides learning resources, but also improves students’ skills and learning tools, as well as meta-cognitive skills, such as planning and self-regulation. Parents should know that it is the long term learning that is important – not the short term completion of specific homework tasks, the appropriate blend of parental involvement with homework may promote long term attitudes, approaches and motivation. This is the type of parental homework involvement that is most effective.
How is the ‘right’ place for students to do their homework chosen? It is not the actual place that is most important but the ‘routine’ that is encouraged. Parents need to consider how the place chosen for students to complete homework contributes to a ‘routine’ for doing homework; reduces distraction and promotes student concentration, focus and flow; aligns with family and home computer access; and constrains or affords the time available to do homework. The establishment of homework routines helps students develop self-regulatory, self-directed homework planning skills. Since most students tend to complete their homework tasks just before they are due – homework planning and being systematic in preparation is a key part of the development of such homework routines. Furthermore, these sorts of self-regulation skills take a really long time to develop in most children, so we are looking at a long term approach here. Parents should also be aware that they need to develop a line of sight not just to monitor student emotions and body language but the myriad distractions that overcome the forces of concentration in young people – mostly electronic distractions. Helping students develop routines based on their social and family context are crucial in supporting long term learning from homework.
What parental involvement practices should parents emphasise? Underpinning the homework involvement practices that parents should emphasise requires a deeper understanding of the types of homework tasks that students have been assigned. This is a critical question for parents in assisting their children in homework planning. Parental assistance needs to be framed around whether the homework task comprises drill and practice for consolidation and review, or an inquiry activity requiring cognitive growth through new learning. Parental assistance should focus on parents providing scaffolding from the known to the unknown in relation to the homework activity, and to develop positive perceptions and expectations for success. By clarifying the nature and purpose of the tasks, parents will be more able to assist students’ scope and segment the task, seek assistance and plan a timetable. An issue in establishing the nature and purpose of homework may be the different types of homework and homework requirements between primary and secondary schools. Many primary schools (Richardson & Horsley, 2011) provide structured weekly homework assigned at the start of the week and submitted at the end of the week. Homework assignments in different subjects in the secondary school environment can require far greater parental investigation as to their nature and purpose. Once the aims and purpose of homework is clear parental involvement should emphasise practices that promote student autonomy, choice and decision making in homework. Parents should allow students to make key decisions about homework to promote student autonomy, choice and control. Parents should focus on the processes of homework and its completion and planning to promote learning processes and student planning, rather than the actual concepts and skills that are at the core of the homework tasks. In particular, parents should be positive and encouraging, rather than hostile and critical; to convey attitudes to children, (that they have the potential to do tasks well) to have a positive impact on homework completion and student achievement.
Friction in homework can be more completely understood as related to the purpose of the homework. Homework required for assessment purposes increases the stakes of completing the homework and submitting it – leading to increased friction. Grading and reporting on homework completion and performance also increase the possibility of friction. The timing of homework in the teaching and learning of the class, may also create higher stakes homework completion and submission time frames. In all these circumstances, some practices that parents can deploy to reduce friction include; assisting students to establish homework routines that are more self-directed; helping students to manage their homework planning and their homework anxieties; reframing family communication about homework from Have you done your homework? as a communication starting point to What homework is assigned? How do you plan to approach this homework? Focusing on specific aspects of a homework task and helping students to allocate time to these task components can also reduce homework friction.
How can parents seek support from the school system, teachers, principals and the community, and other parents? Homework is important in the sense that quality homework tasks that seek to contribute to consolidation through practice and rehearsal, or through inquiry and new learning are more important than homework that is assigned to fill time based homework requirements. When it is not clear that the homework activities assigned are quality tasks related to learning, parents should trigger inquiries to teachers and schools as to the real aim of the homework. For parents this might represent a trade off, between homework practices that are time based (20 minutes of homework a night) compared to homework tasks that are higher quality tasks. Parents also need to be aware that different subject domains have different requirements in relation to the aim of homework. Parents should seek clarification about the way that homework tasks set by teachers are supposed to contribute to student learning and achievement. They should also be aware that any new learning or research task may require student scaffolding and support that they as parents can not provide. It is entirely reasonable for parents to ask the teachers and schools how this scaffolding and support will be provided to their children. Finally parents should also understand that communities sometime have access to a community fund of knowledge that may not be reflected in the school curriculum; homework that accesses this community fund of knowledge may contribute to building new linkages between the school, the curriculum, the community and family, and the child.
Richard Walker teaches undergraduate & post-graduate education psychology at the University of Sydney. Mike Horsley is the director of the Education Research Flagship at Central Queensland University. Together they have written Reforming Homework: Practices, Learning and Policy, published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2013.