This won’t come as any surprise to many teenagers but here goes: A new study finds that a heavy homework load negatively impacts the lives of high school students in upper middle-class communities, resulting in excess stress, physical problems and little or no time for leisure.
What’s too much homework? According to the study, published in the Journal of Experimental Education, 4,317 students in 10 high-performing California high schools — six private and four public — had an average of 3.1 hours of homework a night. (I know high school kids who do close to twice that amount.)
Homework is one of those perennial topics about which there are many “expert” opinions on its benefits and drawbacks but no conclusive body of research proving either side. What research there is casts big doubt on the notion that a lot of homework is a good thing — and indicates that any homework other than reading in elementary school has benefit. Harris Cooper, a well-known homework researcher, who is a professor of education and psychology at Duke University, says that no more than two hours of homework a night should be assigned to students in high school. Author Alfie Kohn argues that there is no research to show that homework in elementary and middle school has any benefit and that the correlation between homework and academic achievement in high school is at best weak. So this is the context in which this latest study was conducted.
The researchers set out to look at the relationship between homework load and student well-being in the upper middle class advantaged communities (where median household income is more than $90,000, and 93 percent of students go to college) because it is there that homework is largely accepted as having value. The study notes that there are limitations to the sample of students used in the study — with all of them attending privileged, high-performing schools — but they said they felt it was worthwhile to investigate the stresses of homework on this population of students.
The co-authors of the study are Mollie Galloway of Lewis and Clark College, an assistant professor who is the director of research and assessment for the graduate school of education; Denise Pope, a senior lecturer at the Stanford Graduate School of Education; and Jerusha Conner, an assistant professor of education at Villanova University. Their report says:
“Our findings on the effects of homework challenge the traditional assumption that homework is “inherently good” (Gill & Schlossman, 2001, p. 27), and instead suggest that researchers, practitioners, students, and parents unpack why the default practice of assigning heavy homework loads exists, in the face of evidence of its negative effects.”
To conduct the study they used data from surveys as well as the answers to open-ended questions to explore student well-being, attitudes about homework and engagement in school. The mean age of the participants was 15.7 years, with ninth graders representing the largest sample, 28.1 percent. Tenth graders were 22.8 percent; eleventh graders, 23.6 percent; and seniors 19.4 percent; while 6.2 percent did not report their grade level. About 85 percent self-reported their ethnicity: 48 percent were European American; 38 percent Asian or Asian American; 4 percent Hispanic; 2 percent African American, and 0.5 percent Native American. Ten and a half percent of students checked multiple categories or “other,” and 4 percent did not mark anything in this category.
Also, no relationship was found between the time spent on homework and how much the student enjoyed it. The research quoted students as saying they often do homework they see as “pointless” or “mindless” in order to keep their grades up.
Their study found that most students said their homework is only “somewhat useful” in helping them learn the material and prepare for tests. But it leads to a host of problems, the study says:
–Less than 1 percent said homework was not a stressor, and 56 percent indicated homework is a primary cause of stress.
–Forty three percent listed tests as a primary stressor
–About 33 percent listed grades and/or getting good grades as a primary stressor.
–More than 15 percent reported parental expectations and the college application process as stresses.
* Health Issues Consequences
–Many students wrote that homework causes them to sleep less than they should and leads to “headaches, exhaustion, sleep deprivation, weight loss and stomach problems” as well as a lack of balance in their lives.
Most experienced distress and/or lacked time to engage in important life tasks outside of school. The majority (72%) reported being often or always stressed over schoolwork …and many reported that they experienced physical symptoms due to stress (82% reported experiencing at least one physical symptom in the past month, with 44% of the sample experiencing three or more symptoms). Overall, students reported getting less sleep than the National Sleep Foundation’s (2000) recommended 8.5 to 9.25 hours per night for healthy adolescent development. On average, students in our sample reported 6.80 hours of sleep on school nights … and 68% stated that schoolwork often or always kept them from getting enough sleep each night. Many (63%) reported that the amount of work they received often or always made it challenging to spend time with family and friends, and a similar percent (61%) indicated that they had been forced to drop an activity they enjoyed because of their school workload.
— Time spent on homework
— There was no relationship between “homework hours and students’ enjoyment of schoolwork, and open-ended responses revealed students will often do work they see as ‘pointless,’ ‘useless’ and ‘mindless’ because their grades will be affected if they do not.”
Students who spent more hours on homework tended to be more behaviorally engaged in school, but were simultaneously more stressed about their school work and tended to report more physical symptoms due to stress, fewer hours of sleep on school nights, less ability to get enough sleep, and less ability to make time for friends and family.
From the report:
Part of the study says:
No time for anything but school. The voices of these students reflect a primary challenge faced by many in our study: if students have several hours of homework per night, how can they find time for other endeavors in their lives (including extracurricular activities, leisure, and social time)? Some expressed that they “never seem to have enough time.” One adolescent stated:
Now I understand the expression “not enough hours in a day.” In a day, I want to be able to do homework/study, have time with friends and family, and do activities that are important to me. I don’t always feel I have enough time for this, and I feel pressured.
Because of homework load, tests, and quizzes, students reported, for example:
- I have no life other than school; that is my life.
- Homework…is all I have time for; there’s never a time where you’re not thinking about [it].
- There is hardly any time for me to enjoy being a kid when I have to go to school all day and then go home and do homework all night.
Students recognized that spending so much time on homework meant that they were not meeting their developmental needs or cultivating other critical life skills. One questioned, “Most people have no social life because of all the homework they do; how is that helping them in the real world?” Another explained, “I’m struggling between trying to maintain [my grades, but] more to maintain my identity, soul, and sanity! Teachers don’t seem to teach students that there’s more to life than…hours of homework a night.”
The inability to balance or juggle the overload of homework, along with the number of other out-of-school activities or interests was the single most-often provided response by students when describing homework as a stressor (30% mentioned this lack of balance due to homework). One student described her homework load as “plenty manageable… If I never try to do anything else!”
Time spent on homework should be appropriate to the child’s grade level.
At the elementary level homework should be brief, at your child’s ability level and involve frequent, voluntary and high interest activities. Young students require high levels of feedback and/or supervision to help them complete assignments correctly. Accurate homework completion is influenced by your child’s ability, the difficulty of the task, and the amount of feedback your child receives. When assigning homework, your child’s teachers may struggle to create a balance at this age between ability, task difficulty and feedback. Unfortunately, there are no simple guiding principles.
We can assure you, however, that your input and feedback on a nightly basis is an essential component in helping your child benefit from the homework experience.
What is the recommended time in elementary school?
In first through third grade, students should receive one to three assignments per week, taking them no more than fifteen to twenty minutes. In fourth through sixth grade, students should receive two to four assignments per week, lasting between fifteen and forty-five minutes. At this age, the primarily goal of homework is to help your child develop the independent work and learning skills that will become critical in the higher grades. In the upper grades, the more time spent on homework the greater the achievement gains.
What is the recommended time in middle and high school?
For students in middle and high school grades there are greater overall benefits from time engaged in practicing and thinking about school work. These benefits do not appear to depend as much upon immediate supervision or feedback as they do for elementary students. In seventh through ninth grade we recommend students receive three to five sets of assignments per week, lasting between forty-five and seventy-five minutes per set. In high school students will receive four to five sets of homework per week, taking them between seventy-five and 150 minutes per set to complete.
As children progress through school, homework and the amount of time engaged in homework increases in importance. Due to the significance of homework at the older age levels, it is not surprising that there is more homework assigned. Furthermore, homework is always assigned in college preparatory classes and assigned at least three quarters of the time in special education and vocational training classes. Thus at any age, homework may indicate our academic expectations of children.
Regardless of the amount of homework assigned, many students unsuccessful or struggling in school spend less rather than more time engaged in homework. It is not surprising that students spending less time completing homework may eventually not achieve as consistently as those who complete their homework.
Does this mean that time devoted to homework is the key component necessary for achievement?
We are not completely certain. Some American educators have concluded that if students in America spent as much time doing homework as students in Asian countries they might perform academically as well. It is tempting to assume such a cause and effect relationship.
However, this relationship appears to be an overly simple conclusion. We know that homework is important as one of several influential factors in school success. However, other variables, including student ability, achievement, motivation and teaching quality influence the time students spend with homework tasks. Many students and their parents have told us they experience less difficulty being motivated and completing homework in classes in which they enjoyed the subject, the instruction, the assignments and the teachers.
The benefits from homework are the greatest for students completing the most homework and doing so correctly. Thus, students who devote time to homework are probably on a path to improved achievement. This path also includes higher quality instruction, greater achievement motivation and better skill levels.
Authors: Dr. Sam Goldstein and Dr. Sydney Zentall