Homework: almost universally regarded as a nuisance, it is nevertheless an inevitable part of being a student. Homework eats away at our time to do things we enjoy, our ability to practice our passions, and our energy, and endless excuses abound as to why we’re going to put it off until later or avoid doing it altogether.
So, I have to ask: how important is homework really?
To answer this question, I looked at a combination of data compiled by universities and studies conducted on this very topic as well as 128 student and 36 teacher responses to an Oracle poll.
The majority of teachers noted that their students had too much homework and acknowledged that it was a main cause of stress for them, but no teacher seemed to know exactly how to stop perpetuating this issue while still accomplishing what they need to in their own courses. 41.7% of teachers who responded think homework is only “sometimes” necessary and 58.3% feel that students receive “too much” homework. Despite this, over half of the faculty respondents say there is either no way students could learn what they need to without it (33.3%) or they’re uncertain whether they could accomplish their course goals without it (27.8%).
While what constitutes “too much” homework is subjective and difficult to quantify, time can be a good indicator. The National Education Association recommends 10 minutes of homework per grade level (roughly 90 minutes for freshman, 100 for sophomores, 110 for juniors, and 2 hours for seniors).
However, the majority of Blair’s student respondents reported spending at least one hour, and possibly two or three, above the recommended time for the oldest students on homework each night. 37.1% reported spending about 3 hours on homework on school nights, and 30.7% reported spending 4 or more hours on homework every night.
For teachers, 30 minutes of homework for their class may not seem like much, but it can add up to a lot depending on what students are accumulating on a day where they have work from all of their classes. 30 minutes from each class a day—especially when students have on-going essays, reading, or studying assignments that can require several days to finish— for four classes would for at least 2 hours of nightly homework, already an hour above the recommended amount, even for seniors.
But that’s a low estimate: over half of the faculty respondents said they expect that their students spend over 45 minutes on homework from each class meeting, which could increase nightly work time by another hour and a half, going from a total of to 2 hours to 3 ½. This may cause stress, exhaustion, or a decrease in engagement with the coursework students are meant to be absorbing.
The stress caused by too much homework is articulated well by one student respondent: “While manageable and helpful homework can increase understanding, for me, excessive homework brings more stress than it does academic help. It can feel like there is no time for self-care or downtime when you’re burdened with work or thinking about your next assignment due.”
Of course, most teachers are going to think that their class is the most important for their students’ academic growth, and the amount of homework they assign reflects that. Their survey answers back it up as well: many teachers were insistent that there was no hope of reforming their practices and students would just have to grin and bear their hour-long videos and extensive readings to prepare for class. But what about students who want to get a well-rounded education but would benefit from a more consistent sleep schedule or downtime? In some cases so much homework may do more harm than good: it can seem boring or useless at best, and sleep-depriving and anxiety-inducing at worst.
So what does the research say about the downsides of homework? Do its benefits outweigh its costs? And how can we better deal with the issues it presents?
Perhaps unfortunately for students, many studies show a positive correlation between homework and performance on assessments (for more information, see this Time article, which references research both for and against homework). It provides structure, allows the practice of newly acquired skills, and holds students accountable for their study and learning practices outside of the classroom.
However, these studies also warn of the drawbacks of too much homework, including the potential for decreased motivation and a decline in active engagement as the time spent on homework increases. According to research by Stanford University based on high-performing high schools in California, too much homework can “diminish its effectiveness and even be counterproductive.” Both the schools surveyed and Blair had an average of 3.1 hours spent on homework per student each night. In the Stanford study, 56% of students said homework was a primary source of stress. The Oracle poll revealed even higher percentages of homework stress, with almost 80% of respondents ranking it as either “often” stressful (36.3%) or “always” stressful (42.7%). The research out of Stanford also indicated that the stress associated with excessive homework led to “headaches, exhaustion, sleep deprivation, weight loss, and stomach problems.” Students burdened by too much homework were also more likely to “drop activities, not see friends or family, and not pursue hobbies they enjoy.”
It’s not only time and stress that are an issue: the kind of homework factors into its effectiveness as well. The majority of English teachers who responded to the Oracle poll agree that homework is important for their classes because students have to have some understanding of the material for their typically discussion-based classes. The same goes for math teachers, who generally feel their students must learn some new concepts to prepare for class or work to reinforce learned concepts outside of class. Teachers are quite adamant that although they recognize the difficulties homework brings for students, in most cases it’s impossible to reform the classroom environment in such a way that would make it possible to eliminate or cut down on homework significantly.
On the nature of learning as a concept, one teacher said, “We can find ways to justify the use or the non-use of homework as it relates to the intellectual-social-emotional development of children, but I would argue that our relatively small amount of total classroom hours and thrice-weekly sessions are insufficient in and of themselves to achieve a lot of these goals while covering the scope typically reserved for a year of high school study.” They continued, “That doesn’t mean the only potential solution is to utilize homework, but if it’s done right, it can certainly be a valuable component of the learning process.”
Students were happy to chip in on what kind of homework they feel best suits their goals and furthers their learning and skills. When asked about an “effective homework learning experience,” students were in agreement that practice in subjects such as math, science and language are necessary. They also agreed that generally English readings were helpful as well.
When asked about a “terrible homework learning experiences,” they were very explicit about types of homework that did not help them:
“Spanish reading books from online learning. Bad.”
“I hate doing Edpuzzle!! I prefer to watch the video and immerse, rather than being interrupted when watching and being penalized for not answering the question correct[ly], when I [watch] the video to learn how to answer it.” (There were multiple responses denouncing Edpuzzle.)
“Something that is time consuming but that isn’t hard to understand OR learning entirely new material while being graded on accuracy.”
“Writing essays in 1 hour without notes or context to help. Lab reports without much guidance.”
Over half of the students who wrote in responses to this question mentioned experiences where they had been given homework, projects, or graded assignments with little knowledge and too little guidance that led to lost sleep or adverse effects like poor grades.
To get some more context and opinions from someone who is well-versed on the topic of education, I talked to Math Department Chair Ms. Rowny, who has her Masters in Education. Her insights helped frame the need for homework while also highlighting the importance of teachers being compassionate toward students and constructing assignments to best benefit their learning.
When asked if her opinion on homework has changed throughout her career, Ms. Rowny said, “Absolutely… I realized that there was a big difference between asking students to do five to ten really GOOD problems and asking them to do 20 mediocre problems or an hour of busywork.” She described how over time she has “cut down on the time expectation, but increased the engagement expectation” by making “homework much more useful to what we were doing in class.”
On how homework can be structured for students’ maximum benefit, she notes, “Homework has to take into account what the body can and can’t do… Brain research suggests that we learn more from confusion than from certainty, provided that the confusion takes place in an environment free from other threats. You have to believe that initial confusion doesn’t prevent future competence, however. That’s key, and it’s a thing that many students overlook.”
As far as negative mental and physical health issues that can come with excess homework go, Ms. Rowny pointed to culture and society at large, including the celebration of stress as a sign of success. “Unfortunately, it’s not a question of just giving less homework—many schools like Blair would need a massive culture shift to minimize the negative effects” cited in the research, which include but are not limited to sleep deprivation, stomach issues and cramps, weight loss, weight gain, stress and mental health issues. She explained, “even if homework were reduced, the significant pressures [students] face from yourselves, your parents, and the college process [to] ‘achieve,’ to set yourself apart, to be the best at something… would still be there… as long as stress is normalized and celebrated by our culture at large, homework itself isn’t the problem.
“Many teachers would probably love assigning fewer, deeper questions, ones that encourage learning slowly, going out on limbs, getting uncomfortable, and making mistakes (these things that form the core of enduring understandings, yet don’t guarantee high grades), but in the current climate of those pressures we could be running the risk of mass rebellion! I’m kidding there, but until schools can get at the underlying causes of this anxiety to achieve and “succeed,” we can’t expect that stress will go away just because we pass on giving you that extra essay or assign fewer math problems.” However, Ms. Rowny argued that some might try to “fill the void left by a reduced homework load by cramming for the SAT, or participating in activities you don’t really like that much to make your college application look better, or any other number of things that are simply tools to help you compare yourself to others, not true passions.” While this may be true for some students, I don’t think it’s fair to say that the majority would choose to engage in less meaningful busywork in order to fill the void left by other busywork as opposed to real interests.
The issue of homework and its relevance to modern education is hotly debated. It’s visible in the divide between teachers who are unsure how to help their students learn and improve without leaning heavily on homework and students who don’t necessarily feel that the homework they’re receiving is doing its job. It’s visible in the struggle for schools and researchers to decide between the positive benefits of homework and the potential adverse effects. It’s possible to change the amount of homework we receive to try to cut down on stress and get some sleep, but Ms. Rowny is right: the first step is breaking down the culture that asks us to sacrifice our bodies and minds for the sake of competing with students for spots at top colleges and to impress teachers and friends. One step could be taking the time to evaluate your own health and wellness and taking the initiative to combat it by speaking with teachers when you’re overwhelmed, seeking a support group of adults and peers, and allowing yourself time for self-care and stress-relief in the midst of a hectic and busy schedule and environment.
Students and teachers can work together to figure out what will best contribute to our most effective education and future success, academic or not. That’s not to say that doing so will drastically change things, or that abandoning homework altogether because it’s frustrating is okay, but as students in today’s world, we can define our own success and we have the power to communicate that to those who want to help us be our best selves in order to create a better working environment and culture around academic success, especially homework.