What's the Right Amount of Homework?

By Judy Molland

A Look at the Research

HomeworkIn the face of conflicting opinions about the value of homework, parents may find it helpful to learn what the most recent research has to say about the connection between homework and effective education.

Harris Cooper, Ph.D., a psychology professor at the University of Missouri, has reviewed more than 100 studies on the effectiveness of homework. In general, he has found that the benefits of doing homework seem to depend on the student’s grade level.

In high school, students who regularly do homework outperform those who do not, as measured by standardized tests and grades. In middle school, homework is half as effective, and in elementary school it has no apparent measurable effect on achievement.

“However, we support assigning homework to younger elementary-school children due to its potential long-term developmental impact,” Cooper says. “It helps elementary students develop proper study skills which, in turn, influence grades.”

How Much?

Click here to listen to the Handling Homework Podcast...Experts from both camps agree that it’s important for teachers to ensure that homework assignments are an appropriate length for the developmental level of their students. The National Education Association along with the national PTA suggests adding 10 minutes of homework per night incrementally with each grade level, as a general rule of thumb. Thus, a first-grader gets a total of 10 minutes, a second-grader 20 minutes, a third-grader 30 minutes, and so on, not to exceed two hours per night total in high school. For high school Spanish teacher Michael Bolyog, homework is designed to reinforce what happens in the classroom, but should never be used to supplant class work. He sees the teacher’s role as similar to that of a sports coach: The player can go out and practice on his own for hour after hour, but the best learning occurs when the coach is right there with him, to immediately correct any flaws. Therefore, more than 30 minutes of homework per class may be an exercise in futility because the student can feel overwhelmed by the quantity of work, get distracted or bored, and end up giving it a halfhearted effort just to get it done.

Parents’ Role

While parents should never do their children’s homework for them, parents should be there to support their children, providing hints and assistance at appropriate places, and – particularly with younger children – guiding them toward the solution. Eventually, the goal is to transfer the responsibility for doing the work entirely to the child.

This means that parents can expect to work with their child a great deal when he is in first or second grade, but by the time he is in fourth grade, he should be able to do the work himself and then call a parent to check it. Once the child is in fifth grade, the parents’ role should be more supervisory. But some children still need their parents close by – not necessarily for help – but just to know that mom or dad is sitting somewhere near.

The Right Mix

Unfortunately, choices about homework sometimes get made by teachers caught between conflicting influences. There are the parents who are preparing their first-grader to enter an Ivy League college and there are parents who prefer that their child bring home no work, but spend her free time on cultural, recreational or sports activities.

Parents, on the other hand, may find themselves having to deal with one teacher who rarely assigns homework and simultaneously another teacher treats it as if it were part of boot camp. The homework debate will undoubtedly continue for many years, but all the evidence suggests that the right amount of homework, designed appropriately for the developmental level of the child, does promote learning.

Return to Does Homework Help Students Make the Grade?

See also: Head the Homework Wars Off at the Pass!

Judy Molland is an education writer and frequent contributpr to Dominion Parenting Media.  Her most recent book is Straight Talk about Schools Today. Listen to her Straight Talk About Schools podcasts.