The pros and cons of homework

John Hattie is Professor of Education and Director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute at the University of Melbourne, Australia, and the author of Visible Learning, a synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement in education.

When deciding on how much, and what, homework to hand out, Hattie says there are quite a few things teachers should consider.

“Homework in primary school has a measurable effect of around zero,” Hattie told BBC Radio 4 Journalist Sarah Montague.

“In high school it does have a larger measurable effect, which is why we need to get it right, not why we need to get rid of it. It’s one of those lower hanging fruit that we should be looking at in our primary schools to say ‘Is it really making a difference?”’

Hattie looked at research studies from all over the world that have tried to measure the impact of various factors on education, including the optimal time students should be spending on homework.

He found homework appears to be more effective for higher-ability rather than lower-ability students, and for older rather than younger students.

CensusAtSchool is a collaborative project involving teachers, the Australian Bureau of Statistics and the Ministry of Education, which examines the lives of children in year four to 12.

A comparison of the findings from 2008 to 2013, reveals that Australian children are spending more time doing homework than they were five years ago.

In 2008, Australian children spent an average of 5.3 hours a week doing their homework. Today that has jumped to seven hours a week. Child psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg said he was concerned by the trend that kids were spending an increasing amount of time on homework, and believes the trend is linked to higher levels of anxiety.

“I actually think less is more with homework, because there seems to be so much stress around school,” he said.

A number of primary schools in Australia are effectively handing the decision-making power over to parents, allowing parents to permanently excuse children from homework.

Some primary schools have even sent letters home to parents outlining their reasoning for setting homework, but ultimately recognising that parents are best placed to make decisions about whether or not their children have the capacity or time to complete it.

Hattie is more positive about giving secondary school aged children homework.

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) found that high-school aged Australian students are also spending more hours doing homework each week.

The report found that 15-year-old Australian students spend an average of six hours a week doing homework. That marks an increase of 0.3 hours per week from the 2003 study.

Australia and Austria were the only countries to report a statistically significant increase in the amount of time students spend doing homework.

“The overall effect of homework on achievement in older students is positive, but there are quite a few qualifications to that,” Hattie writes in Visible Learning. Qualifications included things like the age of the learner, the amount of homework, and whether the homework was task-oriented or complex and unstructured.

Neurologist and former classroom teacher Judy Willis says if a teacher knows a bit about the brain, he or she can plan homework to suit the needs of students as they develop.

“During early school years, for example, the brain is focused on getting to grips with the world around us. Memories and understanding grow when new information can be linked to things we already know. Homework that helps with this recognition can build literacy and numeracy skills,” says Willis.

“When students reach adolescence, they become more independent and self-directed. There is shift away from rote memorisation and single, correct responses. Learning goals are more likely to focus on reading for content and comprehension, revising, report writing, solving problems, investigating and independent or group work.”

Willis says that while the amount of time spent on homework will always vary depending on the age of students, there are a few physiological guidelines to remember.

“After about 15 minutes of learning and practising something – such as the Pythagorean theorem in maths – the regions of the brain activated in spatial-numerical learning get fatigued and need to rebuild the neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, that get depleted,” says Willis. “The restoration only takes a few minutes if the break is timely, but if they are pushed to stay with that same process for too long, stress builds, neurotransmitters drop way down and it will take twice as long to restore full efficiency to that area of the brain.”

Willis recommends online games for learning basic knowledge as they usually have set timings.

“You can assign a specific amount of time to be spent on the skill-building program for homework and confirm students’ compliance by checking the teachers’ pages,” she says.

“When students know that the effort they put into homework will enhance their participation and enjoyment of classroom learning, they become more motivated. Pupils also put more effort into schoolwork or homework when they are engaged in something that is relevant to their studies.”

One of the studies Hattie examined warned against homework that undermined a student’s motivation, as it could lead to the student internalising incorrect routines.

“For too many students, homework reinforces that they cannot learn by themselves and that they cannot do the schoolwork,” says Hattie. “Ensuring that students are assessment-capable learners is the most important thing we can do to raise student achievement.”

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