please, no more homework

The Washington Post just ran an article about research showing that homework isn’t particularly effective. A clip from the article:

 Let’s start by reviewing what we know from earlier investigations.[1]  First, no research has ever found a benefit to assigning homework (of any kind or in any amount) in elementary school.  In fact, there isn’t even a positive correlation between, on the one hand, having younger children do some homework (vs. none), or more (vs. less), and, on the other hand, any measure of achievement.  If we’re making 12-year-olds, much less five-year-olds, do homework, it’s either because we’re misinformed about what the evidence says or because we think kids ought to have to do homework despite what the evidence says.

Second, even at the high school level, the research supporting homework hasn’t been particularly persuasive.  There does seem to be a correlation between homework and standardized test scores, but (a) it isn’t strong, meaning that homework doesn’t explain much of the variance in scores, (b) one prominent researcher, Timothy Keith, who did find a solid correlation, returned to the topic a decade later to enter more variables into the equation simultaneously, only to discover that the improved study showed that homework had no effect after all[2], and (c) at best we’re only talking about a correlation — things that go together — without having proved that doing more homework causes test scores to go up.  (Take 10 seconds to see if you can come up with other variables that might be driving both of these things.)

Third, when homework is related to test scores, the connection tends to be strongest — or, actually, least tenuous — with math.  If homework turns out to be unnecessary for students to succeed in that subject, it’s probably unnecessary everywhere.

Along comes a new study, then, that focuses on the neighborhood where you’d be most likely to find a positive effect if one was there to be found:  math and science homework in high school.  Like most recent studies, this one by Adam Maltese and his colleagues[3] doesn’t provide rich descriptive analyses of what students and teachers are doing.  Rather, it offers an aerial view, the kind preferred by economists, relying on two large datasets (from the National Education Longitudinal Study [NELS] and the Education Longitudinal Study [ELS]).  Thousands of students are asked one question — How much time do you spend on homework? — and statistical tests are then performed to discover if there’s a relationship between that number and how they fared in their classes and on standardized tests.


Was there a correlation between the amount of homework that high school students reported doing and their scores on standardized math and science tests?  Yes, and it was statistically significant but “very modest”:  Even assuming the existence of a causal relationship, which is by no means clear, one or two hours’ worth of homework every day buys you two or three points on a test.  Is that really worth the frustration, exhaustion, family conflict, loss of time for other activities, and potential diminution of interest in learning?  And how meaningful a measure were those tests in the first place, since, as the authors concede, they’re timed measures of mostly mechanical skills?  (Thus, a headline that reads “Study finds homework boosts achievement” can be translated as “A relentless regimen of after-school drill-and-skill can raise scores a wee bit on tests of rote learning.”)

Education researchers have long known that homework doesn’t lead to improved learning. Back in 2006, I blogged about The Battle over Homework, which lays out the case. Hey, teacher, leave us kids alone!

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Written by fabiorojas

October 20, 2015 at 12:01 am

Posted in education, fabio

8 Responses

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  1. While I appreciate that the Washington Post is US newspaper writing for a US audience, this study only uses data for US high-school students. What’s the cross-national evidence on this point? I ask because the US K-12 system seems to have persistent problems in teaching maths. Perhaps the conclusion about homework not substantially helping grade or test performance is valid for the US, but I’d also be interested in seeing results for school systems which seem to be doing a better job at teaching maths and science. The authors also say:
    “The results from this study imply that homework should be purposeful,” co-author Tai says, “and that the purpose must be understood by both the teacher and the students. In today’s current educational environment, with all the activities taking up children’s time both in school and out of school, the purpose of each homework assignment must be clear and targeted. With homework, more is not better.”

    I think the authors would be open to the view that other countries’ school systems might be more effective at using homework to produce good results in maths and science. I have to think that if you took this research to a school system characterized by a widespread belief that hard work produces good results (particularly in maths and science), they would laugh you out of town.


    US educator: we should stop assigning math and science homework because it doesn’t produce any improvement in grades or test scores.
    Other educator1: and then your kids will suck less at maths?
    Other educator2: buahahahahah! All your STEM jobs are belong to us



    October 20, 2015 at 1:39 am

  2. That is correct. US students do not do homework and therefore perform poorly on tests. Students who do not practice reading or solving problems outside of class are weak on tests and research. Homework is independent work which is necessary to actually learning the content of the course. In the US, there is a huge anti-intellectual bias against studying which has led to an intellectual class of technocrats (Ph.D’s, MD’s, and JD’s) and a mass of workers who are barely functional readers and cannot understand complex text. College work is hard and most freshmen do not graduate – they are overwhelmed by the text difficulty. For those college students who are able to make it, the marriage movement usually takes them over and they struggle between studying and sexual relationships.


    Fredrick Welfare

    October 20, 2015 at 5:07 am

  3. Time spent on home work is a terrible metric. This will be influenced by a lot of things (ability, diligence, parental involvement, time spent on hobbies …). You need something like the “amount and difficulty of homework”.

    Liked by 1 person

    justin bieber

    October 20, 2015 at 7:56 am

  4. I haven’t read the underlying studies, but they lead me to several questions.

    1) What is defined as “homework” in these analyses? If most homework consists of photocopied fill-in-the-blank worksheets and multiple-choice practice tests, that is quite different from homework consisting of reading and writing. There is considerable prior research in the composition studies field suggesting that reading more and writing more leads to more developed writing skills, for example. So is the problem at the K-12 level the wrong kind of homework, a mismeasure of homework, or will we really graduate educated, competent high school students if we never ask them to read and write outside of class?

    2) These findings certainly contradict what Arum & Roksa find in their analyses of college students. Is there a plausible explanation for why homework (now called “studying”) would suddenly become valuable in college when it was not at the K-12 level? Is it that the students least likely to benefit–or the students who can get As without doing their homework–have been filtered out? Is it that the type of homework has changed to more appropriate homework? Is the outcome measure better?

    Liked by 1 person


    October 20, 2015 at 1:59 pm

  5. Thanks for the comments. The issues isn’t whether students in other nations do or do not do homework. The issue is whether they might learn more by dropping homework. It would be very important to see if the experiments and correlations hold in other nations.


    Fabio Rojas

    October 20, 2015 at 3:54 pm

  6. Some factors to consider in a complex model: (1) Types of learning. “muscle memory” type skills require repetition and practice; insight type skills don’t. There are probably more distinctions, but it is surely the case that practice has a bigger effect on some kinds of skills than others. (2) For insight type skills, and also some rote-type skills, there is an inverse relationship between your ability to do the thing well and how much time you spend doing it. If you are good at math you spend less time on your math homework; if you can read and write well, you spend less time reading and writing for a given level of performance. (3) Home environment. Four types (for children): chaotic or stressed, no place/time for homework; structured, parent provides place and oversees that homework is done but provides no help; parent as co-teacher, parent helps the child learn at home; parent does the homework for the child. Obviously, parent characteristics and behavior mediate the link between homework assigned and child learning. Homework quality done or assisted by parents will presumably be higher than that done independently by children, and the effects of home teaching will show up in test scores.

    Smart kids do spend less time doing their homework and still make better grades. This confounds the models.It could be true that time spent studying affects results within ability levels.

    Liked by 2 people


    October 20, 2015 at 4:07 pm

  7. It’s an odd article by the Post.

    There are plenty of studies that show that homework is positive and significant. It especially depends on what kind of homework.

    Here’s an interesting study ( ) using a large nationally generalizable sample that had homework in and out of school only as a control (the study is about using computers for fun on high school achievement) but even it shows a nice strong significant effect on reading, math and growth in math between grades 10 and 12, with effect sizes about the same as other variables touted as “good” like participation in extracurricular activities, or reading outside of school for fun. Homework in school had no effect. The ES’s in that study equate to a student 1 STD above the mean in reporting doing their homework outside of school being about 3 months ahead of students at the average for homework.

    It’s seems odd for a long time that there’s certain media that want to diss homework, even in the face of some nice studies that show that it’s at least not negative. Maybe that’s the interesting story?

    Liked by 1 person


    October 20, 2015 at 4:23 pm

  8. One underlying assumption is that schooling is not merely classroom attendance but includes learning outside of school, in the home and outside of both the home and school. Another assumption is that homework is graded and part of the student’s grade. When this is the case, the grade reflects the home environment and parental environment. This caveat has been addressed by school systems under the notion of ‘equity.’ Equity is the case when the home environment is unrelated to student’s learning achievements. Thus, teacher interventions into students academic learning (and social behaviors), all of the things teachers can and should do, is measured as equity. When equity is high, all of the students achieve learning goals regardless of the home environment and parental attitudes. When equity is low, students’ achievements, like graduation and college success, are overdetermined by their parental background.

    There is little doubt in my mind that several things are going on with regard to homework: middle class students and some immigrant ethnic groups devote time to homework, homework is graded by their teachers, and homework is related to their grades. However, in many lower middle class and working class schools, homework is often not assigned, and/or not graded, and not related to testing, and not included in students’ grades. Students do not take homework seriously, they do not do the reading, and parents have no expectations towards their children or the school for doing homework. But, books are sent home. They are rarely used. Study skills, however, are never learned and when they are they are related only to particular settings for specific goals, not for improving one’s self-understanding or understanding other people.

    Students who do not read daily with a purpose do not understand what reading is and they discount it drastically as a disgusting activity, as degradation, and as a joke. When they try to succeed in college, the reading is so difficult for them that in only a few weeks as a freshman they realize they cannot do it – they are wiped out by even the simplest quiz because the assessments in college are all based on the readings.


    Fredrick Welfare

    October 20, 2015 at 6:23 pm

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