Fighting a Losing Battle: Too Much Homework Can Interfere with Learning

Boy doing homeworkMost parents don’t need an expert or a study to tell them what they already know: kids get more homework now than they ever have before, with many high schoolers getting as many as seven or eight hours of homework a night. Most parents are as overwhelmed by homework as their children are and constantly struggle to create incentives for their children to complete their piles of homework. Many parents believe they’re fighting this homework battle to ensure a quality education for their children, but the truth is that there’s little evidence that excessive homework helps children learn. Indeed, evidence is rapidly amassing that overworking children interferes with their ability to learn.

Understanding Learning

Our brains are programmed to learn things that are interesting to us and relevant to our lives. You’re more likely, for example, to remember where the aggressive dog who always chases children lives than you are to remember the color pattern on your neighbor’s shirt. Children in particular are primed to learn things that help them better function in their environment. Unfortunately, homework doesn’t pass this test. The overwhelming majority of homework assignments force children to sit down and memorize facts rather than experience their world. Not only does this make information more difficult to learn; it can also decrease your child’s motivation to learn. When learning is made miserable, children associate the thing they’re learning with misery and want to avoid it. This is why tactics such as forced silent reading time or flashcards rarely help children learn math and vocabulary.

The Stressed Brain

Even when homework is well-designed and does foster learning, too much of it can be damaging. Children who have more than one hour of homework each night overwhelmingly report that they feel stressed about their ability to complete their work. Over time, this stress can create real problems for a developing brain. When we are under stress, the brain produces cortisol, which lowers immune function and processing speed. On a short-term basis, cortisol can help us deal with stress. But when the brain is constantly releasing cortisol, development and learning can slow. This is especially damaging for children, whose brains are rapidly laying down neural connections. Even more troubling, excessive doses of cortisol can damage the hippocampus, which plays an important role in memory, inhibition, and spatial reasoning.

Fewer Activities

The value of friendships, extracurricular activities, and relaxation time to children’s intellectual and emotional development has been extensively documented. When homework is overwhelming, however, children are less likely to have the opportunity to participate in these activities. Thus even a child who is left unfazed by excessive homework or who excels in school may suffer as a result of excessive homework because he’s unable to engage in the activities that can help him become a well-rounded adult.

A Better Approach to Homework

Homework can help bridge the gap between home and school, encourage independent learning, and give children who find school stressful an opportunity to learn at home. So what are the characteristics of “good” homework assignments? They include:

  • Activities that encourage students to interact with their environment
  • Activities that give students flexibility to focus on things they are interested in
  • Activities that make learning relevant instead of flashcards and drills
  • Reasonable amounts of time spent on homework—no more than one hour for young children and no more than two hours for high schoolers
  • Activities that can be completed at home without substantial cost or the purchase of lots of supplies

When choosing a school or classroom for your child, ask about homework and advocate on your child’s behalf when homework becomes excessive. Your child’s stressed mind will thank you, and your child just may end up learning more.

References:

  1. Gerhardt, S. (2004). Why love matters: How affection shapes a baby’s brain. New York, NY: Brunner-Routledge.
  2. Harwood, R., Miller, S. A., Vasta, R. (2008). Child psychology: Development in a changing society. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
  3. Hirsh-Pasek, K., Golinkoff, R. M., Eyer, D. E. (2004). Einstein never used flash cards: How our children really learn–and why they need to play more and memorize less. Emmaus, PA: Rodale.

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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Debbie C

    May 23rd, 2012 at 12:14 PM

    This entire school year I have been so frustrated with the amount of homework that my kids are consistently bringing home from school. It kind of makes me question what they are actually doing at school to have this much work to still have to bring home and work on at night. When I ask the teachers they just say it is to reinforce what they are teaching that day. But really? This is hour upon hour of work- the experts say that we need more family time together, but if most families are like ours, it is a struggle to get everything completed in the day, much less feel like we can have any quality down time together. What are we to do?

  • Mallory

    May 23rd, 2012 at 3:40 PM

    As a teacher I understand that sometimes parents feel even more overwhelmed by the homework than the students do. But I have to ask that you support us, we are not doing this to punish the students but instead to help them hold onto a concept that we have talked about in class that day.

    I would never intentionally give more work to a class than I thought that they could handle, and I welcome any and all conversation with parents when they express that concern.

    What bothers me though is when parents bad mouth the teachers and tell the students that they don’t have to do all of that work. That is not fair to the student nor is it fair to the rest of the class who really does manage to get all of their work done. I try to be as productive as possible in class but there are some days when we can’t get it all done and that necessitates the children having to bring home some work to complete.

  • shane r

    May 24th, 2012 at 12:34 AM

    remember having to do tons of homework in high school.things must have only gotten worse ;)

    but really,along with seeing what excessive homework does to us,we also need to look at why homework is only increasing.

    if you ask me that well it could be because teachers are facing a lot of stress to deliver and they tend to give too much work to ensure the students do work.its like a doctor giving too many doses of a drug to ensure you are cured but in fact it is bad for you.

  • max

    May 24th, 2012 at 4:20 AM

    I think it’s the teachers who need to be reading this, not the parents. Parents know that most of the time their kids are being given way too much to have to do at home. I think that the real diconnect comes with the teachers. Of course if the students get the subject then the work won’t take that long to complete. But if a student is really struggling, this can be hours of homework horror for them.

  • GrantS

    May 24th, 2012 at 12:18 PM

    When I can’t come home and have a concersation with my child because he or she has too much homework to take a break and sit with me for a few minutes, that’s a problem.
    That’s exactly what is goin on with my son this year. He is in the 10th grade and has barely had time to enjoy himself at all this year because of the amount of homework that he has on a daily basis.
    Now he is not the best student in school but he tries awfully hard and it makes me angry to think of how much time he gives on this work and yet I don’t necessarily see anyone giving back.
    I think that if the kids are working this hard then the teachers should at least reciprocate and give him a pat on the back every now and then for being such a hard worker.

  • OlgaF

    August 11th, 2014 at 7:57 AM

    Now a days the study competition increases day by day by increasing of progress in all things and today’s age of student have to work out so much on their studies so for the students help there are so much sources of help in studies are being introduce like online study which is easy to subscribe and get help from that.

  • Stressed

    September 10th, 2014 at 2:38 PM

    I am so stressed! I am getting more than 7 pieces of homework each night + studying. Please help!

  • julie

    October 23rd, 2014 at 12:09 PM

    to help kids for losing homework to record it in phones or anything to keep crack on when kids lose homework.

  • Jay

    April 19th, 2015 at 9:20 PM

    Who is the author?

  • samantha

    May 8th, 2015 at 12:25 PM

    I am a high school student and I believe that homework should be required but an extra credit work and that all the grading should be on class participation and class work

  • Jamal

    February 22nd, 2016 at 8:08 AM

    It sucks

  • high school student

    April 7th, 2016 at 4:22 PM

    I am a student and I get 4-7 hours of homework per night but I also am doing duke of ed ,scouts and cycling and that takes up most of my time . so I am getting in trouble for not completing homework and not getting enough sleep.as much as homework might help me I still get to much and don’t have time to have a normal teen life.

  • nun of yuz bisnus

    May 6th, 2016 at 9:46 AM

    i hate homework

  • Ace P

    November 22nd, 2016 at 4:13 PM

    My Spanish teacher who will remain undernamed as X gives excessive Homework. Today is Tuesday, and he says, he wants us to write 0 to 31, then 0 to 100, then 0 to 10000, and finally 0 to 200000 by next week Monday. How excessive and stressful is that.

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