Over the past several years, there has been a growing debate about the effectiveness of assigning homework to students. Most adults and children are quite familiar with homework, and teachers and parents have historically viewed homework assignments as supportive of student learning. Based on my work with many families, however, there is valid concern whether homework assignments enhance learning for every student.
The Positives and Negatives of Assigning Homework
I am a former teacher turned family therapist. Middle school and high school students often tell me they feel overloaded with homework and have a high anxiety level because of it. Parents, for their part, often share that there is conflict between them and their children about getting homework done.
When I was teaching, I struggled with whether assigning homework to my students was beneficial to them. Over the 10 years I spent as an educator, I found there to be both positive and negative implications of assigning homework.
First, some potential positives:
- It creates opportunities for students to interact with their parents.
- It can promote student independence and self-discipline.
- It can provide a connection between what is learned in school and the outside world.
- It can provide opportunities for parents to be engaged with their child’s learning progress.
- It can reinforce skills and concepts taught in class.
Now, some potential negatives:
- It can promote arguments between parents and children, creating chaos in the family. Such conflicts often are at the core of the work I do with families.
- It does not guarantee that student learning gains will be higher.
- It can force students to choose between extracurricular activities and homework, as often there is insufficient time for both. Colleges and universities often seek students who have a high level of involvement in extracurricular activities.
- Many homework assignments assume that students have access to technology outside of school, which isn’t always the case.
- Students in middle school and high school tend to have several different classes a day. Teachers don’t always take into consideration that students may be receiving homework assignments for multiple or even all classes. As a result, many students end up loaded down with hours of homework, which may create an imbalance between academics and extracurricular and family activities. To try to fit everything in, students may feel compelled to stay up late and lose valuable sleep.
How Can We Find Balance?
Recognizing the potential pitfalls with assigning homework doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its place. During the years I spent teaching in the classroom, I found it to be crucial that any homework assigned be engaging and relevant to students’ lives.
Important questions to be asked when assigning homework include, “What are the expected outcomes of assigning homework?” and, “What is it about those assigned tasks that make doing them outside of school important?”
How Can We Tell If Homework Is Helping?
It can be difficult for parents to know whether homework assigned to their children will have a positive impact on their learning. Parents can determine the value of homework assignments by looking for the characteristics of meta-cognitive learning, student inquiry about what they are learning, and assignments that promote literacy.
I found that homework assignments that require meta-cognitive learning, such as meta-cognitive journals, can be especially relevant and useful for students. Teaching students to be meta-cognitive in their learning may be beneficial to their lives in all areas. When students implement meta-cognition, they are assessing their own thinking and learning.
Parents can determine the value of homework assignments by looking for the characteristics of meta-cognitive learning, student inquiry about what they are learning, and assignments that promote literacy.
For example, when students solve a mathematical problem, the cognition portion is solving the problem. The meta-cognitive part is awareness of the strategies used to solve the problem. Meta-cognitive learning can be defined simply as “thinking about thinking.” It is developing an awareness of one’s strengths and weaknesses. It is evaluating, planning, and observing the process. When students use meta-cognitive learning, they become aware of the strategies used in their learning and can generalize those strategies into different contexts.
Another beneficial homework assignment is one that encourages students to question their learning. When students ask questions about what they are learning, they may become motivated researchers. Teaching students when and how to ask questions is vital to learning. While teaching, it was important to me that students left my classroom with a desire to learn more and were equipped with the skills to find credible information.
Finally, I cannot overstate the importance of students developing a love of reading. As an educator, I taught many struggling readers. I found that if students cannot read fluently or comprehend text at their grade level, all academic areas are typically affected. I believe students should be able to choose what they read at home. The more they want to read, the more they will read, and the better their literacy skills will become. Many of the struggling readers I worked with simply had not “practiced” reading enough to be reading at their grade level.
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