Is Homework Valuable? Depends on the Grade. Teachers Share Their Approaches

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Homework is a hot-button issue for both parents and teachers. When we asked the MindShift audience about it, we got a wide range of thoughtful answers. And the results of our poll were pretty evenly split, although the “No’s” have it by a small margin (it’s worth checking out the poll on Twitter and Facebook to read about teachers' experiences with homework). That’s probably because a lot of adults are concerned that students are tired, stressed and don’t have enough downtime at home after school.

There was a pretty clear consensus among educators and parents that homework is not appropriate in elementary school. And research supports this perspective -- homework in the early years doesn’t do a lot to improve achievement. However, some argue that the goal of giving students some light assignments is to start building a habit around responsibly doing work at home.

Many elementary teachers responded that reading at home should be the only homework. And research on reading supports this approach. When reading becomes a habit, kids are more likely to enjoy reading and that has all kinds of positive benefits.

Many parents are frustrated that their kids’ teachers assign homework. They worry it is hurting their kids’ love of learning.

A lot of teachers who responded to this poll said they don’t assign homework per se, but if students don’t finish their work in class, they are expected to finish it at home.

The research on homework and cognitive learning tells us that some kinds of homework are more useful than others, although parental frustration about “poor quality” homework abounds. Many teachers responding to the poll said they don’t believe in "busy work," but some definitely see value in practicing skills learned in class.

Cognitive science tells us one way to make homework more effective is to space out practice. The brain remembers things better when there are multiple opportunities to practice in small chunks over time. Designing homework that doesn’t leave topics in the past, but continues to resurface them over a semester, is powerful for retention.

Research tells us another way to make homework more meaningful is to force students to retrieve information from their memory with low-stakes quizzes. When we first learn something, the memory we’ve formed with the information is weak and easily forgotten. But every time we pull it up without looking at notes, it gets stronger.

Some research shows that in the older grades homework can be helpful. Some studies show a correlation between homework and improved unit test results. But more is not always better. Research also shows that higher-income schools often assign more homework.

Instead of giving students a lot of practice on the same set of skills, homework with a variety of questions that mix up the skills required to solve them is more effective. Cognitive scientists call this “interleaving.” When students can’t tell in advance what kind of knowledge or problem-solving strategy will be required to answer a question, their brains have to work harder to come up with the solution, and the result is that students learn the material more thoroughly.

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