Children's Voice July/Aug 2006

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Exceptional Children: Navigating Learning Disabilities and Special Education

Making the Most of Homework

By Sheldon H. Horowitz

I need more 3-hole loose-leaf paper and a new binder and some pencils and index cards and a glue stick and...and...and...because I have to do my homework.
     --First grader, feeling proud and grown up about being assigned homework


This is sooooo boring! Why do I have to do so many examples when I know how to solve this kind of problem?
                         --Middle school student with a serious case of skateboardingitis


This is going to take me forever to do. I know the teacher said this stuff will be on the test, but if I do it all I'll never have time to hang out with my friends.
                                                                                                    --High school student


Sound familiar? I think most every adult can think back to a time during their own school years when homework was a force to be reckoned with and when questions about the value of homework loomed large. So let's take a step back and consider the following questions:
  • What does the research tell us about homework at different times in a student's education?

  • What should parents and educators do to ensure homework is a positive, productive ingredient in a child's school experience?

In Search of a Definition

Look for a definition of homework, and you're likely to find descriptions that include
  • tasks assigned by a teacher that are meant to be done outside of school (such as at home or in an afterschool program), and

  • work that is planned or approved by the teacher and that is supposed to be completed by the student (sometimes without help from peers or adults).
And although there is no single rationale for assigning homework, some common reasons include
  • practicing and reviewing new skills learned in school;

  • reinforcing learned skills so they are not forgotten;

  • increasing knowledge by discovering new information and connecting it to classroom learning;

  • preparing for upcoming classroom instruction;

  • developing important skills needed to successfully research a topic and report findings;

  • developing self-motivation, self-discipline, responsibility, and independence; and

  • becoming adept at organizing, condensing, and sharing information (often in writing).
Interestingly, when I did a cursory search for definitions online, very few sources mentioned anything about parents! Now think for a moment about the conversation that takes place in virtually every household sometime in the mid-to-late afternoon:
  • "How was school?"

  • "How did you do on your test?" and (you guessed it)

  • "What do you have for homework?"
Parents clearly play a very important role in the homework process.

The Research Says...

As might be expected, there is no definitive body of knowledge about the benefits of homework, how much is enough or too much, how frequently it should be assigned, and for which students and in what subject areas it is most helpful. There is, however, substantial literature to suggest that homework serves a number of different purposes:
  • Practice. Rehearse and relearn skills and information taught in class.

  • Preparation. Introduce material that will be formally taught in future lessons.

  • Extension. Apply learned skills to new problems and situations.

  • Integration. Use many different skills to complete a single task (a book report or science project, for example).

The Homework Debate

Here are some of the pluses and pitfalls to homework, derived from current research:

Pluses
  • There is, over time, a powerful positive link between homework and academic achievement.

  • Homework is an effective tool for teaching students to work independently.

  • Well-designed homework encourages good study habits (and modeling "how to" by teachers and parents is often a great help).

  • Homework can effectively prepare students to identify and use resources such as the library, the Internet, research texts, and other informational sources.

  • Homework can strengthen school-home communication.

  • Doing homework is a highly cost-effective way to have students revisit, remember, and understand material taught in school and prepare for the next day's lesson.

  • Doing homework can help students see that learning can and should take place outside the classroom.

  • Engaging in homework can help students learn and practice organization and time-management skills.
Pitfalls
  • Homework has been shown to provide different benefits at different stages in school, and a mismatch in assigned homework and student readiness can result in frustration and a student's reluctance to keep trying.

  • Most homework should not be graded, nor should it be viewed as a test; doing so discourages students to reflect on their work and evaluate their understanding of material taught in class.

  • It's unfair to use homework as a way for students to teach themselves new skills.

  • Despite the temptation, homework should not be assigned as a punishment.

  • Assigning too much homework may result in disinterest and fatigue; students overburdened with homework will also begin to view their assignments as punitive, and they will do what they can to avoid doing it (and, yes, even cheat to get it done).

Some Guidelines

It should be clear by this point that homework can be an effective way for students to improve their learning and for parents and educators to work cooperatively in support of a student's progress. Here are some informal homework guidelines for students throughout the grades.

Kindergarten-Grade 2
  • Homework is most effective when it does not exceed 20-30 minutes per day.

  • The benefits of homework may not be immediately apparent; it does, however, set the right tone for students to reflect on their school day and begin to develop good study habits.
Grades 3-6
  • Students can benefit from 30-60 minutes of homework per day.

  • Ideally, homework should focus on providing opportunities for practicing newly learned skills and applying concepts in a way that helps parents and teachers isolate problems and provide individualized instruction and support.
Grades 7-12
  • There is no recommended timeframe for homework, and it's not unusual for students to spend as long as two hours or more per day on afterschool assignments.

  • The focus of assignments should be on building on skills, taking ownership of new ideas, and helping students incorporate new information into their repertoire of general knowledge.

Recommendations for Parents and Teachers

The effectiveness of different types of homework will vary according to a student's age and ability, and more time spent on homework doesn't necessarily lead to higher achievement. That said, here are some recommended practices that can help make homework more productive (and maybe even fun) for students, parents, and educators.

Be consistent. Try to determine your child's regular pattern of homework so it can be easily incorporated into a daily routine. Offer assistance without being intrusive. Remember whose work it is, and allow your child the opportunity to take charge.

Define expectations. Teachers need to let students know if and when homework will be assigned, collected, reviewed, or graded, and how they expect parents to support the completion of homework assignments. Parents need to know, in advance, if and when signatures are required, and they need easy, ongoing access to teachers when questions and problems arise.

And everyone needs to know the rules! Some teachers are pleased when parents provide assistance and even welcome their reteaching skills or working through problems with their children. Other teachers want homework to be a 100% student effort and prefer that students submit incomplete assignments and ask for help in school as a way to keep track of student progress.

Avoid busy work. There's nothing worse than asking a child to complete 50 math problem when 10 will do the trick. Parents and teachers should be vigilant to ensure that assignments are interesting, challenging, and varied in format.

Keep an eye on the clock. More is not better when it comes to homework. Be sure to spread the burden of homework over time, and be sensitive to the setup and cleanup time students often need to complete their work. Remember also that homework is likely to be assigned in a number of classes, so efforts to coordinate a calendar of demands would be very helpful. Parents can be very helpful by assisting their child to anticipate scheduling challenges (many assignments due at once, juggling extracurricular activities) and identifying the resources and possible accommodations necessary to complete assignments.

Guarantee success. Homework should be designed so students can compete most if not all of the tasks successfully. In every instance, student effort should be acknowledged, even when they struggle and make mistakes.

Provide feedback. Students will quickly perceive homework without feedback as meaningless and unnecessary. Explicit, well-targeted feedback has been shown to improve overall student performance.

Sheldon Horowitz EdD is Director of Professional Services at the National Center for Learning Disabilities, New York, New York. NCLD provides essential information to parents, professionals, and individuals with LD; promotes research and programs to foster effective learning; and advocates for policies that protect and strengthen education rights and opportunities. For permission to reproduce this article, or to contact Dr. Horowitz, e-mail help@ncld.org. © 2006 National Center for Learning Disabilities. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

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