Just about everyone feels the pressure to accelerate learning in the final weeks and days of the school year. Too many students have fallen behind, and we feel the urgent need to catch them up. Of course, we can focus on key concepts and skills and let less crucial aspects of the curriculum go for now to save time and energy for learning crucial content. We are also working hard to reestablish and renew relationships, sustain a supportive environment for learning, and create an emotionally safe space for students who need to finish transitioning to in-person school.
In this context, it can be tempting to turn to increased homework to fill gaps and reduce reinforcement and practice time while we are face to face with students. While on the surface relying on homework to “take up some of the slack” may seem worthwhile, it may be a less effective strategy than we assume.
While there is little research on what impact homework had on remote learning during the pandemic, there is significant research on its effectiveness as a strategy associated with in-person learning. The findings point to limited learning benefits and some significant downsides that should give us pause, especially now. In short, if homework is designed and positioned correctly, it can increase student motivation to learn, but poorly designed and positioned homework can lead to decreased interest and commitment. Let’s examine some of the potential downsides of relying heavily on homework, especially now.
First, the greatest learning benefits come from the homework students complete, not from the amount of homework assigned. The key is to design homework students can and will complete. Attention must be given to how realistic, interesting, useful, and doable homework will be from the students’ perspective. We may think what we’re asking students to do is valuable, realistic, and achievable, but if students can’t or don’t do the work, learning will not be the result.
Second, when homework involves practicing new concepts and skills while students are still uncertain, confused, or hold misconceptions regarding what to practice, homework can actually work against learning. We risk having students repeat errors and increase their confusion while doing homework intended to support their learning. When this is this case, more assigned homework will cause more learning damage. And when students practice and reinforce misconceptions, it takes even longer to correct problem areas and more effort for students to relearn correctly.
Third, too much homework can diminish its benefits. Once students reach a point where the work has reinforced their learning and created confidence, more practice has not been shown to increase achievement. As a general guideline for high school students, homework requiring about an hour to an hour and a half per night is optimal. For middle school students, the greatest benefits are found in homework requiring less than an hour. For elementary students, if homework is assigned at all, it’s best for the time required for completion to be even less. To be clear, the optimal times reflect total homework time, not the time required per class. Collaboration among teachers and administrators is crucial to avoid overloading students with homework and diminishing any benefits.
Fourth, homework can have a different impact on students depending on their home circumstances and learning skills. Students who have adequate background knowledge to successfully engage in the work often find homework an easy task. But students without this advantage can find the time necessary to complete homework is as much as double what’s required for more advantaged students. Further, when homework requires access to resources not provided by the school, expectations for homework completion at home may not be realistic. The implications of these disparities grow and become more serious when homework is scored and used for grades. Students who actually give more effort and invest more time in completing homework can be penalized—while classmates with support and access to resources are rewarded with better grades. These homework practices can actually increase achievement gaps and inequities.
Homework, if carefully designed and thoughtfully assigned, can reinforce learning and provide opportunities for practice and application. However, we need to be attentive to the potential risks and downsides it presents. If homework is going to be among the instructional strategies on which we rely as we finish the year, we need to employ it judiciously and in limited amounts.