Why homework?

Almost as soon as a child starts school he gets introduced to homework. At first the assignment might be to take home a worksheet and to complete it by the next day. Or the assignment might be to read a very short story or to review a word list with a parent and then to have the parent sign the form saying the child has completed the task. But what do children learn from homework?
For more than a hundred years educators and educational researchers alike have debated the benefits of homework. Around the turn of the last century, according to a report on National Public Radio called “Homework: How Much is Too Much?”, homework was outlawed in some areas because it was considered child labor. More recent studies in the last two decades have shown no conclusive link between homework and increase in student achievement. Other studies have shown positive effects of homework under certain conditions and for certain students. And still other studies, such as those conducted by Kohn in 2006 and Trautwein and Koller in 2003, show no effects or even negative effects.
Obviously, too much homework that interferes with sleep and other activities necessary for health can have detrimental effects on a student’s ability to function during the school day and on a student’s retention of the information being studied.
One high school senior who asked to remain anonymous said, “I haven’t gotten more than three or four hours of sleep per school night for the last three years. Sometimes I have to have so much coffee to stay awake that I feel shaky during the day. I’m actually looking forward to college because I think I’ll have less work and fewer classes.” And the sad truth is, she might be right.
Researchers Cooper, Robinson and Patall in 2006 published a study, titled “Does Homework Improve Academic Achievement?” in the Review of Educational Research that found when high school students spend more than one and half to two and a half hours a night on homework the positive relationship of homework to student achievement diminishes. Yet many schools and many students seem to think the more work a person does, the more studying, the better that person’s chance of getting into a good college or university, and the better the person’s chance of success in life.
But this isn’t always the case as too much reading and studying can exhaust a person’s eyes and mind.
According to the Center for Public Education (www.centerforpubliceducation.org), older students seem to benefit more from homework than younger students, “perhaps because younger students have less effective study habits and are more easily distracted.” Homework for younger children may have greater nonacademic benefits than academic ones. These benefits include learning time management, responsibility and how to develop study habits. Homework also teaches younger children how to stay on a task until it is complete.
So if the benefits of homework assignments and its completion to student achievement and success are mixed, why do teachers assign homework in the first place, and when can homework make a difference in student achievement? Teachers assign homework for a variety of reasons: they are teaching something and the “project” or hands-on learning portion is too long for the allotted class time; because they want to reinforce what was taught during the class with more examples and/or practice. (The whole concept being the more something is done, the more it gets ingrained in the brain and remembered, or like the proverb says, “Practice makes perfect.”) Homework is also a way for teachers to tell if the students understand the material being studied, and homework, such as reading, also prepares students for future class discussions. 
Homework correlates best with student achievement when it doesn’t interfere with a student’s sleep, and when it doesn’t add too much stress to the student. Some studies have shown that homework is more effective for higher socio-economic students than for those from low-income households, but this is mainly because students from higher income families may get assistance from outside resources by using their computers, from their parents or through professional tutors. Having extra time to complete work at home can also be beneficial for students with learning and other kinds of disabilities, especially if supervision is provided.
Students do homework best when they are fully awake, have all their basic needs met, feel they can ask for assistance when needed and are in a situation (room or part of the living accommodations) with minimum distractions. For more information on things parents can do to help with homework, visit www.pta.org/2039.htm for the national Parent-Teacher Association’s online brochure called “Homework Help”.
Jill L. Ferguson is a freelance writer from San Carlos, CA.