Elementary Students and Homework: How Much Is Too Much?
The debate over homework flared anew in the fall 2016 school year as a handful of elementary school teachers implemented drastically reduced homework policies that went viral as parents rose to applaud or condemned them.
The policies that captured so much attention state that teachers would give students either no homework in the evenings, or that homework will consist only of work not completed that day in school. For many parents, these policies are a relief. Their kids spend all day at school, and even a small homework load interrupts the scant time kids have to play, attend other activities or enjoy family time.
But others support a more traditional approach to the role of homework in a student’s academic growth, arguing that some homework helps to solidify the day’s lesson plan.
How much homework should elementary school students do?
The furor over the quantity of homework assigned to elementary students reached a fever pitch this year amid headlines touting research finding that assigning homework to these students does not improve their academic performance. While the headlines grabbed plenty of attention, they barely scratch the surface of this complicated issue.
Historically, proponents of homework cited research urging teachers to follow the “10-minute” rule, which means assigning students 10 minutes of homework per grade level. For instance, a first-grader might have 10 minutes of homework a night while a third-grader could have up to 30 minutes of work. In theory, the quantity and intensity of homework should rise with age.
Note there is research supporting homework as a learning tool, especially as it relates to practice and retention. Studies do show that children as young as second grade improve their skills when they study at home to supplement in-class instruction — provided it doesn’t exceed the 10-minute rule per grade level. This research is correlational rather than causational, so it’s difficult to determine cause and effect.
Still, many researchers argue that even this small amount of homework doesn’t help students learn or retain concepts. Rather, they suggest homework at an early age helps children establish good study habits and time management skills while keeping parents current on what their kids are learning in school.
The type of homework matters — especially for young students
Research has found that homework tied to a student’s interests (such as reading for pleasure) boosts academic performance. Therefore, activities like maintaining a reading log can help to promote academic success even if it isn’t directly tied to in-class work. Other assignments might tie to students’ interests outside the classroom. For instance, teachers might ask students to complete writing assignments where they describe a hobby.
Homework that is too difficult, however, can be severely detrimental to students. If students feel easily discouraged or unable to complete assignments, they can develop negative views on school and learning.
Harris Cooper, a Duke University professor who wrote the book “The Battle over Homework,” suggests that homework assignments should be minimal, easy to complete and designed to get parents involved (though the involvement should gradually fade as students get older).
Ultimately, the debate over homework policies appears unlikely to die down. In one note to parents that went viral this fall, Brandy Young, an elementary teacher, suggested that instead of completing homework in the evenings, students should enjoy time with their families — including eating dinner, playing outside, reading and getting to bed early.
Young argued that these factors had proved to promote students’ academic success. And research supports such findings: Quality family time that includes time to play, relax and get adequate sleep are huge determinants of student achievement. While homework might help, it should not interfere with other aspects of the child’s home life.
Caitrin Blake has a BA in English and Sociology from the University of Vermont and a master’s degree in English literature from the University of Colorado Denver. She teaches composition at Arapahoe Community College.