A Closer Look At Those Students Who Do Have Excessive Homework

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Yesterday on the Brilliant Blog, I wrote about a report from the Brookings Institution that found that, despite hyperventilating media coverage of the subject, the number of students spending hour upon hour on their homework is actually quite small. American students have an average of one hour of homework a night, the study found, and surveyed parents were more likely to say that their kids had too little homework than too much.

However—and it’s a big however for those who are living through it—the Brookings report was careful to say that there are genuine exceptions to the moderate picture they present: students who shoulder a very heavy workload, night after night. Today I want to take a closer look at those students and those families, via another new study.

This research, led by Denise Pope of Stanford University, signals its focus on a special population in its title: “Nonacademic Effects of Homework in Privileged, High-Performing High Schools.” It paints a very different picture than the one that appears in the Brookings report:

“This study used survey data to examine relations among homework, student well-being, and behavioral engagement in a sample of 4,317 students from 10 high-performing high schools in upper middle class communities. Results indicated that students in these schools average more than three hours of homework per night.”

Pope and her colleagues did find that students who did more hours of homework experienced greater behavioral engagement in school. But there were many negative effects of heavy homework loads, too, as enumerated in a Stanford University press release about the study:

• Greater stress: 56 percent of the students considered homework a primary source of stress, according to the survey data. Forty-three percent viewed tests as a primary stressor, while 33 percent put the pressure to get good grades in that category. Less than 1 percent of the students said homework was not a stressor.

• Reductions in health: In their open-ended answers, many students said their homework load led to sleep deprivation and other health problems. The researchers asked students whether they experienced health issues such as headaches, exhaustion, sleep deprivation, weight loss and stomach problems.

• Less time for friends, family and extracurricular pursuits: Both the survey data and student responses indicate that spending too much time on homework meant that students were “not meeting their developmental needs or cultivating other critical life skills,” according to the researchers. Students were more likely to drop activities, not see friends or family, and not pursue hobbies they enjoy.

Some other takeaways from the study:

• Too much homework can reduce students’ time to foster skills in the area of personal responsibility and social connection—skills that are crucially important, as research is now beginning to demonstrate. “Young people are spending more time alone,” the authors write, “which means less time for family and fewer opportunities to engage in their communities.”

• Prior research indicates that homework benefits plateau at about two hours per night, and that 90 minutes to two and a half hours is optimal for high school.

• Students interviewed for the Stanford study said they often do homework they see as “pointless” or “mindless” in order to keep their grades up.

The prescription seems clear: assign a reasonable amount (around two hours a night) of meaningful homework that supports learning, but doesn’t interfere with other important activities.

I’m interested in what teachers, parents, and students connected to high-achieving schools have to say in response: Is this prescription a realistic one? And if so, why isn’t it happening at your school?

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3 Responses to “A Closer Look At Those Students Who Do Have Excessive Homework”

  1. Ken Odom says:

    This prescription is logical, but it isn’t probable because the root causes of this problem are parents and illogical thinking. Attendance at the types of schools in this study generally means either living in an upscale neighborhood or paying private school tuition. Often, parents are willing to pay more because they believe the quality of education is greater. Consequently, they seek reassurance that their economic argument has merit. This reassurance takes the form of “time on task” rather than genuine demonstration of learning. We know this because studies show that less homework has no detrimental impact on measures like AP scores. Unless parents can find other means to justify their monetary outlay, they will continue to demand (overtly or unconsciously) evidence if “hard work.”

  2. Abby says:

    I have taught in high schools where giving daily homework was expected or required. However, teachers were not usually given sufficient time to communicate as a team, so some students might find themselves with several tests or projects due at the the same time. I tried to mitigate this with flexible due dates, time to start the work in class, and holding in class review sessions.

  3. Josh says:

    I’m a lifelong learner and career-long educator, but a parent just entering the trial by fire that is our public school system. I’m very fortunate to be in one of the better districts in the area, in fact in the country. And yet I cringe to think of students, even in high school, spending about 2 hours per day (on average) on homework. Up to 2 hours per day is better, in that it means that’s a top limit. But average of 2 hours means that there are students who (may be smarter than all of us) doing no homework and others doing 4 hours per night.

    More important, I’m concerned about what we’re teaching students about what is important. Well designed, collaborative, project-based homework can be fun and even allow learners agency in their own learning. From my anecdotal and inconsistent observations, this is not the style of typical high school homework. High school homework, in many classes, tends to be much as it was when I was in school – drilling math, solving contrived physics problems, reading the source material for and then writing 5 paragraph english essays, etc. – in other words, they are solitary skills. Why not develop open-ended explorations that require collaboration? They’re harder to grade perhaps, because they are open ended. Fears tell us that students may not do “their share” of the work, but by employing peer and self grading, that will come out. Moreover, the amazing power of a group to problem-solve can demonstrate the value of true collaboration.

    And if we’re worried about marketable, real-world skills, then why are they using out-of-school time applying their skills to abstract problems rather than tackling real-world needs in their communities. Surely there are challenges in communities that can be slowly chipped away at, or in some cases demolished wholesale, with fresh perspective, youthful optimism, applied learning, and teamwork, especially by youth given or taking agency in their world.

    Again, what messages do we send by saying that students are expected to do 2 hours of solitary homework each day outside of school? One – you should take work home with you and do it to the exclusion of social interaction and growth – real world skills that are at least as important to the future of our world as STEM (yes, I am saying this as a STEaM educator). Do we really want our youth to buy into the myth of productivity above all else? As the father of young children, I struggle daily with the expectations that this mythos has perpetuated – I work hard at work. I get busy, bring work home, and I miss out on valuable formative time with my children. This may be the system we live in now, but if it’s worth changing, (it is), how better to start than by changing the school system where students learn these bad habits of working when they should be with family and friends, working in solitude when they could be working as a team, and performing stock (but easily gradable) activities instead of solving real problems.

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