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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

In defense of (good) homework

Homework can help students learn and narrow the achievement gap, writes Janine Bempechat, clinical professor of human development at Boston University’s Wheelock College of Education and Human Development.

Well-designed, appropriate homework assignments boost achievement and build learning skills, she concludes. “Busywork” — assignments designed to be done by parents — waste of time and energy.

There’s a huge homework gap by social class. Children of well-to-do parents get lots of homework, leading to exhaustion and stress. Low-income and working-class kids get very little, and the quality of their assignments may be poor.

Overall, most U.S. students aren’t overworked. High-school students average less than one hour per day on homework, writes Bempechat. In a survey by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), only 13 percent of 17-year-olds said they’d studied for more than two hours the previous evening.

It’s not clear that elementary students do better when they’re assigned homework, she writes. However, it would be a mistake to eliminate homework because — unless intrusive parents do all the work — it helps students develop self-regulatory skills that are critical to academic success.

Students at low-achieving schools may not have “high-quality, challenging” homework — or any consequences if they don’t do it, her research has found. At two high schools in California, students “described receiving minimal homework—perhaps one or two worksheets or textbook pages, the occasional project, and 30 minutes of reading per night. Math was the only class in which they reported having homework each night.”

By contrast, in affluent communities, where students are trying to get into elite colleges, some students are carrying heavy homework loads, while also participating in extracurriculars. Too much homework risks students’ mental and physical health, writes Bempechat.

Most students need more high-quality homework, she writes.

Meaningful homework is authentic, allowing students to engage in solving problems with real-world relevance. More specifically, homework tasks should make efficient use of student time and have a clear purpose connected to what they are learning. An artistic rendition of a period in history that would take hours to complete can become instead a diary entry in the voice of an individual from that era.

High-quality homework builds students’ sense of competence by giving them clear tasks they can do without help, writes Bempechat. “Students whose teachers have trained them to adopt strategies such as goal setting, self-monitoring, and planning develop a number of personal assets—improved time management, increased self-efficacy, greater effort and interest, a desire for mastery, and a decrease in helplessness.”

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