The value of homework

My son brought home a great assignment a few weeks ago – to identify around the house obtuse and acute angles – and he and I went a step further, taking pictures of the angles we found and emailing some of those to his teacher. (Geeky Dad that I am, I suggested to my son that he post them on his dormant blog, but it remains dormant. And I remain geeky.) My son told me that the next day his teacher pulled out the projector and shared his pics with the rest of the class – and, no, he was not horrified for being singled out. Phew.

I also appreciate that he’s given free reading as homework, something that the WaPo’s Jay Mathews highlighted in a column this September. Warms my heart to see my son spread out on the couch with one of the titles from the Ranger’s Apprentice series, pausing only to let me know when a character says “damn.”

The math assignment and free reading got me thinking about homework’s value – just what does it do for learning? – and a quick search landed me on this piece from the Center for Public Education. It reviewed the following questions and what the research on homework has to say about each:

  • Does homework affect student learning?
  • Does homework have other effects?
  • Does the effect of homework vary with student age?
  • How do different groups of students react to homework?
  • What types of homework assignments are effective?
  • How much time should students spend on homework?

Some highlights of this review:

  • Loud and clear: “The link between assignment of homework and student achievement is far from clear.” One study “argues that reviews on the link between homework and achievement often directly contradict one another and are so different in design that the findings of one study cannot be evaluated fairly against the findings of others.”
  • As for the non-academic benefits of homework, what two researchers called “the job of childhood,” homework “helped third graders learn responsibility and develop time-management and job-management skills. The students also learned to work on schoolwork when they did not want to and to adjust their attentiveness to the demands of a specific assignment. These and similar benefits, such as good study habits and independent learning, have been found by other researchers as well.”
  • As “students age, the positive effect of homework on achievement becomes more pronounced,” but some argue that these “findings may be attributed to various circumstances…For example, differences in students’ attention spans and study habits may account for differences in homework’s effects. However, it may also be possible that teachers use homework in early grades to establish routines, instill a sense of responsibility, and help students learn time management.”
  • A review of studies that examined “the amount of homework and its relation to achievement revealed encouraging findings” – that students who reported “‘more time on homework also scored higher on a measure of achievement or attitude,’ [a] relationship [that] held true across elementary, middle, and high school grade levels.”

I was most interested about types of homework, what Duke’s Harris Cooper has divided into four buckets:

  • Practice homework, the most common type, reinforces material presented in the classroom and helps students master individual skills.
  • Preparation homework introduces students to future material.
  • Extension homework has students apply previously learned skills to different contexts.
  • Integration homework requires students to produce a product by applying multiple skills.

While practice tends to be the most common – and I concur from my anecdotal perspective – it seems that “having teachers assign homework that prepares students for upcoming lessons or helps them review material that has not been covered recently may have more impact on student learning than assigning homework that simply continues the school day’s lessons.” Part of my interest in preparatory homework has to do with the flipped classroom, which I wrote about here. Teachers that use this structure have students learn new material as homework, to prepare for the next day’s class and application of that newly learned material. That structure and its impact on learning seem well grounded in the literature on homework.

Back to angles: I want to see more extension-related homework. I liked hunting around our house looking for different types, playing with kitchen utensils to create acute and obtuse angles – math manipulatives, I guess. Imagine the fun we’d have with the fractions unit that my son’s on to now, mucking around in the house for different representations of fractions. If the piano keyboard is the unit whole, for example, what fraction of the unit whole is each white key? If the stairs to the basement is the unit whole, what fraction is each stair? We could play with a bag of sliced bread, the checkerboard, window panes, even the number of beads on a string of beads. I know that, for the learner in our house, this application of previously learned material builds his conceptual knowledge of a topic – and can be fun too. How might it work for your learner?

I got the photo of the boy writing here. I got the kitchen tongs image here.

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