Homework and Practice: A Synthesis of the Research

There are few more emotional topics in education than homework. Advocates of homework contend that it is necessary because students need practice. The other side in the debate claims that homework is little more than an exercise in mindless compliance – “busywork,” in the terminology students often use. Here is a summary of recent research on the subject.

1. Students do need practice. Therefore, the relevant question is: What sort of practice is most effective? Anders Ericsson[1] is the leading researcher in the field of expert performance and expert practice. Ericsson, not Malcolm Gladwell, is the real originator of “the 10,000-hour rule.” His conclusion is that it is not the number of hours of practice that leads to expertise, but rather the use of “gold-standard practice.” Two students can have the same number of hours of practice in calculus, music, or reading, and some will stagnate and others will make exceptional progress. The characteristics of gold-standard practice include immediate feedback, explicit coaching on how to improve, and differentiation so that practice is slightly outside of their comfort zone – neither too easy nor too difficult. If the purpose of homework is practice, then the probability that typical homework assignments meet the criteria for gold-standard practice is zero. Some outstanding teachers, such as Harvard physics professor Eric Mazur, have radically changed the way that students practice. They work on problems during class – not in their dorm rooms – so that Professor Mazur can immediately identify and address misconceptions. Michael Doll, a nationally recognized high school math teacher, uses similar techniques, explaining that “we need to make it safe for students to admit mistakes and discuss what they don’t know.” Homework that is always conveniently right creates the illusion of perfection and prevents students and teachers from having honest conversations about learning. Both Mazur and Doll make the point that the shift to in-class practice rather than homework is not a lowering of standards; students are learning more college physics and high school math, as evidenced by their final exam performance.

2. Students and parents do benefit from collaborative academic pursuits. When I hear parents talk about titanic struggles, often ending in tears, with their children at every level – elementary, middle, and high school – it doesn’t call to mind the phrase “collaborative academic pursuits.” If we really want work done at home, then constructive ideas include reading aloud, joint meal preparation (with recipes doubled, tripled, or halved), and interviewing family members for a family history are all wonderful alternatives to angry arguments about completing the odd-numbered problems one through thirty.

3. Most homework assignments have no impact on student academic performance. In her synthesis of 37 studies on homework, Alexandria Neason[2] concluded that the value of homework for elementary school students is zero, and the impact for students in middle and high school is negligible. Although practice is necessary, the sorts of tasks entailed in the vast majority of homework are not effective practice.

4. Homework, combined with toxic grading practices such as the average to calculate semester grades, discourages students from making intellectual breakthroughs that represent the best in teaching and learning. Many people have experienced the phenomenon of struggle and mistakes, followed by learning and performance. That is precisely the sort of intellectual resilience and persistence that we should encourage in every student. Yet the use of averages and the weighting of homework to calculate final grades essentially tells the student, “It doesn’t make any difference how you perform at the end of the semester that matters, because we are still going to punish you for the mistakes you made at the beginning of the semester.” Imagine if the instructions in the program for the end-of-year concerts and athletic competitions instructed the audience, “Please do not applaud or otherwise recognize these students, because we have evidence that they made many mistakes in rehearsals and practices earlier in the year for which they need to be held accountable.” As absurd as that sounds, it is the logic behind the weighting of homework and the use of the average to calculate end-of-semester grades.

Certainly people of good will disagree on homework policies. The reasoned middle ground is neither “all homework, all the time, because that’s what worked for me” nor “never assign homework because it’s irrelevant and harmful.” Rather, the reasoned middle ground is engaging in practice that matters – gold-standard practice with feedback, coaching, and differentiation. As for work done at home, there are many great alternatives to traditional homework assignments. As MIT Professor Alan Lightman[3] suggests, we might even let them play with friends, organize a game without adult assistance, and discover the world beyond school.

 

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[1] Ericsson, A. and Pool, R. (2016). Peak: Secrets from the new science of expertise. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

[2] Neason, A. (2017, January). Does homework help? ASCD Education Update 59(1). Retrieved from http://www.ascd.org/publications/newsletters/education-update/jan17/vol59/num01/Does-Homework-Help%C2%A2.aspx.

[3] Lightman, A. (2018). In praise of wasting time. New York: Simon and Schuster.

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