The Homework Debate

I have been bogged down with a head cold and I'm behind in my math class. As lesson after lesson on quadratics passes me by, I see my homework assignments piling up. The quarter is nearing an end and the homework, a key part of my grade, needs to be done.

But with that backlog looming in my near future, I'm tempted to wonder...Should homework be abolished?

The question has been batted around for decades. A 2006 study found that the benefits are mixed, according to this Washington Post article.

Elementary school students get no academic benefit from homework -- except reading and some basic skills practice -- and yet schools require more than ever.

High school students studying until dawn probably are wasting their time because there is no academic benefit after two hours a night; for middle-schoolers, 1 1/2 hours.

And what's perhaps more important, he said, is that most teachers get little or no training on how to create homework assignments that advance learning

In my class, I definitely understand the value of homework. With lessons moving quickly, it would be close to impossible to absorb everything without some extra time to absorb and reflect on the lessons and to practice. It usually takes me about 30 minutes to finish. It's not that difficult; just practice.

The real questions probably have to do with how much homework and what kind of homework is appropriate. What is busy work? What tasks are useful and important for learning? I remember spending three hours or more many nights on homework when I was in high school. I have no idea if that was time well spent. Some of the students in my class now come to school bleary-eyed because they were up half the night finishing a marketing project or studying for a psych test.

Many advocates say that homework can teach important lessons about time management and responsibility. In today's world, they are likely to be juggling tasks throughout their waking hours. But how much is too much?

By Michael Alison Chandler  |  January 15, 2009; 1:03 PM ET  | Category:  Class Time , Math for Parents
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30 minutes? I remember homework taking longer than that - of course, college homework can take hours for a single class.

I have found that the most useful and educational homework assignments were those that focused on one or two synthesis problems - that is, the homework asked us to come up with some solution to a complicated problem. In many cases, this involved designing something or coding something - things that have no right answer. Not only do you have to understand the material well to do this, but often you must tie together many different concepts to complete the assignment.

Posted by: UVaEE09 | January 16, 2009 12:12 AM | Report abuse

Homework is crucial for math so I don't think it should be cut back. I don't remember having too much math homework when I was in high school in Fairfax County. Repetition is so important for math comprehension. The teachers may be able to do a better job of working together so assignments are more spaced out through the quarter/semester.

Posted by: DCMathTutor | January 16, 2009 10:05 AM | Report abuse

Repetition (practice) is important when learning math. There are teachers who would do away with homework and textbooks both - amazing!
What feels like busywork is like learning to play a musical instrument. Those chords you play over and over until they are second nature - are busywork.
True, some people are musically talented and don't spend much time on chords but go straight to the creative stuff. But not many. Usually, you do both.

Posted by: KathyWi | January 16, 2009 10:38 AM | Report abuse

I find it interesting (and amusing) when people say, "I didn't have too much homework when I was in school," as though that has anything to do with what students are dealing with now. Times have changed, and if you don't believe me, go spend a couple of hours in a classroom or a teachers' staff meeting. The fact is, most homework is not meaningful, nor does it help students absorb material that they don't understand.

Posted by: familyhomeworkanswers | January 16, 2009 2:18 PM | Report abuse

With all things, some people require more effort to master a skill/acquire knowledge than others. As a math teacher I suggest to my students to not spend more than 40mins at one time on their math homework; stop, take a break, and come back to it after doing something else if you're not finished. If the exercises are rich and thoughtful, no more than 10 per night should be sufficient. Yet, like any athlete or aspiring musician, at some point there has to be some 'drill and kill' to help make essential skills automatic; as stated previously, most of us mere mortals may require more of that than others.

Posted by: pdfordiii | January 17, 2009 11:05 PM | Report abuse

Trying to learn math without practice is like trying to learn to play football by watching games on tv. Of course, how much practice should be in class and how much should be out of class is another question.

Many high school students may be up at midnight doing school work but few of them spent the majority of the previous nine hours doing academics. A large number of students believe that to get into a college they want, they have to be "4-A" material, with athletics, arts, and activities also on their applications. These take time--even if you're only a 3-A or a 2-A candidate. Many students have paying jobs. And, of course, there is social interaction, whether in person or through MySpace, phoning, etc.

Posted by: RogerSweeny | January 18, 2009 9:54 AM | Report abuse

I have two perspectives on this. One is recalling how as a gifted but slightly ADD student I hated the busywork and slow progress of math classes in grade school. I hated math back then. I might have liked it more if there were fewer and more interesting (i.e., harder) problems assigned. Fortunately, I was somehow inculcated with the idea that you don't stop taking math classes until they become too difficult. I wound up majoring in math in college and continue to study math alongside logic and philosophy.

My second perspective is as a university logic instructor. For those students that lack a natural high aptitude for formal reasoning, drilling is absolutely essential for obtaining basic skills. Since numeracy (not to mention critical thinking) is so low in our society, a problem which contributes to a great many social ills, I would not ever advise math teachers to give up on drilling students who need to be drilled.

I would advise a bit more flexibility, however. One approach would be to rethink how homework figures into students' final grades. It should be possible, for example, to do only the homework problems that interest you and still get an A for the course, as long as you do A work on the exams. It should also be possible to get an A in an elementary or high school math course without ever getting an A on an exam by showing diligence in the practice and completion of problems, provided adequate performance (i.e., B/B+) on exams.

One option would be to assign only a representative sampling of problems to be counted as a separate grade from quizzes and exams, emphasizing the more interesting (i.e., harder) problems. The hardest problems should show up in homework rather than quizzes and exams, in my opinion, because there's no need to have students face the most difficult problems of the course under pressure. So, for example, homework problems could be complicated word problems that apply basic algebraic skills being developed in the course.

Quizzes or exams could then be used diagnostically, not only evaluatively, and would be focused on those basic skills. If a student performs poorly on a certain type of problem, for example, a teacher could then give that student the option of completing a larger homework set drilling drilling that skill for extra credit. Students that want to raise their grade will thereby be asked to do more work, and the work that they are asked to do will be more focused on their specific deficiencies.

Posted by: jrshipley | January 18, 2009 2:16 PM | Report abuse

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