Feature Story

To Homework, or not to Homework: That is the Question

Homework has long been the dread of students and has impinged on many a happy evening. However, an increasing chorus of academics, parents and phycologists, have joined the grumbling voices of students to raise the idea of reducing or perhaps even eliminating homework altogether.

Traditionally, homework has been a cornerstone of success. In much of the developing world, particularly in South and East Asia, students as young as grade 1 are expected to do more 12 hours of homework a week. In Canada, few curricula mandate any specific homework quotas, though certain school boards, and private schools offer some criteria to their teachers.  As a general rule of thumb, most teachers are taught that the daily homework load should be approximately 10 minutes multiplied by the grade of the student. In University this is sizably higher with students expected to allocate about 10 hours per course per week (including any lectures and labs). Yet these age-old formulae are now being seriously reconsidered in light of new research that points out that excess homework may in fact harm learning.

Early discussions on this topic have raised much controversy. In an education conference earlier this month, an eminent researcher conclusively showed that younger students assigned more than 2 hours of homework a night consistently participated in less extracurricular activities, and were less likely to spend time with friends and family. However, this raised a scathing rebuke from an Ontario private school principal – who pointed out that her schools exemplary academic record was founded on a rigorous homework regimen.  She also pointed out that many parents expect their children to do a certain volume of homework a night. This is backed up by libraries of research that shows strong correlations between homework and higher academic achievement. Studies have also shown that students assigned more homework in younger ages tend to develop better time management skills and are up to 50% less likely to procrastinate later in life.

On a more fundamental level, critics and countless students like to point out that homework is just school work repeated. The argument here is that homework is only good for regurgitating ideas already chewed and digested in class, and there is very little use in this banal repetition. However, many argue that the repetition and practice of concepts is vital to understanding, especially in subjects like math. Yet this is precisely why opponents of homework say that this should be instilled in the classroom environment – where students are not only more likely to do the work, but have access to help if they can’t.

Surprisingly, these arguments have persuaded some schools, and even whole countries (such as Finland) to move away from after-class work. Though still in early stages, Finland’s results are astounding, with their students ranking among the best in the world for linguistics and mathematics. In Canada, though no school as overtly banned homework, many have implemented abatement frameworks – where teachers are expected to minimize homework on days where students already have a high home workload.

Efforts like this are largely encouraged, and studies show that this may help students gain a better perception and appreciation for school, and perhaps even reignite a zeal for learning. When coupled with the increased free time students could devote to their own personal development, homework’s days seem to be numbered. However, one fundamental flaw, which few opponents of homework directly address, is that free time for most students does not translate into personal development time. Instead, it’s far more likely to be squandered in front of a television or video games. In a fascinating study out of France, students who were given an extra hour a day to do what they pleased chose overwhelmingly to either watch TV, play a game or go online. Only 7% of the students actually participated in an educational activity like reading, and fewer than 15% participated in an outdoor activity.

Be you a supporter or hater of homework, the hard science and facts are simply not yet in. In the meantime, perhaps the best idea is to encourage students to use what time they have to do an activity to better themselves. Many community centers off free or low-cost activities ranging from archery to pottery, and all schools in Ontario offer a range of extracurricular activities for students. Parents should encourage their students to explore what adolescence has to offer – homework or not.