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The Big Question

Joyce L. Epstein, principal research scientist at Hopkins' Center for Social Organization of Schools and research professor in sociology, is the author of School, Family, and Community Partnerships: Preparing Educators and Improving Schools (Boulder, CO, Westview Press, 2002).
Photo by Stephen Spartana

Q: Have We Gone Overboard on Homework?
A: "Research says, No. On average, students do not have too much homework. Studies confirm that, through high school, most students do less than one hour of homework a night. Research also shows that students who do their homework do better in school. Of course, there always will be some students who get too little or too much homework, or inappropriate assignments that are too boring or too frustrating for their skills and needs. For instance, one of the main purposes of math homework is practice. But that doesn't mean that students need 20 problems to master a skill. Five or 10 might do, whereas 20 problems borders on punishment.

"From my view, most educators and researchers have gone overboard in focusing on the amount of homework or time students spend, rather than on the quality of assignments. Most educators across the country do a pretty poor job on homework design. One reason is that few colleges prepare future teachers to design homework to meet specific purposes and to produce clear results. Well-designed assignments should help students use homework time to practice, think, reflect, discuss, create, edit, enjoy, and share their work and ideas. For example, instead of asking students to write sentences for 10 spelling words every week, a teacher might assign students to use their spelling words in a motivational speech and practice the speech for a parent or family member.

"Encouraging positive student-parent conversations is one useful purpose of homework. In the National Network of Partnership Schools at Johns Hopkins, we work with educators to develop and study comprehensive programs of family and community involvement. This includes 'interactive homework' to increase parent-teacher and parent-child interactions while building students' skills in math, science, and language arts. My colleagues and I developed a process called TIPS (Teachers Involve Parents in Schoolwork) that guides teachers in designing assignments that encourage students to share their writing, conduct science experiments, demonstrate math skills, and discuss real-world applications with a family partner. In one family-friendly TIPS activity, students survey a family partner about what hairstyles were like when they were young, then draw a picture to illustrate a hairstyle of the past, write a reflective paragraph, and read it aloud to a family member for feedback.

"Activities like these help parents understand what children are learning in class, promote positive conversations about schoolwork at home, and, perhaps most importantly, motivate kids to actually do their homework. All of this, without asking parents to 'teach' school subjects at home."

Return to April 2004 Table of Contents

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