Homework in 2023: Should Teachers Change How Much Homework They Assign?

If you want to start a passionate debate with teachers, students, parents and administrators, complain about homework. Some say there’s too much homework and students need more free time at home. Others see value in the homework that develops soft skills and technical know-how. Everyone makes a reasonable case for adding or reducing homework — which means it is hard to choose a side and implement those ideas.

You have to decide what your students need and how they thrive. Here are the cases for and against homework, along with some proposed alternatives that could serve as compromises for everyone involved.

The 10-Minute Rule

The first question to answer is: how much homework do students do on average? This can provide a basis for whether students should be assigned less or if they might benefit from more.

In an article for Vox, Jacob Sweet writes about the 10-minute rule, which many schools and educators rely on. This is the idea that students should complete 10 minutes of homework multiplied by their grade level each night. A fifth-grade student would complete 50 minutes of homework while a senior in high school (grade 12) would have two hours of work.

However, this rule relies on teachers of different subjects working together. An eighth-grade math teacher would only be able to assign 15-20 minutes of homework to save time for other subjects. If the literature teacher next door assigns 45 minutes of reading, they are taking more than their fair share.

This rule also doesn’t account for general studying, where students review materials ahead of a quiz or test. Students might spend an hour or two alone preparing for an exam, which gets stressful around mid-terms and end-of-year finals.

Additionally, there’s a belief that advanced students can handle more than two hours of homework each night. The idea is that students in AP and honors courses should be able to juggle the heavier workload if they want to achieve the payoff of getting into a good university.

“Some schools are out of control with homework,” says Harris Cooper, professor emeritus of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University. “These schools tend to serve families or communities where parents are highly educated themselves. Teachers in these schools will tell you they are responding to pressure from parents to maximize their children’s learning.”

While the 10-minute rule is a good benchmark for many educators, it can be difficult to put into practice on a regular basis. It’s also easy to go over the allotted time.

Mother helping daughter with homework; How Much Homework concept

There Are Benefits of Doing Homework

One argument in favor of homework is that students continue learning and reviewing material when they leave the classroom. Homework promotes independent learning.

“When teachers don’t assign homework, it reflects an unconscious conviction that kids can’t learn without adults,” writes Dr. Eva Moskowitz, founder of Success Academy Charter Schools at the Fordham Institute. “Kids internalize this message and come to believe they need their teacher to gain knowledge. In reality, they are more than capable of learning all sorts of things on their own.”

Teachers who practice flipped classrooms know their students’ capabilities. Students watch videos at home and learn the material on their own. If they get stuck, they ask questions in class the next day. Working at home, without a teacher, becomes a key part of engaging in discussions at school.

Other education experts say homework allows students to learn in a low-stress environment. They can focus on the material at their own pace and in a safe area.

“During homework, the additional time learners spend engaged with a subject can be exactly what they need to begin piecing things together and grasping the lesson presented in the day’s materials,” writes the team at learning platform Juni. “Homework affords them all the time they need to explore those ideas without the societal pressures or time constraints they may experience in a classroom setting.”

Just being exposed to a concept a second time through homework can reinforce the ideas so students can better understand and be able to apply them throughout the year.

Finally, homework teaches good habits. It essentially teaches students how to learn. Even smart students who grasp concepts immediately can benefit from completing exercises that reintroduce ideas and strengthen their skills.

“Kids need to learn how to practice things,” writes Jay Caspian Kang, a former teacher and author of “The Loneliest Americans.” “Homework, in many cases, is the only ritualized thing they have to do every day. Even if we could perfectly equalize opportunity in school…I’m not sure what good it would do if the kids didn’t know how to do something relentlessly, over and over again, until they perfected it.”

Opponents Say Kids Already Lack Free Time

Despite the benefits of homework, some people think students need to spend their after-school time resting and recovering from the long day. They feel that cramming a few extra hours of learning at home won’t be effective in the long run.

Joseph Lathan, professor of practice and director of online programs at the University of San Diego, says homework is meant to be completed after a six to seven-hour school day. He also cites multiple sources explaining that most humans can only be productive for four or five hours each day (or two to three hours during an eight-hour workday).

Even if kids only have one or two hours of homework, educators are asking them to be more productive and focused than most working adults.

“After a six-hour day at school — listening, learning, reading, writing, solving math problems, absorbing history, investigating science anomalies, and the like (even when interesting and taught well) — how many of us were eager to get home, open the books again, and continue our tasks?”, asks Katherine James, an adjunct professor at Trinity Washington University.

Too often, arguments against homework focus on how kids don’t like it. The reality is they might not be able to handle more learning after a long day. When adults get home from work after a long day, very few want to sit at their computers working on projects all night.

Parents and teachers also need to consider how kids and teens often have packed schedules. On top of school, they have clubs, sports, volunteer activities and religious events that take away from their downtime.

“I think parents feel this pressure to prepare their kids for academic success and make them competitive college applicants and make them successful for a job, but they often miss out on that unstructured playtime that provides some of the skills that kids need to be successful anyway,” says licensed clinical psychologist Harpreet Kaur.

Unstructured time for play and resting is a major part of succeeding in life. Kids can’t thrive if, in an attempt to boost their resumes for potential colleges and employers, they burn out on school, homework and extracurricular activities.

Adult woman in kitchen with child doing schoolwork; How Much Homework concept

Homework Highlights Resource Inequality Among Students

Discussions about homework pressure often focus on high-achievers. These are students who are often overwhelmed because they try to balance several extracurricular activities with advanced classes that require additional time for homework and studying. However, there is also an argument for reducing homework in order to make the classroom experience more equitable.

“Understanding inequalities in homework time is important because consistent evidence suggests a significant relationship between students’ homework time and improved educational outcomes for high school students,” write Allison Dunatchik and Hyunjoon Park in The Pacific Sociological Association journal. “Racial and ethnic differences in homework time, therefore, may be a channel through which racial and ethnic inequalities in educational outcomes are produced.”

Not all parents can help students with their homework. They might have to work or might not understand the material. Some parents can’t afford to hire private tutors or are unable to drop their kids off at school for extra help.

“When assigning homework, it is common practice to recommend that families provide a quiet, well-lit place for the child to study,” says former teacher Chris McNutt, now executive director at the Human Restoration Project. “Having this space, time, and energy must always be considered in the context of the family’s education, income, available time, and job security.

The students themselves might have to care for their siblings or take on after-school jobs, which eat into their homework time. They might not have access to a quiet place to study and need to help out around the house. At-home study space and the time to complete assignments require privilege.

You can see these resource disparities in the “homework gap” reported by Lauraine Langreo for Education Week. Students of color, those from low-income families, children who live in rural areas are the most likely to struggle to get online and complete assignments when they get home.

Langreo points to a survey by Pew Research that 22 percent of teens do their homework on their cellphones at least part of the time (while 12 percent aren’t able to complete assignments “at least sometimes”) because they don’t have reliable computers or internet service.

It doesn’t matter whether a student has 10 minutes or two hours of homework if they can’t access the content to complete the assignment anyway.

Big brother helping younger sister with homework; How Much Homework concept

Some Educators Support Non-Graded Homework

One solution to the battle for or against homework is eliminating grades for these assignments. This allows students to focus on learning without putting added pressure on high-performing or low-income students to get the work done.

“We cannot conflate the report of doing things (compliance) with the reporting of learning things (mastery or proficiency), as doing so distorts the accuracy of the report of either one individually,” writes former teacher Rick Wormeli, author of “Fair Isn’t Always Equal.”

“During the years of my teaching…, some students demonstrated 75 percent proficiency in the previous year’s material, but the previous year’s teachers recorded an A or 100 percent on their report cards because these students completed homework on time, maintained organized notebooks, and worked collaboratively.”

In other words, students are rewarded for showing they are capable of doing work rather than proving they actually know the material. They can advance at school, but might not have the knowledge they need to succeed because they were graded on following directions, not actual learning.

Nora Sun, founder of the Talaria Summer Institute (a free summer STEM research mentorship program) argues in response to Wormeli’s article, that homework should be a tool for creativity where students can explore ideas on their own.

“In the restrictive, stressful setting of graded homework, teenagers suppress their natural curiosity and resort to googling and ChatGPT to quickly find the right answer,” she explains. “Without grading, students can use homework as an opportunity for exploration without fear of bringing down the letter on their report card.”

Grading homework on completion also further disenfranchises low-income students. These students might understand the concepts but will lack the resources to complete the assignments. They are further punished with low homework grades because they don’t have the time or ability to complete the tasks at home.

“Giving homework to give homework seems to be the problem,” writes Angela Barton, who has been teaching for 25 years. “Many schools still stick to the idea that they must give homework every night without considering if it is actually appropriate and would aid in helping students learn a particular concept.”

Barton says homework should be purposeful and short. It should achieve a clear objective to support the classroom environment without excessively eating into a student’s free time.

Finally, homework can also be a tool for teaching soft skills that can stick with students throughout their careers. Instead of placing pressure on learners to complete tasks, let them learn how to walk away for a bit, ask for help, and problem-solve with fresh ideas. This is what most adults would actually do in a stressful work environment.

“When homework becomes overly stressful, it has lost its value,” says teacher Emily Shepard at The Every Mom. “Take a break, go for a walk (exercise helps the brain function better), and return to it later. Teaching your child how to problem solve, manage emotions, and ask questions is a part of the homework process.”

There are countless schools of thought on how to assign homework, if at all, and what students need to do. It’s unlikely that there will ever be a bridge between homework abolitionists and homework advocates. However, you can develop a policy that works for you and the students in your classroom. Focus on why you want students to do homework and what they should get from it. Make the work meaningful and try to make it equitable. That’s all anyone can ask.

Images used under license from Shutterstock.com.