The Problem With Homework: Not Much Evidence On Whether It Works

The Problem With Homework: Not Much Evidence on Whether It Works

Engaging in homework has become a customary routine for students, parents, and teachers alike. Students are expected to complete their nightly assignments, either reluctantly or with refusal, while complaining about it; parents are tasked with reminding their children to finish their homework; and teachers are responsible for assigning and grading it.

However, not everyone believes that this ritual is necessary, including Brandy Young, a second-grade teacher from Texas. Young recently wrote a note to parents expressing her views: "After conducting extensive research over the summer, I have decided to try something new… Research has failed to provide evidence that homework enhances student performance. Instead, I ask that you spend your evenings engaging in activities that have been proven to contribute to student success. Have dinner with your family, read together, play outside, and ensure that your children get enough rest."

Young’s note quickly spread on the internet, resonating with many who share a common frustration that homework is, at best, an unnecessary burden causing stress, and at worst, a complete waste of time. Nevertheless, there are people who support homework as well. A recent poll revealed that most parents believe the amount of homework their children receive is appropriate, and some even wish for more.

Young further elaborated on her thoughts in a piece she wrote for the Huffington Post, stating that she did not intend to spark the great homework debate of 2016, but she is pleased that she did.

So, what does research say about homework?

Surprisingly, very little, in fact. As I delved into this topic, I quickly discovered a shortage of robust evidence examining the effects of homework.

For instance, a commonly cited overview of past research conducted in 2006 concludes that there is "consistent evidence for a positive influence of homework on academic achievement," particularly in Grades 7-12 compared to Grades K-6.

However, a closer look reveals an important point to note: the use of the word "correlation." Just because students who complete more homework or are assigned more homework tend to have higher test scores does not necessarily prove that homework is the cause of improved performance. It is possible that homework is ineffective, but high-achieving students are more likely to complete it anyway. Alternatively, teachers might assign additional work to struggling students.

The research review acknowledges this complexity: "All studies, regardless of their type, exhibited design flaws."

Harris Cooper, the co-author of the research review and a professor at Duke University, generally believes homework holds significant value. However, he acknowledges the issues with previous studies. Cooper highlights that his research identified six studies that could feasibly isolate and analyze the impact of homework, with all but one consistently showing positive results.

Although six studies may seem substantial, red flags arise when considering their limitations. Firstly, all of them are quite dated, ranging from 1985 to 1997. Secondly, none of them were published in academic journals, which suggests significant flaws in their setup and execution, as documented by Cooper and his co-authors.

"While methodological considerations make it challenging to draw definitive causal inferences from these results, the consistency of findings is encouraging," they write.

To put it simply, these studies have a small sample size, are quite old, and carry methodological uncertainties, making it difficult to place too much confidence in their findings.

As for more recent research on homework, it appears that there are only a few noteworthy pieces of evidence available.

One meticulous study from 2011 compared the performance of eighth-grade students when assigned to teachers who either gave a substantial amount of homework or less. The research discovered that students with more homework performed significantly better in math but showed no improvement in English, science, or history. Although this study was relatively recent, it relied on national data from 1988.

A similar positive effect on math also emerged in a 2007 study, particularly among struggling students, challenging the notion that past research had underestimated the value of homework. Notably, this study focused solely on math and utilized the same 1988 data set as the previous one.

In a 2012 paper, three different approaches were used to examine the relationship between homework and the performance of eighth-graders in international math and science tests. All three approaches suggested that increased homework resulted in higher scores.

A few other studies employ sophisticated statistical methods in an attempt to isolate the effects of homework. These studies consistently find positive impacts of math homework in higher grades, although it should be noted that the data used in these studies is quite outdated.

When it comes to rigorous evidence either supporting or opposing homework, that’s about as far as it goes.

Cooper informs me that he hasn’t come across any studies that thoroughly investigate potential negative effects of homework, such as stress or family conflicts. One survey of affluent high school students discovered that those who reported doing more homework experienced higher levels of stress and poorer health. However, the study couldn’t establish a direct causal link between increased homework and these negative outcomes.

Tom Loveless, a researcher at the Brookings Institution, agrees that there is surprisingly little research on homework that can clearly identify its causal impact. "There are very few credible researchers who have expressed interest in this topic, and I’m unsure why that is," he stated. Loveless asserts that the lack of evidence means educational leaders and policymakers should approach setting homework mandates with caution.

This puts teachers in a difficult position. While there is some evidence supporting math homework in later years, there is scarce evidence to support or oppose homework in other grades and subjects.

In almost every research paper on any subject, the call for further research is common, even in areas that have been extensively studied. However, in this case, it is truly necessary; researchers should devote more time to answering this question.

Until then, the tradition of assigning homework will persist – at least in classrooms that are not like Brandy Young’s.


  • ernestfarley

    Ernest is a 26-year-old education blogger and teacher who writes about a variety of topics related to teaching and learning. He has a passion for helping others learn and grow, and believes that education should be accessible to everyone. Ernest is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, and he has taught high school students in the United States, Mexico, and Chile.