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Throwing Some Fuel onto the Homework Debate Bonfire

Homepage Forums Brain-Based Learning Q&A Throwing Some Fuel onto the Homework Debate Bonfire

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    • #6408
      AvatarBryan Harris

      The topic of homework has been hotly debated in recent years with everyone from Alfie Kohn to CNN providing a perspective on the relative strengths and weaknesses of using homework as a means to increase student achievement.

      Without reviewing the merits of each side of the debate (I’ll leave that up to each of you to create your own informed opinion based on the research), let us consider what extreme amounts of homework might be doing to the brains of our students.

      A 2013 study conducted by Mollie Galloway from Lewis & Clark University can shed some light on the subject. Although she is not a neuroscientist and doesn’t claim to be an expert on the brain, her research found some interesting and relevant connections between homework, sleep, stress, and students overall engagement in learning.

      Most notably, Galloway’s research found that the amount of homework a student completed impacted the quantity and quality of sleep they got. This makes sense, of course. The more time students have to spend doing homework, the less time they have for other things…including sleep.

      So, why is this a big deal? Well, without going into a primer on the impact of sleep on the brain, suffice it to say that sleep is a big deal. John Medina, author of Brain Rules, describes sleep as “powerfully restorative” in its capacity and neuroscientist/sleep expert Dr. Russell Foster says that, in addition to helping with a variety of health and learning problems, we “all would be better human beings” if we got the right amount of sleep.

      If our students don’t get enough sleep due to homework, we might be shooting ourselves in the foot. On one hand, we give more homework hoping that it will improve memory retention. But the increase in homework takes away from sleep time which impacts the brain’s ability to consolidate memories (Maija-Riikkasteenar et. al, 2003; Chee & Chuah, 2008).

      This all begs the question, as educators what should we do?

      First, let’s consider what we expect students to do once they leave school. Aside from the compelling research, one of the best arguments I’ve ever heard about homework centers on the “job” of students. If a student’s “job” is to be a full time student that means they go to “work” for 6-7 hours per day. If they are then to do additional “work” at home for several more hours than we are asking them to work more hours per day than we are! Add to this the fact that we want our students to be involved in extra-curricular sports, clubs, and community involvement activities; it can easy to see why so many students are sleep deprived.

      The second thing we can do is to start educating our student about the power of sleep. There are some helpful, easy to use lesson plans and resources on the web. A few of my favorites can be found HERE, HERE, and HERE.

    • #11477
      AvatarCid Schumpert

      Thanks so much for the insights into the homework debate. The school I teach at requires me to assign homework. I believe students need time to be kids once they leave school.

      Another issue I have run into is the students getting too much help with their homework right down to their parents actually doing the writing for them. I have also run into the opposite spectrum of the issue and had students whose parents were unable or unwilling to help them.

      I offer a time before and after school I call “Homework Help”. It is especially for students who have difficulty completing the assignments, but many students like to use the time, so they do not have assignments to complete at home. I know the student has completed the assignments themselves, and give immediate feedback and error correction.

    • #11909
      AvatarBryan Harris

      In this post, I talked a lot about the importance of sleep and how the lack of sleep impacts kids. Recently, the American Academy of Pediatrics published a policy statement related to high school start times and how they impact the amount of sleep students received. They view the lack of sleep among adolescents and teens as a public health issue. The first line of their statement says, “The American Academy of Pediatrics recognizes insufficient sleep in adolescents as an important public health issue that significantly affects the health and safety, as well as the academic success, of our nation’s middle and high school students.”

      You can read the policy statement here:

    • #11903
      AvatarErik Smith

      Of note is the aspect of improving memory retention mentioned in your piece. The idea of practicing to improve a specific skill set plays well into muscle memory, such as a golf or tennis swing.

      Yet, the question of what is being retained via homework practice becomes murky at best, as well as what classification of students benefit the most, i.e. elementary, middle, or high school. For example, who helps, what time of day is hw completed, where is it done, what is the student’s mindset, i.e. positive or negative self-efficacy, and does the student find the work relevant?

      Moreover, Dr. Medina references three types of sleep/wake cycle dispositions a person may have, such as lark, owl, and hummingbird. These natural dispositions are frequently disrupted due to school schedules that exacerbate sleep deprivation. Thus, making the possible benefits of homework more difficult to obtain.

      Finally, does homework help facilitate higher order thinking skills that are in such high demand, as evidenced by Common Core and other entities. As of yet, the research does not support this position. Over the years, I have sought to provide ample opportunity for my students to attempt their homework or extension practice in class. First, elementary students are the least likely group to benefit from homework. Two, this allows for errors or misconceptions to be addressed in class by myself or other students. Three, I frequently incorporate assignments that require practicable application of the skill being taught to more challenging work. Hereby, students can engage in more dynamic problem solving discussions in class.

      I find that homework, on average, is more disruptive to family life, as more fully addressed by Alfie Kohn. In the end, tailoring extension work to how the mind works has proven to be the best approach for my students.

    • #12411
      AvatarBryan Harris

      It seems like every time I turn around, the issue of homework is being discussed somewhere else.

      Here is a link to an ASCD poll that asks about the appropriateness of homework for K-2 students.

      I’m not sure I agree with the majority of respondents. How do we define “busy work”?

    • #14577
      AvatarCid Schumpert

      I agree with Erik that the best type of follow-up assignment for students is an extension. My students love it when I challenge them to take what we have learned and class and extend it at home. Two examples are science investigations and literature discussions.

      In science I try to structure investigations with materials readily available at home. After discussing our results and forming our conclusion, the students often start suggesting variables that could be tested. They then conduct the investigation with their family and report their results back to the class. This type of activity reinforces the concept taught by the original investigation and gets families involved in their student’s education.

      We have Socratic discussions over our classical novels. To get students ready for the discussions, they are assigned to select an event from the passage and respond to the passage with something the passage makes them wonder about or a question the passage raised and their response to the passage. The students love to read their questions and response to their family sparking a discussion about the novel the students are reading. Many times the families end up reading the novel together.

      Homework should bring families closer together rather than be a source of disruptive tension.

    • #16987
      AvatarCid Schumpert

      Michigan State University and the University of California at Irvine recently studied the effect of sleep deprivation on memory. The study suggests that people suffering from sleep deprivation are more susceptible to false memories. If students are staying up late to complete homework, and the lack of sleep is making their memories more mailable, is there a benefit to homework?

      Here is a link for a video describing the research:

    • #22205
      AvatarPatricia Bentolila

      I couldn´t agree more with Bryan´s post. I find myself reading and nodding my head: YES, YES, YES. Of course we all would be better human beings if appart from being able to sleep better, we would give children the opportunity to invent, create, and discover. There´s no evidence that links our brains being able to operate at this high level of production if they are constantly busy responding to task demands.

      I loved your creative way out Cid for responding to your school polices, it truly shows, no excuses are valid when you are a caring educator. It shows, we can find ways to make things meaningfull, even homework, with a little twist.

      Research has consistently failed to link homework with achievement, Dorothy Suskind wrote an excellent article worth the reading:

      “What students would do if they didn´t do their homework. Evidence suggests that homework has only a slight effect on educational achievement, and this doesn´t hold true for all grade levels. Do we really have to keep doing things based on pseudofalse arguments like: “We have always done it this way?” “What on earth will the parents say?” “How will children learn self-discipline and study skills?” This excellent, well fundamented article, leads the way to reflect upon our own motives and methodologies for assigning nightly work.

      I encourage everyone interested in this topic to read it.

      The online version of this article can be found at:

      Finally, but not least, yes Eric, homework ends up being “very” family disruptive. As a Family Counselor, I get complains regarding homework issues. In my experience, it affects parent-children relationship and increases unnecessary pressure and tensions both ways, for probably none or very little purpose as discussed.

    • #28264

      Unscientific research from LOW SES Central, where I teach: Hard to do homework as classically applied when student does not have a place to do it at home, or a way to get assignments home with them. As for sleep, ask some of our students how many people were crammed into the room they attempted to sleep in last night. Don’t ask if there were a bed as we know them. Whether it’s work after school, caring for family while parents work,or sub-standard housing and a lack of personal space, let alone cell phones, video games, and music deep into the night, our students are hurting the next morning with sleep deprivation. All behavior has some sort of reason behind it. My approach this year has been to ask what’s going on with student’s physically and emotionally unable to function at school.

      Then, I might be able to design an intervention. I use the moment out in the hall to teach about hydration, sleep, and eating so that their bodies don’t shut down, protecting them from skipping food or abusing their bodies with junk food. Often feels like “You and Me against the World.” My hope is that as a Johnny Brain-based learning Appleseed, the growth will eventually come.

    • #38834
      Jean Seville SuffieldJean Seville Suffield

      Hi Bryan,

      I usually rely on the work of Alfie Kohn but the following research is worth reviewing.

      A study by researchers at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health found that female students, racial/ethnic minorities, and students of lower socioeconomic status are particularly affected, with teens in these categories less likely to report regularly getting seven or more hours of sleep each night compared with their male counterparts, non-Hispanic white teenagers, and students of higher socioeconomic status, respectively. Findings from “The Great Sleep Recession: Changes in Sleep Duration Among U.S. Adolescents, 1991-2012” are published in Pediatrics.The study is the first comprehensive evaluation of recent sleep trends by age and time period for U.S. adolescents”

      Check this out at:


    • #40476
      AvatarCraig Carson

      Bryan, the questions from patrons eventually wind their way to my desk as the asst. supt. in charge of teaching, learning, and assessment. Adults peer into the window of this discussion with the understanding of how we practiced homework when we were in school. Parents remember working on homework almost daily. And, the homework counted for points. In today’s educational atmosphere of looking at homework as practicing known skills or extending application of known concepts, teachers use the work as formative assessment. As formative assessment, with or without grades attached, students should be able to use homework as a chance to get and use feedback to increase their understanding. Homework becomes trial and error learning – practice – a confirmation of what a student knows and questions that he or she has.

      The confusions that we have to help parents and teachers understand is around the concepts of formative assessment, extension, and authentic learning. As students know the learning target, are provided descriptive feedback, track their own learning, and practice goal setting, formative assessment practices empower students to take control of their own learning. Intrinsic motivation is enhanced.

      When parents leave my office, I hope to have shared a warm cup of coffee, discussed the merits of using homework as great feedback in the learning cycle, and explored how homework is an effective tool if used correctly.

      The articles listed previously in their questioning strand are very good. I also like to read Stiggins and colleagues on formative assessment along with Black. Marzano and Hattie have good information on homework. also has some good counterpoint thoughts.

    • #40989
      Dr. Margo TurnerDr. Margo Turner

      Thanks Bryan and gang q and a. One outliner on this topic of homework is the “flipped classroom” in which students learn content online with videos done by the teacher or other sources and then the homework is done in class with the teacher so that questions can be addressed in class – a “guidance vs. lecture” approach.

      I have used this approach in some of my university courses and have found the discussions in class (and learning) much more vibrant and meaningful. In 2011 Michigan’s Clintondale HS flipped each class and reported gains. So while I do agree with Kohn and the ideas shared by you all, some homework may be beneficial if the teacher uses it appropriately.

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