Homework – the good, the bad and the undecided by Dr Helen Street

good the bad


How much homework do you expect the kids in your school or class to do each week?


How much time do you think an average teacher in your school spends setting this homework, giving it out, explaining it… marking it (thinking about marking it!)… giving it back?


When I ask these questions at an educational event or at an in-house PD, I will generally find that nearly all mainstream Australian schools set homework. Moreover, although early learning educators often set minimal homework, the majority of teachers set between one and three hours of homework every week for every student in their care.


The Victorian DEECD guidelines (2012) indicate no more than 30 minutes per week day for Prep to Year 4; 30 to 45 minutes per day in Year 5 extending to 45 to 90 minutes by Year 9 and one to three hours per night for Year 10 to 12.


Meanwhile the 2012 Queensland education department guidelines suggest: no homework for Prep students and weekly limits of one hour for Years 1 to 3; two to three hours for Years 4 and 5; three to four hours for Years 6 and 7; and no more than five hours a week for Years 8 and 9. For Years 10 to 12 it says hours will vary according to individual learning needs. The remaining state and territory education departments, including our own, do not make recommendations on hours to be spent doing homework although they do have homework policies.


Anyone could easily be forgiven for thinking that such a mainstream and prevalent practice must be based on a solid foundation of grounded research.  Unfortunately, in the case of traditional forms of homework, this is simply not the case.


There are several great literature reviews on homework around – including one on the Victorian Department of Education website that is really worth looking at. The 130 plus studies that have been reviewed, largely explore the impact of homework on improving learning outcomes, increasing parental involvement in their children’s learning and also for nurturing independence in students.


Findings are certainly varied but none-the-less there are some very definite trends that emerge from the data.  Overall, there appears to be no substantive support for the benefits of primary school aged children doing traditional forms of homework to improve long term learning outcomes.  Some small benefits have been found for children in the upper years of primary school in terms of parental involvement in learning and in terms of introducing a more independent approach to learning. However, these are questionable. At best, it seems that homework for young learners can provide a temporary practice effect (eg kids in head start programs may appear to be performing at a higher level than their peers upto about year three, but advantages are then lost).


It seems to me that primary school kids are far better off spending their spare time outside of school enjoying sport or simply running around, after all kids are very much made to move. It is also essential for young people to have time for self directed play and creative projects. After all, kids also very much made to learn and develop autonomy through play. In fact play is essential for creative development and wellbeing.


As one might expect, the results concerning the benefits of homework for high school students are more divided. There are more factors to consider including the range of subjects studied, the variation in homework approach and content and also the time and effort put into actually doing the work. Overall there is a leaning towards the ineffectiveness of homework in improving learning outcomes, particularly for project based homework.  There is better support for homework that involves practicing skills learnt in class. (e.g. math homework that involves practicing a learnt strategy has been found to be more effective than homework from other subjects).


Overall, despite the limited support for homework that has been identified in some studies, it appears that young people spend a lot of time and exert a lot of emotional energy for very questionable benefit. Yes, some research supports homework… but let’s face it, the support is sketchy in comparison to the lack of support.


I believe that whenever we consider the value of homework, we need to consider what can be gained from the homework itself, AND, what the student would be doing with their time otherwise. After all, if a student has no homework, then this means that they will be spending their time out of school doing something else.  If they are passionate about reading or sport or art; or busy writing their own software; it is not too much of a stretch to suggest that a lack of homework would certainly enhance, rather than detract from their overall educational experience.  If however, your adoring teenager would be spending that five hours a week on social media or watching YouTube clips of cats falling off tables… the idea of time spent on homework suddenly seems a better one. This makes me think that the real issue is not so much about whether homework is a good idea or a bad idea, but rather, what we consider a good use of a young learner’s time to actually be.


Research certainly tells us that an add-on academic project is going to do very little to support a students learning outcomes in a particular subject. However, out of school activities that encourages finding your passion in life or building on your existing strengths, could be a great idea for supporting life long learning and wellbeing.





Victorian Parliament 2014 Inquiry into the approaches to homework in Victorian schools (http://www.parliament.vic.gov.au/file_uploads/ETC_Homework_Inquiry_final_report_PWkrPPVH.pdf)


Other articles by Helen Street can be found at www.positivetimes.com.au

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