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Piling on the homework: Does it work for everyone?

While U.S students continue to lag behind many countries academically, national statistics show that teachers have responded by assigning more homework. But according to a study by Daniel Henderson, associate professor of economics, and colleagues at the University of Nevada, when it comes to math, piling on the homework may not work for all students.

Published in the July issue of the Econometrics Journal, the study found that although assigning more homework tends to have a larger and more significant impact on mathematics test scores for high- and low-achievers, it is less effective for average achievers.

“We found that if a teacher has a high-achieving group of students, pushing them harder by giving them more homework could be beneficial,” Henderson said. “Similarly, if a teacher has a low-ability class, assigning more homework may help since they may not have been pushed hard enough. But for the average-achieving classes, who may have been given too much homework in an attempt to equate them with the high-achieving classes, educators could be better served by using other methods to improve student achievement. Given these students’ abilities and time constraints, learning by doing may be a more effective tool for improvement.”

According to co-author Ozkan Eren, assistant professor of economics at the University of Nevada, the study examined an area previously unexplored, namely the connection between test scores and extra homework.

“There has been an extensive amount of research examining the influences of students’ achievement, but it has been primarily focused on financial inputs such as class size or teachers’ credentials,” Eren said. “Our study examined the affect that additional homework has on test scores.”

While past studies suggest that nearly all students benefit from being assigned more homework, Henderson and Eren discovered that only about 40 percent of the students surveyed would significantly benefit from an additional hour of homework each night.

The findings should be of particular interest to schools who have responded to the increased pressures to pass state-mandated tests by forcing students to hit the books even harder, Henderson said.

“This does not mean that homework is unimportant for average achievers,” he said. “But it does mean that this population may also benefit from other activities such as sports, art or music, rather than additional hours of math homework.”

So what can teachers take away from the study? Henderson points out that every student is unique and while umbrella policies may benefit some, they generally cannot be applied to all. “In my own personal experience, I see that each semester requires a different approach,” Henderson said. “This is even true when I teach the same course twice in a semester. Different times of the day or lengths of classes require different methods -- just as different quality students require different approaches.”

Henderson also pointed out that repetition has been proven effective for some but not all subjects and what may have worked one academic year may need to be altered the next.

“Teachers should consider quality over quantity when it comes to homework assignments,” he said. “In the end it should be up to the individual teacher to decide how to motivate and educate his or her students. One of the most beautiful things about America to me is the creativity that we instill in our primary/secondary schools. I know that we lag behind many countries in test scores, but I am willing to accept that, assuming that we also produce creative, enthusiastic students.”

Rachel Coker | Binghamton Research News
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