Does extensive homework really help students learn?


“Quality over quantity.”

This saying is applied to almost anything requiring some degree of effort: sports, jobs, building relationships. Why not apply it to homework as well?

The biggest complaint students have is not that it is too hard but instead that there is too much for a topic too insignificant. It’s simply busywork assigned for the sake of assigning it. 

Not only is it excessive, but these students argue that it is also pointless. Because not all students learn at the same level, the students who do understand the concepts taught in class are overcome by ennui as they waste their time cementing information that is already set in stone for them. 

Moreover, if students don’t see the worth in the work they are doing, then they probably won’t input the necessary effort or do it all. It doesn’t help that homework often holds so little influence over a grade. Homework usually counts for between  5-15% of a grade and each homework assignment is usually under twenty points. There’s not much motivation for students to work hard on homework. 

However, homework dissidents are always met with the largest and most widely known argument for homework: it improves test scores and retention. And yes, this is true but only to an extent. Recent research has found that only math homework leads to a positive effect on test scores while the rest of the subjects remain unaffected. 

The other argument regarding test scores is based on its positive and direct relationship with time spent working on homework. For high school, students who spend ninety minutes to two and a half hours on homework are proven to score better. Nevertheless, this—like the previous argument—can be misleading. The positive relationship between test scores and time spent working only persists until that two and a half hour mark is hit. 

It makes sense.

Because of sports, extracurriculars, volunteering, and family and social time, homework shares the pedestal for first priority. It gets done but only after other activities end for the day and therefore keeps students awake long into the night.  The resulting sleep deprivation and stress— as well as the accompanying health issues such as headaches, unhealthy weight loss or gain, stomach problems, anxiety, and depression—staunch academic development and hurt future academic performance. 

There is even more research disproving the supposed benefits of homework. For example, cognitive disfluency is the phenomenon that occurs when we work really hard on something and therefore retain it better. Yet, based on this knowledge, wouldn’t the repetitive aspect of homework work in its favor and prove that sometimes quantity is more important?  

Actually, no.

It is a common misconception that the brain learns through the repetition of a subject or topic. You see, repetition is merely the mindless skimming of pages and notetaking—just seeing something doesn’t help. Studies have shown that rather the retrieval of information is more productive because every time a memory is pulled up, it becomes stronger and more permanent. Memory retrieval means active engagement in a topic and deep thought about its parts.

And some homework certainly employs this strategy. But only some. 

When it comes down to it, homework is less about teaching or refreshing the lesson, though it can be helpful in that way, and more about teaching life skills. From doing their homework, students learn accountability, self-dependance, discipline, time management, critical thinking, and problem-solving.

Of those six big qualities, the amount of homework only impacts one of them: time management. Yet, if students are given an hour and a half to two and a half hours of homework, it would be reasonable to argue that students still must learn time management skills.

So, the quantity of homework is simply irrelevant to the learning involved with it. Quality—how engaging and interactive assignments are—is what makes the difference.