The Homework on Homework: Part Two

In my quest to enlighten myself as to the true contents of the studies cited by Robert Marzano, et. al. in Classroom Instruction that Works, a course of action suggested not only by Marzano’s detractor Alfie Kohn, but by Marzano himself, I found an article entitled “Synthesis of Research on Homework” in Educational Leadership written by Harris Cooper. Cooper’s work seems to be a major point of contention between Kohn and Marzano, and upon reading this article, I think I can see where both are coming from. The citation for the article appears at the end of this post.

Cooper begins with the acknowledgment that he undertook his study in order to make some sense of some wild swings in the public’s attitude toward homework. At the beginning of the twentieth century, homework was considered good exercise for students’ minds (85). When drill exercises fell out of favor and problem-solving homework became the rage in the 1940’s, homework fell out of favor (85). I found that interesting, considering modern attitudes toward drill (I see it often referred to as “drill-and-kill”) whereas problem-solving is viewed as an invaluable skill for students to learn. Of course, Sputnik changed all that, and once again, homework was popular (85). Concerns about “needless pressure” on students in the 1960’s caused homework to fall out of favor again (85). The impetus for homework’s “reemergence” in the 1980’s was the landmark report A Nation at Risk (NCEE 1983). The article was written in 1989 and thus does not examine homework attitudes over the last twenty years, but given the response to my post in support of homework, I think it is safe to say homework is currently unpopular once again.

What Cooper found in his study was that research on homework tended to “fit the tenor of [its] times” (86). In other words, “[t]hrough selective attention and imprecise weighting of the evidence, research can be used to muster a case to back up any position” (86). Beginning in 1986, Cooper sought to change all of that with a new study. Cooper states that he “began the project with no strong predisposition about whether homework was good or bad” (86). Cooper’s research took two years; the end result was his book Homework, which Cooper says was the “first full-length book on the subject” of homework (86). I have had some trouble getting my hands on this book, as it is out of print. A few nearby university libraries have it, but none of my local public libraries do. I may be able to get it through inter-library loan, but as I am not currently a student or staff-member on any university, I’m not sure. However, “Synthesis of Research on Homework,” as its title suggests, seems to be a fairly good synthesis of the study.

I love the way Cooper began his study; it should have been how we began our debate about the issue at The Faculty Room: Cooper defined homework as “tasks assigned to students by school teachers that are meant to be carried out during non-school hours” (86). I’m going to assume he means the tasks are carried during non-school hours and not the teachers, but the English teacher in me couldn’t let that go without clarification. We spent, I think, the better part of several days just figuring out what we all thought homework was!

Cooper goes on to describe several positive effects of homework (quoted mostly word for word from figure 1 on p. 86):

  • Immediate achievement and learning, including better retention, understanding, and critical thinking
  • Long-term academic effects, including better study habits and attitude toward school
  • Nonacademic effects, including better self-direction, self-discipline, time management, and independent problem solving
  • Greater parental appreciation of and involvement in schooling

As well as some negative effects:

  • Satiation, including loss of interest in subject and physical and mental fatigue
  • Denial of access to leisure-time and community activities
  • Parental interference, including pressure and confusion of instructional techniques
  • Cheating
  • Increased differences between high and low achievers

Both sides have valid points, as Cooper discusses in his analysis. Cooper’s conclusion was that “homework probably involves the complex interaction of more influences than any other instructional device” (87). But does it work? Well, as it turns out, Cooper’s research says both yes and no.

Cooper organized his research into three sets of studies: 1) comparisons between students who were given homework to students who were not; 2) comparisons between in-class supervised study and homework; and 3) analyses of time spent on homework and student achievement.

The first set included 20 studies. Cooper found that 14 studies “produced effects favoring homework while 6 favored no homework” (88). However, and most importantly, Cooper found dramatic differences on the efficacy of homework when the factor of student grade level was considered. In fact, he found that “if the teacher is teaching high school students, the average student in the homework class would outperform 69 percent of the students in the no-homework class” (88). To reach this determination, Cooper hypothesizes that in two classes, one of which receives homework and one of which does not, all other factors being equal and each comprising 25 students, that the average student — the one who ranks 13th in the class — would be equivalent to 8th in the no-homework class (88). In junior high/middle school, the effect of homework is still present, but not as great. Cooper found that using the same scenario would slightly increase that student’s standing from 13th to 10th in junior high/middle school. However, in elementary school, homework produced no such effects. Assigning homework did not increase elementary school students’ achievement at all (88).

Cooper’s second set of evidence, a comparison between in-class supervised study to homework, showed in-class study to be superior. However, Cooper acknowledges that the issue is “how best to use children’s time and school resources” (88). I take that to mean that with elementary students who spend most of a day with the same teacher, student time and school resources might be better spent on in-class supervised study; however, in secondary schools when students might spend only 50 minutes with a teacher, it might be a wiser use of student time and school resources to assign homework. Again, grade level was critically important to Cooper’s findings: “When homework and in-class study were compared in elementary schools, in-class study actually proved superior. In junior high, homework was superior, and in high school, the superiority of homework was most impressive” (88).

The third set of studies is more difficult to interpret due to a chicken/egg problem. Are students achieving more because they study more? Or do students who achieve more naturally study more? However, Harris found that of 50 studies, 43 “indicated that students who did more homework had better achievement while only 7 indicated the opposite” (88). Once more, grade level made a huge difference. Studies on students in grades 3 to 5 showed a weak correlation between achievement and amount of homework. For students in grades 5-9, a stronger correlation could be found. Of course, in high school, the strongest correlation could be found (89).

What about the kind of homework? Surely that should be a factor, right? Cooper did not find that subject matter influenced achievement. I found this conclusion surprising, as I had assumed practice of math problems to be essential to understanding math concepts when I was in school. Cooper also concluded that homework “works best when the material is not complex or terribly novel” (89), which makes sense to me as students would have trouble completing it without help. In addition to subject matter and complexity, Cooper also examines the factor of time. Again, with elementary students, the amount of time spent didn’t matter much because homework didn’t impact achievement. Junior high students’ achievement “improve[d] with more homework until assignments lasted between one and two hours a night” (89), after which the efficacy of homework diminished. “For high school students, on the other hand, the line-of-progress continued to go up through the highest point on the measured scales” (89)! Cooper believes there must be a point at which homework is no longer effective in high school, but also states that the studies show that “within reason, the more homework high school students do, the better their achievement” (89).

Interestingly, Cooper also found that “it is better to distribute material across several assignments rather than have homework concentrate only on material covered in class that day” (89); that parental involvement, even when parents are given a “formal role” make no difference in the efficacy of homework either way; and finally that individualizing assignments had such small benefits, given their additional “burden” for teachers, that Cooper recommends it shouldn’t be done. Given contention that feedback is important, it is interesting that none of the studies Cooper analyzed examined the effect of feedback. I should think, as Marzano found, that giving feedback most likely demonstrates the homework has some importance; therefore, it has a greater impact on student achievement.

A final caveat: Cooper complains that “many of the studies used poor research designs” and feels that we really need to construct “some well-conducted, large-scale studies” (89). Second, all of the focus on the efficacy of homework is on its correlation to achievement. Few studies examined “homework’s effect on
attitudes toward school and subject matter,” and none examined “non-academic outcomes like study habits, cheating, or participation in community activities” (89).

Cooper concludes his article with an excellent recommended homework policy for teachers, schools, and districts. Despite his findings, Cooper recommends elementary students be given homework, even though it will not change achievement. I found this recommendation baffling in light of the evidence he presented; however, he insists that it will enable students to “develop good study habits, foster positive attitudes toward school, and communicate to students the idea that learning takes places at home as well as school” (90). While I concede it might do the first and the last, I’m not sure it will do much to make students like school. Further, he recommends elementary homework be “short, employ materials commonly found in the home environment, and should lead to success experiences” (90).

Cooper believes junior high students should have a “mix of both mandatory and voluntary homework,” which he defines as “tasks that are intrinsically interesting to students of this age” (90). High school students should receive homework that is an “extension of the class,” which includes “[p]ractice and review of lessons” and “simple introductions to material about to be covered” as well as “assignments that require students to integrate skills or different parts of the curriculum” (90).

Cooper emphasizes that “[h]omework should never be given as punishment,” which sends the message that “schoolwork is boring and aversive” (90). He also recommends “parent involvement be kept to a minimum,” but that parents of students in earlier grades be more involved than parents of students in secondary grades. Perhaps most interestingly, Cooper recommends that “grading should be kept to a minimum” because “[h]omework should not be viewed as an opportunity to test” (91). Cooper believes that checking for completeness and giving “intermittent instructional feedback” is better than discriminating “among” different levels of achievement on homework (91). He believes that students will still learn that homework “should be taken seriously and has a purpose,” which is to “diagnose individual learning problems” (91). This approach makes sense to me if we’re talking about math or grammar exercises, but not out-of-class writing assignments or projects, both of which fit Cooper’s definition of homework.

Ultimately, what I take away from this article is that both Marzano and Kohn may be somewhat selective in what they concluded from Cooper’s study and subsequent recommendations. It is clear to me that homework may have little to no benefit for elementary school students, but is critical for high school students’ achievement. However, in my view, it seemed that Kohn seemed to think the benefit for even high school students was not great, and Marzano seemed to think the benefit to elementary students was greater than it is. Cooper suggests that the effects of homework on achievement in early grades may be small, but that some homework will instill study skills students will need in order to do homework in upper grades. I suppose if that is our goal, it is a worthy one, but on an anecdotal level, I can’t remember having much homework (if any) until middle school, and I have fairly good study habits. Then again, who is to say it’s not because I’m a pretty good student? Would lower-achieving students benefit from developing compensatory study skills? I’ve seen it happen — a student who may not have the natural ability achieves nonetheless because of hard work.

Cooper, Harris. “Synthesis of Research on Homework.” Educational Leadership. 47.3 (November 1989): 85-91. Professional Development Collection. EBSCO. Weber School Library, Atlanta, GA. 29 March 2008. <http://www.ebsco.com/>.

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