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Homework That Helps

How much and what types of assignments benefit students most?



The never-ending homework debate rages on. Is homework harmful or helpful? While there doesn’t seem to be one answer, experts, teachers and parents all have insights into what helpful homework looks like.

Beverly Stewart, MEd, president and director of Back to Basics Learning Dynamics, Inc., in Delaware, has over 37 years’ experience as a teacher, tutor and administrator. About homework she believes, “Just like everything in life, we need a balance.” She does not think homework should be abolished nor that students should be inundated with hours upon hours of homework. Helpful homework is meaningful homework.

What makes homework helpful?

Stewart believes the skills reinforcement homework provides makes it beneficial in the elementary grades. “Helpful homework lets the child practice what was learned during the school day,” she explains.

She points out that helpful homework looks different at various ages and stages because as children grow, the assignments change. For example, homework can be preparation for a new lesson or unit. Middle schoolers may read a non-fiction article at home in preparation for a Q & A the next day. Students with flipped classrooms, a recent trend in education, watch video lectures as homework in preparation for in-class assignments and discussion.

Linda Halligan, a South Jersey mom and teacher, agrees that homework should have a purpose like practicing a skill or pre-reading as an introduction to a new topic. She says, “Homework should never be busy work or stuff we didn’t get to in class today. Then it is just a burden and a waste of time, which causes frustration in the student.”

Research shows that mindlessly filling out a worksheet or copying vocabulary words does not tend to enhance learning or help kids forge connections. Instead, actual experiences stick with students.

Cheryl Hullihen, a mom from Vineland, NJ, teaches 9th-grade science. She says, “I try to tie homework in with current events or with real-world examples, such as converting recipe measurements into metric.” Students are more likely to remember what they learned while they made brownies or interviewed a local war veteran about the Vietnam War.

What’s the right amount?

Many parents and students think homework takes up too much time. Research supports the idea that too much homework can diminish its intended benefits. The National Education Association recommends schools and teachers follow the 10-minute rule. Devised by Duke University psychology professor Harris Cooper, this rule calls for 10 minutes of homework per day based on the child’s grade. A Kindergartner would have no homework, a first grader would have up to 10 minutes and so on.

Some teachers skip homework altogether. They encourage parents to enjoy family time, play outside and read together, instead.

Christine Korbal, a South Jersey teacher and mom of three, asks, “Do dentists, architects or nurses go home and practice so they will perform better at work the next day? I think not.” Korbal asserts, “Reading (for pleasure) and studying don’t count as homework — at least not in my eyes — but worksheets and projects have no place at home.” Korbal has seen her students succeed in local, regional and national contests in multiple subjects without daily homework.

Valerie Hauber Lechtenberg, a Philadelphia area mom, agrees with Korbal. “My view on homework is that adults wouldn’t want to come home from their jobs and have to do that job again for hours, yet it is expected of our kids. Reading and studying are important, but the hours of busy work and ‘we didn’t finish this in class’ work are frustrating and don’t add value. A child doesn’t need hours of homework for it to be meaningful.”

Korbal pleads, “Please, let these kids be. Once that bell rings, let them go freely wherever they may — to their practices, their rehearsals, outside to play, to listen to music, to draw, to read what they would like to read.”

Stewart reminds parents that time spent on homework is very child specific and that students with special needs may need more time. “The 10-minute rule is very reasonable, but some children may need more time. Allow them the time they need.”

Janet Tumelty is a South Jersey mom and freelance writer.

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