Does Homework Help?

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Homework is one of those things the validity of which rarely gets questioned. Sure, lots of people complain. Students and parents alike whine about how kids these days get too much homework but more often than not, they suck it up and learn to accept things the way they are. After all, there is probably a good reason for the existence of this inconvenience. Isn’t there? Ask anyone and they might tell you that it probably helps with learning and self-discipline. In theory, this might be true but in practice, the benefits of homework are highly questionable.

Speaking from personal experience, I believe that homework has had a net negative impact on my life. It squanders my time and prevents me from doing the things I actually want to do. Furthermore, from a young age, homework solidified in my mind the association between “learning” and “boredom”. My experience is not unique. This very night, as millions of little kids grudgingly sit down to do their homework, quite a few of them will be wondering if their time and energy could be spent on more productive endeavours. Homework takes up hundreds of hours of a student’s life and when something has such a huge cost, we really do have to consider if it has a huge reward as well or is just another waste of time.

Scientific studies in this area tend to show that the benefits of homework, while existent, are highly overrated. For instance, research reveals the fact that homework has no significant effect on academic achievement of elementary school students. Can you see what a huge problem this is? See, when I was younger I was told that if I didn’t do my homework I was being unproductive and would never be able to reach my full potential. Now as it turns out, I might as well have spent that time sleeping or watching television and it wouldn’t have made a damned difference. I do not like that my time and autonomy was in the end sacrificed for nothing.

What happens if we simply ban giving homework to primary school students? As Finland has shown us, the world will not burn down because of a lack of homework. In Finland, students rarely get homework or tests until about the time they become teenagers. Yet, Finnish students outperform most of their peers in other countries who receive hours of homework and outside help in international tests. Apart from absolutely crushing it at tests, Finland is also one of the happiest countries in the world. On average, Finnish students end up doing three hours of homework per week and it doesn’t seem to have a negative effect on their academic performance at all.

While studies show that homework given to primary school students is nothing but a huge waste of time, its effects on students in higher grades are slightly more ambiguous. It seems that homework does have a positive impact on high school students. Students who do more homework generally get slightly better scores in standardised tests. However, these positive effects are less significant than most people expect.

The more homework you do, the lesser the impact of the additional homework. If you do much more than two hours of homework a night then that will have a similar effect as doing less than two hours of homework a night. A common guideline when assigning homework is that students should get no more than 10 minutes of homework for each grade level. So for example, a ninth grade should get a maximum of 90 minutes of homework a day while a twelfth grade can get as much as two hours’ worth of homework a night.

So homework does not help younger students. For older students, it slightly improves standardised test scores. However since standardised tests are not a perfect way to measure learning, it is unclear whether homework actually facilitates learning at all. And aren’t there better ways for a child or teenager to spend their time? Can you imagine if Bill Gates spent all his time after school doing homework assignments instead of what he loved the most: programming? We would never have ended up Microsoft! It is important to consider how many innovative ideas go unnoticed and the great number of unique talents that remain undeveloped because the person who has them was busy doing something that would only have a mild impact on their standardised test scores.

Despite my strong stance against it, I don’t think all homework is bad. I have no trouble at all accepting that some homework assignments have actually ended up helping me. These assignments have shared a couple of key characteristics. Firstly, they were open-ended; there was no fixed end product and every student ended up creating something unique. Secondly, they took into account the oft-ignored fact that all young minds are different. I will have wildly different interests and talents than you and that’s inevitable. Why then should every student have to do the same homework as everyone else? Thirdly, they were not boring. They were challenging and fun and also reflected the way people actually work in the twenty-first century.

A homework assignment in which students have to copy notes and diagrams or answer boring academic style questions is not a good one. An assignment in which they can create something unique to explain the topic at hand in their own way on the other hand is a great one. Students should not be bored by homework, they should take pride in it. This article only exists because it was given as a homework assignment and while I found it challenging, it never felt boring. And I am proud of how it has ended up.

So yes, some homework can be beneficial but that shouldn’t be taken as a given. We should examine homework through a lens of skepticism, rejecting anything for which the advantages don’t unambiguously outweigh the disadvantages. The burden of proof should lie on people who choose to give homework and they should actually have to prove that it is worth students’ time. And we should all recognize that while academic achievement is important, it should not cause us to sacrifice our family life, our mental health or our freedom. Because in the end, those are the things that truly matter.

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