It turns out that parents are right to nag: To succeed in school, kids should do their homework.
Duke University researchers have reviewed more than 60 research studies on homework between 1987 and 2003 and concluded that homework does have a positive effect on student achievement.
Harris Cooper, a professor of psychology and director of Duke's Program in Education, said the research synthesis that he led showed the positive correlation was much stronger for secondary students --- those in grades 7 through 12 --- than those in elementary school.
"With only rare exception, the relationship between the amount of homework students do and their achievement outcomes was found to be positive and statistically significant," the researchers report in a paper that appears in the spring 2006 edition of "Review of Educational Research."
Cooper is the lead author; Jorgianne Civey Robinson, a Ph.D. student in psychology, and Erika Patall, a graduate student in psychology, are co-authors. The research was supported by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education.
While it's clear that homework is a critical part of the learning process, Cooper said the analysis also showed that too much homework can be counter-productive for students at all levels.
"Even for high school students, overloading them with homework is not associated with higher grades," Cooper said.
Cooper said the research is consistent with the "10-minute rule" suggesting the optimum amount of homework that teachers ought to assign. The "10-minute rule," Cooper said, is a commonly accepted practice in which teachers add 10 minutes of homework as students progress one grade. In other words, a fourth-grader would be assigned 40 minutes of homework a night, while a high school senior would be assigned about two hours. For upper high school students, after about two hours' worth, more homework was not associated with higher achievement.
The authors suggest a number of reasons why older students benefit more from homework than younger students. First, the authors note, younger children are less able than older children to tune out distractions in their environment. Younger children also have less effective study habits.
But the reason also could have to do with why elementary teachers assign homework. Perhaps it is used more often to help young students develop better time management and study skills, not to immediately affect their achievement in particular subject areas.
"Kids burn out," Cooper said. "The bottom line really is all kids should be doing homework, but the amount and type should vary according to their developmental level and home circumstances. Homework for young students should be short, lead to success without much struggle, occasionally involve parents and, when possible, use out-of-school activities that kids enjoy, such as their sports teams or high-interest reading."
Cooper pointed out that there are limitations to current research on homework. For instance, little research has been done to assess whether a student's race, socioeconomic status or ability level affects the importance of homework in his or her achievement.
This is Cooper's second synthesis of homework research. His first was published in 1989 and covered nearly 120 studies in the 20 years before 1987. Cooper's recent paper reconfirms many of the findings from the earlier study.
Cooper is the author of "The Battle over Homework: Common Ground for Administrators, Teachers, and Parents" (Corwin Press, 2001).
This study analyzed whether the relationship between academic performance and homework follow-up practices depended on the type of homework follow-up practice used in class. We found that the five types of homework feedback were associated with student academic performance, despite the unbalanced number of teachers in each condition, and the low number of sessions (six sessions). The magnitude of the effects found was small, which may be due to the two previously mentioned limitations. Data from the ancillary analysis collected in the two focus groups run to identify the types of homework follow-up used by EFL teachers in class, and data from the post-research evaluation meeting run with the participating teachers contributed to the discussion of our findings.
Types of EFL teachers' homework follow-up practices and academic performance
As Model C (see Table 4) shows, and once the effect of the pretest was controlled for, the differences among the types of EFL teachers' homework follow-up practices on students' performance were statistically significant, as hypothesized. Moreover, considering the positive value of the coefficients shown in Table 4, the data indicate that students' performance improved from homework follow-up types 1–5 (see also Figure 2), and also that the differences between the five homework follow-up types are not of the same magnitude. In fact, after checking the error rate for comparison family using the FDR procedure, two homogeneous subsets of treatment means were identified. The first subset encompassed homework follow-up types 1 and 2, whereas the second accounted for homework follow-up types 3–5. As shown in Table 5, significant differences were found between adjusted treatments' means for both subsets (homework follow-up types 1 and 2 vs. homework follow-up types 3–5).
What are the commonalities and differences between these two subsets of homework follow-up types that could help explain findings? Homework follow-up types 1 and 2 did not yield differences in school performance. One possible explanation might be that neither of these types of homework follow-up provides specific information about the mistakes made by students; information which could help them improve their learning in a similar way to when EFL teachers provide feedback (Hattie and Timperley, 2007). Besides, as the control for homework completion is low for these two types of homework follow-up practices, students may not have put the appropriate effort to complete the homework. The following statement was shared by most of the teachers that participated in the focus group and may help explain this latter finding: “[in class] I only ask students if they have done their homework. I know that this strategy does not help them correct their mistakes, but if I don't do it, I suspect they will give up doing their homework …” (F2P3).
In homework follow-up type 2, EFL teachers only addressed difficulties mentioned by the students, so some mistakes may have not been addressed and checked by the EFL teachers. This type of practice does not provide feedback to students. As the following quotation from a participant in the focus group revealed: “At the beginning of the class, I specifically ask students if they have any questions about their homework. The truth is, students who struggle to learn seldom ask questions…I guess that they don't do their homework, or they copy the answers from peers during the break, and just asking questions does not help a lot…but they are 28 in class.” (F2P4).
The second group of homework follow-up practices includes types 3–5. Our data indicate that there were no statistically significant differences among these three types of homework follow-up (intra-group comparisons) at posttest performance (see Table 4). Under each of these three conditions (homework follow-up types 3–5) homework contents were checked by the teacher. In these three types of homework follow-up, students experienced opportunities to analyze EFL teachers' explanations and to check their mistakes, which may help explain our findings and those of previous studies (see Cardelle and Corno, 1981; Elawar and Corno, 1985).
According to Cooper's model (1989, 2001), homework follow-up type 5 may be considered the homework feedback practice, because when EFL teachers grade students' assignments and provide individual feedback, students' learning improve. This idea was mentioned by one of our participants: “I collect students' exercise books, not every day, but often enough. That is because I've learned that my students improve whenever I comment upon and grade their homework assignments. I wish I had time to do this regularly…That would be real feedback, that's for sure.” (F1P6).
When analyzing students' conceptions of feedback, Peterson and Irving (2008) concluded that students believe that having their reports graded is a “clearer and more honest” (p. 246) type of feedback. These authors also argued that good grades generate a tangible evidence of students' work for parents, which may also give way to another opportunity for feedback(e.g., praise) delivered by parents and peers (Núñez et al., 2015). It is likely that students see graded homework more worthwhile when compared to other types of homework follow-up practices (e.g., answering questions about homework). This idea supports studies which found a positive association between homework effort and achievement (e.g., Trautwein et al., 2006b, 2009b). Walberg et al. (1985) claimed that graded homework has a powerful effect on learning. However, Trautwein et al. (2009a) alerted that graded homework may have a negative impact whenever experienced as overcontrolling, as “…students may feel tempted to copy from high-achieving classmates to escape negative consequences” (p. 185). These findings (Trautwein et al., 2006b, 2009a,b), aligned with ours, suggest the need to analyze homework feedback in more depth. For example, there are several variables that were not considered in the current research (e.g., number of students per class, number of different grade levels teachers are teaching or number of different classes teachers teach, different level of students' expertise in class, type of content domain; but also career related issues such as frozen salaries, reduced retirement costs), which may help explain our results.
We also noticed that the effect of EFL teachers' homework follow-up practices on performance was affected by students' prior performance, confirming our second hypothesis, but not by the number of homework follow-up sessions (i.e., the number of homework follow-up sessions was only marginally non-significant as a secondary factor, not as the principal factor). A quotation from a teacher under the third condition may help illustrate this finding: “reflecting on my experience under condition 3 [checking homework orally], I can tell that students' prior knowledge was very important for explaining the variations in the efficacy of this strategy. Some of my students, for example, attend language schools and master vocabulary and grammar, but others clearly need extra help. For example, checking homework on the board so that students may copy the answers and study them at home would be very beneficial for many of my students” (M15).
The results of this preliminary study were obtained in a real learning environment and focused on homework follow-up practices commonly used by EFL teachers. We acknowledge the difficulties to set up and run a randomized-group design in a real learning environment (i.e., motivating teachers to participate, training teachers to follow the protocol, control the process). Still, we believe in the importance of collecting data on-task. Plus, we consider that our preliminary findings may help teachers and school administrators to organize school-based teachers' training and educational policies on homework. For example, studies conducted in several countries (e.g., Germany, Hong Kong, Singapore, Israel) reported that checking homework completion is the homework follow-up practice most often used by teachers to keep track of students' homework (e.g., Trautwein et al., 2009a; Kaur, 2011; Zhu and Leung, 2012), and in some cases the only homework follow-up practice used in class (e.g., see Kukliansky et al., 2014). However, this type of homework follow-up does not provide students with appropriate information on how they may improve their learning. Our data show that, when EFL teachers offer individual and specific information to help student progress (e.g., homework correction, graded homework), the impact on school performance is higher, even when this help is provided for only 6 weeks. This main finding, that should be further investigated, may help teachers' in class practices and contribute to foster students' behaviors toward homework and school achievement.
In sum, our findings indicate that the time and effort teachers devote assessing, presenting, and discussing homework with students is worth the effort. In fact, students consider limited feedback an impediment to homework completion, and recognize teacher's feedback as a homework completion facilitator (Bang, 2011).
During the focus group interviews, and consistent with findings by Rosário et al. (2015), several EFL teachers stressed that, despite their positive belief about the efficacy of delivering feedback to students, they do not find the necessary time to provide feedback in class (e.g., comment on homework and grading homework). This is due to, among other reasons, the long list of contents to cover in class and the large number of students per class. Pelletier et al.'s (2002) show that the major constraint perceived by teachers in their job is related to the pressure to follow the school curriculum. Data from the focus group helped understand our findings, and highlights the need for school administrators to become aware of the educational constraints faced daily by EFL teachers at school and to find alternatives to support the use of in class homework follow-up practices. Thus, we believe that teachers, directly, and students, indirectly, would benefit from teacher training on effective homework follow-up practices with a focus on, for example, how to manage the extensive curriculum and time, and learning about different homework follow-up practices, mainly feedback. Some authors (e.g., Elawar and Corno, 1985; Epstein and Van Voorhis, 2012; Núñez et al., 2014; Rosário et al., 2015) have warned about the importance of organizing school-based teacher training with an emphasis on homework (i.e., purposes of homework, homework feedback type, amount of homework assigned, schools homework policies, and written homework feedback practices). With the focus group interviews we learned that several EFL teachers did not differentiate feedback from other homework follow-up practices, such as checking homework completion (e.g., see F2P7 statement, Table 1). EFL teachers termed all the homework follow-up practices used in class as feedback, despite the fact that some of these practices did not deliver useful information to improve the quality of students' homework and promote progress. These data suggest a need to foster opportunities for teachers to reflect upon their in-class instructional practices (e.g., type and purposes of the homework assigned, number and type of questions asked in class) and its impact on the quality of the learning process. For example, school-based teacher training focusing on discussing the various types of homework follow-up practices and their impact on homework quality and academic achievement would enhance teachers' practice and contribute to improve their approaches to teaching (Rosário et al., 2013).
Limitations of the study and future research
This study is a preliminary examination of the relationship between five types of EFL teachers' homework follow-up practices and performance in the EFL class. Therefore, some limitations must be addressed as they may play a role in our findings. First, participating EFL teachers were assigned to one and only one of five homework follow-up conditions, but 19 of them were excluded for not adhering to the protocol. As a result, the number of EFL teachers under each condition was unbalanced, especially in the case of homework follow-up condition number 5. This fact should be considered when analyzing conclusions.
Several reasons may explain why 19 EFL teachers were excluded from our research protocol (i.e., three were laid off, six did not report the work done correctly or submitted the data requested, and ten did not followed the protocol closely). Nevertheless, during the post-research evaluation meeting the EFL teachers addressed this topic which helped understand their motives for not adhering to the protocol. For example: “I'm sorry for abandoning your research, but I couldn't collect and grade homework every week. I have 30 students in class, as you know, and it was impossible for me to spend so many hours grading.” (M7). Our findings suggest that teachers' attitudes toward homework follow-up practices are important, as well as the need to set educational environments that may facilitate their use in class.
We acknowledged the difficulty of carrying out experimental studies in authentic teaching and learning environments. Nevertheless, we decided to address the call by Trautwein et al. (2006b), and investigate teachers' homework practices as ecologically valid as possible in the natural learning environment of teachers and students.
Future studies should find a way to combine an optimal variable control model and an authentic learning environment.
Second, a mixed type of homework follow-up practices (e.g., combining homework control and checking homework on the board) was not considered in the current study as an additional level of the independent variable. In fact, some of the excluded EFL teachers highlighted the benefits of combining various homework follow-up practices, as one EFL teacher remarked: “I was “assigned” condition 5 [collecting and grading homework], but grading and noting homework every week is too demanding, as I have five more sixth grade classes to teach. So, although I am certain that giving individualized feedback is better for my students, I couldn't do it for the six homework assignments as required. In some sessions I checked homework orally.” (M24). Thus, future studies should consider the possibility of analyzing the impact of different combinations of types of homework follow-up practices. Our research focused on sixth grade EFL teachers only. To our knowledge, there are no studies examining the impact of homework follow-up practices in different education levels, but it is plausible that the type and intensity of the homework-follow up practices used by teachers may vary from one educational level to another. Hence, it would be interesting to examine whether our findings may be replicated in other grade levels, or in different subjects. Furthermore, it would be beneficial to conduct this study in other countries in order to explore whether the follow-up practices identified by EFL Portuguese teachers match those found in other teaching and learning cultures.
Third, the fact that in our study the differences found were small suggests the importance of examining the type of homework follow-up used and students' interpretation of teachers' practice. Future studies may analyze the hypothesis that students' behavior toward teacher homework follow-up practices (e.g., how students perceive their teachers' homework follow-up practices; what students do with the homework feedback information given by teachers) mediates the effect of homework on student learning and performance. In fact, the way students benefit from their teachers' homework follow-up practice may help explain the impact of these practices on students' homework performance and academic achievement. Future studies may also consider conducting more large-scale studies (i.e., with optimal sample sizes) using multilevel designs aimed at analyzing how student variables (e.g., cognitive, motivational, and affective) mediate the relationship between teacher homework follow-up type and students' learning and academic performance.
Finally, future research could also consider conducting qualitative research to analyze teachers' conceptions of homework follow-up practices, mainly feedback (Cunha et al., 2015). This information may be very useful to improving homework feedback measures in future quantitative studies. Investigating teachers' conceptions of homework follow-up practices may help identify other homework feedback practices implemented in authentic learning environments. It may also help understand the reasons why teachers use specific types of homework feedback, and explore the constraints daily faced in class when giving homework feedback. As one teacher in the focus group claimed: “Unfortunately, I don't have time to collect and grade homework, because I have too many students and the content that I have to cover each term is vast. So I just check whether all students completed their homework” (F2P1).