Super Teacher's Job is Never Done!

Super Teacher's Job is Never Done!
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Teaching is the profession that teaches all the other professions. ~ Author Unknown

My goal is to reveal one teacher's humble journey of self-reflection, critical analysis, and endless questioning about my craft of teaching and learning alongside my middle school students.

"The dream begins with a teacher who believes in you, who tugs and pushes and leads you to the next plateau, sometimes poking you with a sharp stick called 'truth'." ~ Dan Rather

Friday, February 4, 2011

To Homework or Not To Homework? What Does Current Research Say?

Ah, homework. The inevitable word every student hates and every teacher loves to give. Homework has increasingly become a topic for debate, as parents and educators across the country argue whether it is a benefit or harmful factor of students' already busy and chaotic lives. Delving into educational research, the topic has not waned at all; in fact, it has only gained more steam, it seems, since the advent of the No Child Left Behind federal law.

A colleague of mine recently shared this illuminating article with me that discusses the current research on homework. I will be curious to hear your thoughts.

To Homework or Not to Homework?  What Does Current Research Say?
Jennifer D. Morrison

University of Nevada, Reno


Homework has been a mainstay expectation within the American educational system, and attitudes toward it have been largely influenced by historical events, social trends, and political mandates.  Unprecedented levels of accountability, advances in technology, and pressures to compete in a global economy have initiated new research into the effectiveness of homework, its role in teaching and learning, and ways to reconceptualize a static and sometimes stoic practice.  This literature review examines current research on homework and focuses on the emergent themes of the use of technology; socio-cultural equity; critical consideration for homework's quality and purpose; student responsibility, ownership, and independence; and differentiation/individualized homework.

To Homework or Not To Homework?  What Does Current Research Say?

To homework or not to homework is a time-honored argument subject to the educational pendulums that consistently swing back and forth on the basis of social and political whims.  Attitudes and expectations about homework, “tasks assigned to students by school teachers … to be carried out during non-school hours” (Cooper, 1989, p. 7), have fluctuated in the United States, largely influenced by societal trends, historical events, and political mandates.  Before the twentieth century, when children worked to assist family income, hours of homework was not feasible, and the progressive movement of the early twentieth century pushed anti-homework conceptions further by "denounc[ing] the routine of drill, memorization, and recitation that had been formerly enforced in schooling" (Bang, Suarez-Orozco, Pakes, & O'Connor, 2009).  However, after the Soviet launch of Sputnik I in 1957, Americans' attitudes against homework quickly shifted as they saw a need for rigorous education to compete with Russian technology.  The relaxed atmosphere toward homework that emerged in the 1960's and 70's gave way to the fear of mediocrity that arose when in 1983, A Nation at Risk was published claiming a need for "far more homework" for high school students (Vatterott, 2009).  Since then, the argument for homework has accelerated with schools and districts pressured to make federally mandated standards and avoid heavy penalties established in the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (Fisher and Frey, 2008).   Literature on homework has subsequently matched the swings with researchers at every era striving to support or deny contemporary beliefs. 

While there are dissenters within the research -- most notably Kravelec and Buell (2000), who argue that homework interferes with familial relationships and students' abilities to engage in full social, physical, and emotional experiences, and Kohn (2006), who suggests the value of homework is inflated and its use can lead students to lose interest in learning -- most current research claims homework in moderation is positively linked to student achievement (see e.g. Cooper, 1989, 2006; Zimmerman and Kitsantas, 2005; Sallee and Rigler, 2008; Milne, 2008).  The key is in moderation, and what exactly that means.    Most studies recommend a maximum of one-and-a-half to two hours of homework per night for secondary students; less for elementary students (see e.g. Dettmers, Trautwein, Ludtke, Kunter & Baumert, 2010; Vatterott, 2009; Nelms, 2008; Tang & Fu, 2008; Cooper, 1989, 2006).  According to Cooper (1989, 2006), homework should be given according to a simple and neat formula:  assign no more than ten minutes per student's grade level.  A first grader would then have a maximum of ten minutes of homework per night (10 minutes x 1); an eighth grader no more than 80 (10 x 8).  Cooper (1989) also suggests that homework is more beneficial as students progress in grade level, finding in his meta-analysis effect sizes of .15 for elementary school  students, .31 for middle school students, and .64 for high school students (p. 71). 

If the majority of research finds a moderate amount of homework to be beneficial, particularly for secondary students, the debate shifts its focus from to homework or not to homework to what should homework look like? What type and how frequently should it be given?  Does it and should it look the same as it did fifty, twenty, even five years ago?  What tends to arise from the literature is, indicative of homework research's history, a bundle of contradictions.  For each assertion made regarding best practices for homework, other arguments are made that undermine and challenge, leaving teachers and administrators to wonder again about the role of homework.  There are a number of themes addressed in current literature regarding homework, the most predominant being:  the use of technology; socio-cultural equity; critical consideration for homework's quality and purpose; student responsibility, ownership, and independence; and differentiation/individualized homework.


Several studies hail the usefulness and effectiveness of the ever-growing technological options available to schools, teachers, and students.  Mendicino, Razzaq, and Heffernan (2009) compared students' mathematical learning using Web-based homework assistance (the ASSISTment system) and traditional paper-and-pencil homework.  As measured by pre- and post-tests, they found Web-based homework to be more effective (effect size of .61) in helping students gain understanding of the concepts and be successful on subsequent tests.  They suggest this result is attributable to two key factors:  1) the sophisticated structure of Web-based programs, modeled after actual mathematical tutors' processes, and 2) the feedback immediacy provided in contrast to waiting until the next day to ask questions and review homework.  The authors also point out this program is much more effective as a homework support than as a classroom tool.

Kitsis (2008) examines how existing technology students already regularly access can be harnessed for academic purposes.  She discusses how learning and knowledge "is constructed in the exchange of voices, not in the voices themselves but the space between them.  Learning grows from dialogue; it can't happen in a vacuum" (p. 30).  Yet, homework, as it is usually structured, requires students to self-teach in an isolated fashion.  Her solution for "broken homework" is to engage students in structured dialogue mediated by partnered email exchanges and anonymous blogs about class literature like The Scarlet Letter or The Great Gatsby, utilizing the social networking in which many students already participate and "bringing homework out of the vacuum and creating that space between voices" (p. 31), similar to what Guiterrez (2008) describes as inhabiting the "third space" between individuals as they create meaning through social construction (Vygotsky, 1986).  Like Mendicino, et. al. (2009), Kitsis (2008) found the immediate feedback students received through engaging with technology was more motivating, satisfying, and challenging, and built student ownership of assignments.

While homework embedded in technology would seem to be an appropriate and effective solution in twenty-first century education, issues of equity and economic divide arise.  Bloom (2009) argues that "homework itself is intrinsically discriminatory" (p. 15) and  "one in five homework tasks unfairly benefits middle class pupils" (p. 15) because poorer students do not have access to necessary resources including books, paper, writing instruments, parental support, and particularly, computers with Internet access.  Sallee and Rigler (2008) agree that differences in access need to be taken into account when teachers assign homework because failure to do so can inadvertently widen the achievement gaps educators are "committed to closing" (p. 49).  While some educators may argue students without these resources could simply go to a library or other public location to use computers, they do not account for other factors students in poverty may experience such as family commitments, jobs, lack of transportation, and lack of quiet spaces in which to work (Milne, 2008; Bloom, 2009).

Mendicino, et. al. (2009) suggest a solution to the technology barrier impoverished students experience.  Throughout their literature review, they discuss the growing implementation of one-to-one computing where each student receives a laptop to use and take home.  Given the declining costs of netbooks, many of which are now priced under $300 (, November 29, 2010), it seems plausible school systems could economically shift away from issuing static textbooks, which can cost as much if not more than the netbooks, and toward interactive, dynamic computer resources.  While this would seem like a sensible solution, school districts wishing to embark on this change soon encounter the "monopolies" of textbook companies, who are currently refusing to make their materials consistently available in electronic form (H. Morrison, personal communication, November 28, 2010).  These break-throughs are still to come.

Another socio-cultural issue that emerges from the research is the degree to which "soft bigotry" may occur with teachers exhibiting low expectations for English language learning students and immigrants.  Bang, Suarez-Orozco, Pakes, and O'Connor (2009), found teachers' homework grades strongly correlated with immigrant students' behavior and English proficiency, indicating that grades were given more for homework compliance and behavioral acquiescence than with actual attainment of academic concepts.  This is often done "in order not to penalize students for their developing new language skills" (p. 3).  Even so, an immigrant students' inability to complete quality homework assignments due to limited English proficiency, inadequate language skills, or unfamiliarity with American cultural and educational norms may negatively impact a teacher's perception of the immigrant students.  When behavior is a component of subjective homework grading, such opinions and biases can negatively impact students' grades and the teacher's willingness to provide scaffolding or differentiation.  However, because "homework has been widely viewed as a critical tool to build academic skills and character traits" (p. 6), it does not help immigrant students to merely reward their effort without intervention to ensure quality and correctness of the completed assignments.  Doing so inadvertently conveys low expectations, a belief from the teacher that the student cannot achieve academically and therefore whose grade must be assisted.

As stated earlier, students have varying resources available to them at home that can make homework experiences vastly different for each individual.  As researchers have argued, homework is inherently discriminatory to impoverished children (Buell, 2001), who often are operating in the survival level of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, a seemingly long way from the self-actualization level in which teachers expect them to perform (Maslow, 1970; Wormeli, 2006).  It may also be discriminatory to immigrant students or those learning the English language because teachers may grade more for behavior than academic quality.   However, Sallee (2010) reminds us homework can be inequitable for other students as well.  In her action research, she found reading speeds among her students ranged from .16 pages per minute to 1.29 pages per minute.  For a twenty-page assignment, what might take a faster reader fifteen minutes to complete could translate into more than two hours for a slower reader (p. 90).  What a teacher may intend to take a short period of time may actually become cumbersome and hopeless, especially when such reading is assigned repeatedly over time.  For many students, homework is tedious, irrelevant, purposeless, or so daunting that not doing it is the safest option for self-preservation (see e.g. Wormeli, 2006; Sallee, 2010). 


So, does this mean a return to the "to not homework" position?  No, on the contrary, many students value the idea of homework (Zimmerman and Kitsantas, 2005; Gureasko-Moore, DuPaul, and White, 2007; Sallee, 2010).  When they meet with homework success, they gain self-efficacy and greater belief in their abilities to meet future challenges (Zimmerman and Kitsantas, 2005).  Homework is also an opportunity to gain self-management strategies which can carry into classroom time.  Gureasko-Moore, et. al. (2007) discuss how providing homework self-management training and support to middle school students diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can foster improved classroom preparation and homework behaviors, helping such students perform as well as their classmates.  Students who underwent the training "liked it" and indicated "they did not know better ways to handle their behavior" (p. 657).

This means discarding homework is not necessarily the path to take; instead educators need to rethink how and why homework is used, moving from the dichotomous question of to homework or not to homework to a complex and rich understanding of homework’s role in building student competence (Fisher and Frey, 2008).  Most students do not see homework as an engaging learning experience but as something that must be done to avoid trouble or low grades (Haas, 2008).  Teachers have historically and routinely assigned homework not because it aligned with learning objectives but because of the societal belief that a "rigorous" class is one with lots of homework and the fear of being judged inadequate or "easy" if significant homework is not given (Vatterott, 2009, p. 12-13).  As a result of these ineffective paradigms, current research calls for homework to be high quality and purposeful.
According to research, one of the first requirements for establishing effective homework is to ensure each assignment is explicitly tied to identified learning goals and its purpose is clearly articulated to students; homework is not a separate entity from classroom learning, and students need to know why they have been asked to engage in the assignment (see e.g. Marzano, 2007; Fisher and Frey, 2008; Sallee and Rigler, 2008).  Additionally, many of the studies adamantly claim homework should not be used for new learning (see e.g. Marzano, 2007; Bang,, 2009).  Instead it is suggested homework be an opportunity for building fluency (practice), application of newly learned skills, spiraling learning from the past to present situations, and extending new understandings across topics and disciplines (Fisher and Frey, 2008). 

Vatterott (2009) defines a new paradigm for homework that calls for designing quality homework tasks which support learning in one of four ways: prelearning, which stimulates interest or builds anticipation; checking for understanding, where teachers determine the extent of student concept mastery; practice, of concepts already understood and measured through informal assessment within the supported classroom environment (italics added); and processing, where students reflect upon new learning, apply skills, or synthesize information.  She asserts that quality homework tasks must have clear academic purpose, a positive effect on student efficacy, be personally relevant to students, and be aesthetically pleasing. 


Tomlinson (2001, 2003) has been a foremost advocate for differentiation of instruction to meet diverse student needs, challenging educators for over a decade to enact a paradigm shift from "one size fits all" teaching uniformity to recognizing, honoring, and respecting the different experiences, cultures, languages, and challenges students bring to the classroom.  At the heart of differentiation is the idea that people learn differently (modality), have different passions (interest), and are ready to learn material at different times (readiness), but every student and every person has something valuable to contribute.  While standards and expectations are set high for everyone, the paths students take to reach those standards may vary in method and time frame (Tomlinson, 2001, 2003).  To be effective, differentiation requires precisely what the homework research calls for, clarity of purpose, high standards, explicit explanation to students, and flexibility in achieving objectives.  One "cannot differentiate fog" (Tomlinson, 2001). 

Her influence is prominent in current homework research as many studies point to increasing the need to differentiate not just learning that occurs within the classroom, but also assignments students take home (Wormeli, 2006; Sallee and Rigler, 2008; Vatterott, 2009; Bang,, 2009).  This may include providing:  accommodations to avoid unfairly penalizing immigrant students (Bang, et. al., 2009), well-equipped libraries and after school homework programs for impoverished, struggling, or immigrant students (Bang,, 2009; Huang and Cho, 2009), self-management skills for students with ADHD (Gureasko-Moore,, 2007), instructional scaffolding such as matrices, graphic organizers, or modified texts (Wormeli, 2006), greater choices or input in homework tasks (Sallee, 2010), or increased use of inquiry-based, independent study (Nelms, 2008).  By providing homework tasks differentiated by the course content, processes, and products based on students' readiness levels, their individual interests, and their learning modalities, students are more invested in the work and more capable of independently learning in their time away from school (Tomlinson, 2001, 2003; Wormeli, 2006).

According to popular societal belief, promoting responsibility, time management skills, and independence is a major reason for having students complete homework (Zimmerman and Kitsantas, 2005; Wormeli, 2006; Vatterott, 2009).  While there is a distinct lack of concrete, research-based evidence to substantiate this claim, it has, nonetheless, penetrated the American psyche as a prominent purpose (Vatterott, 2009).  However, there is evidence that successful completion of quality homework can impact students’ perceived capabilities and responsibility beliefs, which can subsequently affect GPAs and future performance (Zimmerman and Kitsantas, 2005).  For homework to be effective and for students to build self-efficacy, they must be have the skills, strategies, and resources in order to complete the work on their own (see e.g. Wormeli, 2006; Marzano, 2007; Fisher and Frey, 2008; Sallee, 2010).  While cooperative and collaborative homework is gaining popularity as a means for students to have immediate feedback and peer support (Kitsis, 2008; Fisher and Frey, 2008; Parker, 2010), students must be taught how to effectively provide feedback or work independently before being given such assignments.  Kitsis (2008) describes how she coaches students to not be overly critical or hurtful while also providing constructive commentary.  She helps students build this skill by providing “feedback on feedback,” serving as facilitator while students gradually take more responsibility for their own and their peers’ learning.  Fisher and Frey (2008) advocate for a gradual release of responsibility model whereby students engage in a focus lesson, guided instruction, collaborative learning, and independent tasks to shift “all the responsibility for performing a task … to a situation in which the students assume all of the responsibility” (Duke and Pearson, 2002, as quoted in Fisher and Frey, 2008, p. 41).

In order to foster student independence and deter frustration, it is imperative that specific homework assignments are provided at the appropriate point in the learning cycle, when students have the skills and strategies to successfully complete them (Wormeli, 2006; Fisher and Frey, 2008).  Unfortunately, homework assignments are often given prematurely in the instructional cycle before material has been thoroughly taught in class (Fisher and Frey, 2008).

Another issue that arises is the degree of difficulty homework should entail.  With proper preparation through explicit content and skill instruction, gradual release of responsibility, and appropriate timing in the learning cycle, students can benefit from high-quality, “moderately difficult” homework (Dettmers,, 2010).    Dettmers, (2010) argue tasks of moderate difficulty are more likely to enhance student motivation because they are neither too simple, which could be seen as meaningless or a reflection of low expectations, nor too challenging, which could be frustrating and out-of-reach.  If the tasks are well-structured, particularly if they are complex and intellectually engaging, students are more likely to find value in the homework and perform better.

Bang, et. al. (2008) provide recommendations for improving homework quality and helping students to be more effective independent learners.  While their focus is on immigrant students, many of the suggestions are implied or stated in broader scope research.  

·      Assigned homework should build upon skills and concepts first learned thoroughly in class.
·      Recognize possible homework impediments for immigrant or struggling students and provide accommodations to avoid unfairly penalizing them for limited language, cultural knowledge, or lack of resources.
·      Provide after-school programs which support students' ability to do homework (e.g. Huang and Cho, 2009).
·      Avoid giving good grades to students who are merely compliant with doing homework and not submitting high-quality work or who have not gained mastery of course content.  The inadvertently conveys low expectations.
·      Explicitly communicate criteria for high performance to all students.
·      Distinguish between effort and skill; provide separate feedback in each area.


According to Fisher and Frey (2008), "'responsibility' is a two way street" (p. 45).  Current research on homework emphasizes it is not just students who must be responsible with out-of-class assignments.  Teachers must be thoughtful and purposeful with homework assigned, taking into account degrees of access to required resources, learning challenges that may interfere with students' abilities to successfully complete homework, and how assignments are meeting both course objectives and individual needs.  While homework's history has been one concerned with routine, societal expectation, and educational authority, research shows its future must be something different -- technological, socio-culturally sensitive, differentiated, relevant, and purposeful -- in order for students to acquire benefits from its delegation.  Nelms (2008) suggests abandoning the term "homework" as a constructive way to reconsider the learning students do in their non-school hours.  He advocates for "independent study" (p. 28) whereby students engage in authentic, project-based, inquiry learning generated by students' questions, ideas, and opinions or thematically organized concepts related to the discipline.  For Nelms (2008), discarding the word "homework" becomes a way to free students and educators from its historical, political, and social shackles and instead become reflective of authentic, purposeful, engaging, self-driven learning.

Regardless of what name is bequeathed on "homework," the debates as to how much and what kind will not dissipate any time soon.  In his book, The World is Flat, Friedman (2005) argues global competition is, and will continue to be, a significant influence in social, political, and economic decisions.  With countries such as India and China threatening the United States' position as a superpower, American companies, governments, and societies must adapt.  As is historically the case, educational institutions will be called upon to meet demands of revolutionary change, and debate on how best to do this will ensue.  New debates on the role of homework will not be far behind.

·      Bang, H.J., Suarez-Orozco, C., Pakes, J. & O'Connor, E. (2009).  The importance of homework in determining immigrant students' grades in schools in the USA context. Educational Research, 51(1), 1-25.
·      Bloom, A. (2009). How homework is weighted in favour of middle classes. Times Educational Supplement, (4846), 15.
·      Cooper, H. (1989).  Synthesis of research on homework.  Educational Leadership, 47(3), 85-91.
·      Cooper, H., Robinson, J.C. & Patall, E.A. (2006).  Does homework improve academic achievement?  A synthesis of research, 1987-2003.  Review of Educational Research, 76(1), 1-62.
·      Dettmers, S., Trautwein, U., Ludtke, O., Kunter, M., & Baumert, J. (2010).  Homework works if homework quality is high:  Using multilevel modeling to predict the development of achievement in mathematics.  Journal of Educational Psychology, 102(2), 467-482.
·      Fisher, D. & Frey, N. (2008).  Homework and the gradual release of responsibility:  Making "responsibility" possible.  English Journal, 98(2), 40-45.
·      Friedman, T.L. (2005).  The world is flat: A brief history of the twenty-first century.  New York, NY:  Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
·      Guiterrez, K.D. (2008).  Developing a sociocritical literacy in the third space.  Reading Research Quarterly, 43(2), 148-164.
·      Gureasko-Moore, S., DuPaul, G.J., & White, G.P. (2007).  Self-management of classroom preparedness and homework: Effects on school functioning of adolescents with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.  School Psychology Review, 36(4), 647-664.
·      Haas, K.P. (2008).  Questioning homework.  English Journal, 98(2), 14-15.
·      Huang, D., & Cho, J. (2009).  Academic enrichment in high-functioning homework afterschool programs.  Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 23(3), 382-392.
·      Kitsis, S. (2008).  The facebook generation:  Homework as social networking.  English Journal, 98(2), 30-36.
·      Kohn, A. (2006).  The homework myth:  Why our kids get too much of a bad thing.  Cambridge, MA:  Da Capo Press.
·      Kralovec, E. & Buell, J. (2000).  The end of homework: how homework disrupts families, overburdens children, and limits learning.  Boston: Beacon Press.
·      Marzano, R. (2007).  The art and science of teaching:  A comprehensive framework for effective instruction.  Alexandria, VA:  Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
·      Maslow, A. (1970).  A theory of human motivation.  In P.L. Harriman (Ed.), Twentieth century psychology: Recent developments in psychology (pp.22-48).  Manchester, NH:  Ayer Publishing.
·      Mendicino, M., Razzaq, L., & Heffernan, N. (2009).  A comparison of traditional homework to computer-supported homework.  Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 41(3), 331-359.
·      Milne, J. (2008). Homework falls victim to the economic divide. Times Educational Supplement, (4773), 16-17.
·      Nelms, B. (2008).  Homework on homework: Involving students with a controversial issue.  English Journal, 98(2), 22-29.
·      Parker, J. (2010).  An empirical examination of the roles of ability and gender in collaborative homework assignments.  The Journal of Economic Education, 41(1), 15-30.
·      Sallee, B. (2010).  The best of times? A tale of teaching, reading, and homework.  English Journal, 99(6), 89-92.
·      Sallee, B. & Rigler, N. (2008).  Doing our homework on homework: How does homework help?  English Journal, 98(2), 46-51.
·      Tang, L., & Fu, L. (2008).  An empirical study of relationship between schoolwork burden and academic achievements.  Front Education China, 3(4), 504-515.
·      Tomlinson, C.A. (2001).  How to differentiate instruction in mixed-ability classrooms.  Alexandria, VA:  Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
·      Tomlinson, C.A. (2003).  Fulfilling the promise of the differentiated classroom.  Alexandria, VA:  Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
·      Vatterott, C. (2009).  Rethinking homework: Best practices that support diverse needs.  Alexandria, VA:  Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
·      Vygotsky, L. (1986).  Thought and language.  Cambridge, MA:  The MIT Press.
·      Wormeli, R. (2006).  Fair isn't always equal:  Assessing and grading in the differentiated classroom.  Portland, ME:  Stenhouse Publishers.
·       Zimmerman, B.J. & Kitsantas, A. (2005).  Homework practices and academic achievement:  The mediating role of self-efficacy and perceived responsibility beliefs.  Contemporary Educational Psychology, 30(4), 397-417.

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