Schools Don't Need to Ban Homework, They Just Need to Make It Better

Jan 7, 2019 12:00:00 AM

by Neil T. Heffernan

School districts around the country are doing away with homework, according to the latest education headlines. But research clearly shows that the solution to homework isn’t to abolish it. Instead, we need to make homework as effective and relevant as possible, so students can still learn when their teachers or family aren’t available to help them. No doubt, homework can be tough for students. In one school in upstate New York, students recently began a petition to ban any out-of-school practice. “I get stressed out a lot when I do it,” one student told a  reporter. “I would literally cry. Math worksheets are usually what break me down.” Homework is also stressful for parents who are often out of practice with, say, algebra or chemistry or don’t have specific instructions from their child’s teacher about how to help with out-of-class assignments. As a computer science professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and a former middle school math teacher, I have studied the homework problem closely from several angles, and we shouldn’t ban homework. We should make it better.

The Fix

The fix is actually quite simple. Students should receive feedback on their assignments, and homework should be aligned with classwork to ensure that students aren’t doing busy work with no instructional purpose. In this sense, [pullquote position="right"]we as educators need to create ways to replicate the back-and-forth in a classroom at home.[/pullquote] When a student makes a mistake during class, the teacher is usually able to correct it immediately and provide more feedback than if the student had simply received a graded worksheet. This kind of interaction is much more productive than assigning homework where students are left to possibly repeat their mistakes, over and over, not knowing they’ve made errors until the next day’s in-class review. Even in class, most teachers don’t have time to comb through each child’s homework and provide detailed feedback. The key, I’ve found, is to create assignments that help students learn in real-time by providing them with immediate feedback. That feedback will not only tell them if they’ve answered a question correctly, it will also tell them how to arrive at the correct answer when they are stuck. That’s the reason I study online learning, using a platform that alerts students to wrong answers and can offer hints and explanations for arriving at correct answers, so students can learn from their mistakes immediately. With an online tool, teachers can receive actionable reports, allowing them to focus their instruction on problems where students really struggled. That kind of feedback is powerful for students: a study of my online platform conducted by SRI, a nonprofit research institute, showed that the system changed teacher behavior so that students got the targeted help they needed. Students in schools using the platform scored approximately 75 percent higher than students in schools that were not using it, and results were especially great for lower-performing students, helping to close the achievement gap. Some districts that have a “no-homework” policy instead tell students to read books, pursue hobbies, play outside and help out at home with cooking dinner or doing chores. Each of these tasks has value, and teachable moments should also take place outside of the confines of classwork and homework. However, [pullquote]the knee-jerk reaction in districts to completely do away with homework—rather than improve it—misses the point.[/pullquote] Some educators who have instituted “no-homework” policies are now revamping those rules to be more thoughtful and targeted in what they assign for students to do at home. Some are providing answer keys to parents so they can give immediate feedback on assignments. We feel that internet-enabled feedback can help those students who don’t have a parent around to check their work. Research shows us that thoughtful, effective homework that provides immediate feedback can increase student learning and give us good guardrails for how to approach out-of-class assignments. Homework should help, not hinder, the mission of teachers. Let’s rethink homework, not ban it.

Neil T. Heffernan

Neil T. Heffernan is a professor of computer science and director of the Learning Sciences and Technologies Program at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. He is the developer of ASSISTments, a free web-hosted digital platform that provides teachers with specific insight into their students’ progress on math homework.

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