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Everything in moderation. Even homework?


In talking to parents about homework, two themes emerge -- their children have too much or too little.

A new study out of the University of Oviedo in Spain supports moderation in homework, building on earlier research suggesting kids should not be toiling for hours on math problems or language arts essays.

The study looked at nearly 8,000 students in public and private schools; the mean age of the students  was 13.

The study  can be found here .

According to the American Psychological Association summary of the study:

The students were given questionnaires asking how often they did homework and how much time they spent on various subjects. They were also asked whether they did their homework alone or whether they had help and, if so, how often. Their academic performance in math and science was measured using a standardized test. Adjustments were made to account for gender and socioeconomic background. Prior knowledge was measured using previous grades in math and science.

The researchers found that the students spent on average between one and two hours a day doing homework in all subjects. Students whose teacher systematically assigned homework scored nearly 50 points higher on the standardized test. Students who did their math homework on their own scored 54 points higher than those who asked for frequent or constant help. The curves were similar in science.

“Our data indicate that it is not necessary to assign huge quantities of homework, but it is important that assignment is systematic and regular, with the aim of instilling work habits and promoting autonomous, self-regulated learning,” said Javier Suarez-Alvarez, graduate student, co-lead author with Ruben Fernandez-Alonso, PhD, and Professor Jose Muniz. “The data suggest that spending 60 minutes a day doing homework is a reasonable and effective time.”

The total amount of homework assigned by teachers was a little more than 70 minutes per day on average, the researchers found. While some teachers assigned 90-100 minutes of homework per day, the researchers found that the students’ math and science results began to decline at that point. And while they found a small gain in results between 70 and 90 minutes, “that small gain requires two hours more homework per week, which is a large time investment for such small gains,” said Suarez-Alvarez. “For that reason, assigning more than 70 minutes of homework per day does not seem very efficient.”

As for working autonomously or with help, the researchers found that students who needed help and did 70 minutes of homework per day could expect to score in the 50th percentile on their test while autonomous students spending the same amount of homework time could expect to score in the 70th percentile. One possible explanation of this result is that self-regulated learning is strongly connected to academic performance and success, according to Suarez-Alvarez.

“The conclusion is that when it comes to homework, how is more important than how much,” said Suarez-Alvarez. “Once individual effort and autonomous working is considered, the time spent becomes irrelevant.”

Despite the current debate on homework, the 2014 Brown Center Report on American Education from the Brookings Institution found homework rates have remained constant over 30 years, with one exception. More 9-year-olds now have some homework.

Brookings found 5 percent of 9-year-olds --- one out of 20 --- spent more than two hours a night on homework; 22 percent had no homework. Only 13 percent of 17-year-olds --- juniors or seniors in high school --- spent more than two hours a night on homework. But 27 percent of 17-year-olds had no homework.

So, why is there a widespread perception kids are overloaded and up until 2 a.m. struggling with copious amounts of homework?

My view: We are fascinated with super achievers and herculean efforts -- whether bright students aiming for Ivy League colleges or elite runners seeking to break world records.

So, we write a lot about those overbooked teens stressing under the weight of seven AP classes and resorting to $1,200 SAT prep classes to raise scores. Such relentless strivers provide more interesting story lines than the larger group of students playing video games, snapping selfies and earning Bs and Cs.

The contention that kids are swamped by homework may also reflect parental overestimation of how much time their children are spending hitting the books at night.

A friend restricted her son's computer and phone usage after viewing his Internet history and discovering most of his purported four hours of homework was going to online gaming and website browsing. When confined to his room with only his books, his homework time fell sharply.

On the other hand, parents are troubled when they feel there's too little homework. A veteran teacher told me she used to give very little homework, seeing no boost in classroom performance. But parents kept asking her why their children didn't have more homework, viewing homework as a sign of quality instruction.


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.