Educators often treat homework as a Goldilocks problem. Grounded in the belief that homework is fundamentally good for students, teachers aim to optimize how much they assign. If they don’t assign enough homework, they worry their students will not learn the subject matter. If, on the other hand, teachers assign too much, students may be unduly overloaded and stressed. The goal, for many educators, is to provide students the just-right homework load.
Much of the research on homework from the past several decades uses the variable of time to understand the effects of homework. How does the amount of time students spend on homework, researchers have asked, relate to their achievement in school? Do students with more homework earn higher grades? Do they get higher scores on standardized tests? Is there an amount of time spent after which students no longer reap any benefits from completing their homework?
In our own research, students frequently cite the amount of assigned homework as a primary driver of their stress. In fact, of the 50,000 high school students from predominantly middle to upper-middle-class communities that we surveyed since 2018, 67% reported homework as a primary source of stress, with 57% of students stating they had too much homework (Challenge Success, 2020).
But it’s not just the amount of homework that may provoke student stress; it’s also the type of homework assigned. When students perceive homework to be tedious or boring, for example, or they find it too advanced or confusing, they are likely to be more stressed and less engaged, regardless of how long the assignment takes. Conversely, as some studies suggest, when students find their work purposeful, meaningful, or interesting, they may derive more benefits from completing it.
In this white paper published in 2020, we aim to broaden the conversation around homework beyond the narrow focus on time spent. Drawing from decades of research, we explore the features of homework that may benefit students and consider those that may be associated with negative results. At the end of the paper, we provide educators and parents with a set of guiding questions that we hope will inform more effective homework policies and practices.