Meanings of homework and implications for practice

Meanings of homework and implications for practice

Pamela M. Coutts

Many of the discussions in both the popular and academic press assume that the key participants and stakeholders have the same understandings about homework and its meanings. However, this is not necessarily the case. For example, in the widely reported tension and conflict in families about homework completion, one contributing factor may be the meanings students, parents, and educators ascribe to homework and the purposes it fulfills. This article examines how research has considered these varying meanings and perceptions and how they may impact student attitudes and behaviors toward homework. The article argues that the positive outcomes of homework frequently cited by parents (such as motivational, academic, and life skills benefits) are less recognized by children, especially elementary students. In most cases, the mismatch is likely to be between the student focus on proximal costs of homework and the adult focus on long-term benefits. The implications of these understanding for practitioners is then discussed.

I get nothing out of homework. I know everything that’s in it and it’s boring and a waste of time. It would be better if you actually learned something from homework. You only learn things at school so what’s the point of doing it again at night? You’ve had six hours at school. It means I can’t ride my bike and play outside with my friends. (Mike, Grade 5)

The benefits are when he goes to high school, he’s already used to doing it. It’s time management. He knows he has to do it and he has to take the consequences if he doesn’t. He’s not too young to have that responsibility. It’s a life lesson that there are things you have to do on a daily basis whether you really want to do them or not. It also reinforces what they’ve learned during the day. (Mike’s mother)

NOT ALL CHILDREN RESENT HOMEWORK. Indeed, some parents report their preschooler requests homework, either real or pretend, in an effort to emulate their older siblings. They see it as work and as signifying a more grown-up status. Why then does homework frequently become a chore and a source of dispute by the time children are in middle school? One contributing factor is that parents and children often hold very different views about the topic. As a consequence, the opportunities for conflict and resistance arise when opinions expressed about homework’s purpose and benefits are as discrepant as those held by Mike and his mother.

Homework itself, as other articles in this issue illustrate, is a complex issue. There is tremendous variety in its practices, in the type and amount of work assigned, where and when it is completed (with or without parental involvement), and whether or not it is graded by teachers. All of these factors may be linked to the young student’s attitudes to homework. Within this article, however, I am focusing on one particular aspect: views about the purpose of homework and the likelihood of parent-child agreement about those views. Throughout, as above, I will illustrate the theoretical issues with quotations from a study in progress of interviews with Australian parents and their children about the purpose, costs, and benefits of homework.

The Adult Viewpoint: “It’s Life–We Have to Do Things”

Homework is to teach the child later in life they

have responsibility and they have to be disciplined

to get things done. It’s life–we have to do things. It

teaches the child to think for themselves. It’s a stepping

stone to future education and how the system

works. To get good marks and get into University

they have to put the work in. (Father of Jane, Grade

4)

The research literature (Epstein, 1988) recognizes a number of established reasons why teachers assign homework. These can be grouped as (a) academic functions (e.g., to complete unfinished work, revise, drill, consolidate, prepare, expand on concepts introduced in the classroom); (b) more general socialization purposes (e.g., to encourage responsibility, study skills, or time management)what Epstein and Van Voorhis (2001) call “personal development;” (c) home/school/community communication; and (d) school and system requirements (e.g., to ease time constraints in a crowded curriculum). Obviously, not all reasons apply in any one situation and those designated functions are not equally applicable across stages of schooling. In general, however, parents see homework’s potential benefit largely as achievement-related; it leads to increased success on classwork and fosters attitudes and habits that lead to successful future learning. These beliefs, of course, are supported by research that has consistently shown a positive correlation between time spent on homework and achievement for high school students (Cooper & Valentine, 2001).

Parents are often future-oriented when thinking about the potential benefits of homework, as illustrated in the quotation from Jane’s father. Other more abstract benefits are also strong in parental viewpoints: the emphasis on the development of qualities such as responsibility, self-regulation, and time management emerge in reports from parents of young elementary children (Warton, 1998; Xu & Corno, 1998). One difficulty for children is that these future benefits may have limited immediate relevance. Little research, however, has investigated whether individual parents’ views about the purpose of homework are tailored to the understandings and needs of their children. It is tempting to propose that the more direct educational objective of completing homework to improve academic achievement will become more salient to parents as the child progresses through the educational system and encounters an increasing emphasis on formal assessment procedures and feedback.

Not all parents are entirely positive about the purposes of homework, regardless of whether there are disputes within the family about its completion. Indeed, previous research (Warton, 1998) has illustrated that in one sample approximately one fourth of elementary students’ mothers did not completely accept the official educational rhetoric about homework benefits for young students. Some were ambivalent, others considered reasons for assigning homework had more to do with routinely implementing school policy or completing a crowded curriculum than with student benefits. When the perceived purposes accrue no personal benefit to the child, it is difficult for the parent to remain positive and, presumably, to convey positive messages to the child about homework’s importance.

The purpose of homework is to consolidate, but I

firmly believe it’s also to get through the curriculum

because it cannot fit into the school day. (Mother of

Jakob, Grade 2)

Occasionally a more vehement view is expressed, as in the following comment from a parent who was also a first grade teacher:

I hate homework. I hate giving homework, I hate

marking homework, I hate supervising homework.

But parents who are not teachers put a lot of importance

on homework, and they judge teachers on how

much homework they give.

This quotation illustrates another argument, namely, that many teachers assign homework because the school community will judge them harshly if they do not. In the main, however, most parents acknowledge potential benefits of homework in both academic and life-skill spheres. The negative aspects of homework that the parent/teacher quoted above are more consistent with the views of many students, not parents.

The Student Viewpoint

I’d much prefer school to be 2 hours longer instead

of coming home and having to do homework. (Matt,

Grade 7)

As the group intimately involved in completing homework, children necessarily hold somewhat different ideas of the task than adults. Nevertheless, if the long-term benefits of homework as described by adults are to be achieved, homework must eventually be completed by the learner, willingly and in good spirit. Consequently, a motivational framework is useful for examining the children’s views regarding homework. Many of the reasons for completing homework are extrinsic, but if students are to develop attributes such as responsibility through completing homework there must also be an intrinsic component. As a result, the student’s subjective or perceived task value is critical. As Eccles (1983) argues, both positive and negative factors influence perceived task value, and for children the negative factors regarding homework are often substantial. The factors commonly regarded as relevant to the task value of homework as an achievement-related activity are its importance or utility, its intrinsic value, and the perceived costs. These clearly vary with the age of the students and their understandings about homework, but little research has examined developmental changes in children’s ideas about homework except by inference from cross-sectional studies. The following section outlines the principal findings.

Importance and utility of homework

If homework plays a part in establishing and consolidating child beliefs and study patterns regarding academic work, it can be argued that the elementary years are especially critical. However, what is remarkable in young students’ accounts and ideas about homework is the almost complete absence of reference to the benefits that parents list. When asked about homework, young children reply simplistically in terms of homework’s purpose being to learn or revise (Warton, 1997; Xu & Corno, 1998). For adults, it may appear obvious that there is a link between learning and achievement, but for young children this may not be the case. Part of what children acquire through the formal school system is an understanding of the connection between certain learning activities and formal learning outcomes as well as the language to describe cognition. As Kreutzer, Leonard, and Flavell’s (1975) pioneering work on the development of metamemory clearly demonstrated, young children have limited knowledge about many aspects of their cognition, from matters as basic as the items they need to review in order to improve recall. It is not surprising, therefore, that when faced with a question about the purpose of homework, they reply in a general sense without any detailed understanding of what it means “to learn” or “to revise.” In contrast, research (Warton, 1998) indicates that parents describe the academic goal of homework in the first years of schooling as to practice and consolidate important, basic literacy and numeracy skills but also describe as equally, if not more important, the goals of developing various life skills such as maintaining routines and being responsible. There is almost no current research that suggests young children perceive time management or study skills as outcomes of homework or perceive these parental beliefs about homework.

Furthermore, there is a sense, both from their own accounts and that of parents, that many young children complete homework to avoid getting into trouble (either at school or at home) or to please their teacher or parent (Corno, 2000; Warton, 2001).

If you don’t do your homework, Miss gets really,

really angry…. Well not really angry but really,

really sad about it. (Eve, Grade 1)

This lack of focus on self-benefits and emphasis on completion of homework for reasons of compliance may be seen as valid aspects of homework’s utility for children, but they are not what adults usually mean by the term. Young children may infer the importance of homework from the adults around them–from the efforts many parents put in place to ensure homework is completed, or from the reactions their efforts to avoid or delay homework might provoke in parents and teachers. But it is clearly not for some years that they come to understand some of the broader advantages of doing homework (see Warton, 1997 for a discussion of the development of understanding about responsibility in this context).

When some longer term perspective emerges in student ideas, it is usually in terms of homework in elementary school providing a preparation for homework in later years of schooling.

I’m going to have to do it in high school so it’s good

that I learn how now. (Jenny, Grade 5)

The implication of such a comment is that homework facilitates learning to work independently. References to responsibility for homework also begin to emerge in students’ responses by the end of elementary school (Wagon, 1997). As has been previously acknowledged (Hoover-Dempsey & Sandler, 1997), direct parental involvement in homework declines over time, and parents frequently nominate the end of elementary school as a turning point in the type and level of involvement in their children’s homework. Agreement between some children and their parents about the usefulness of homework as a means of learning responsibility and as preparation for future study indicates that some of the parental ideas about homework are being both recognized and assimilated.

By high school, student responses about the purposes of homework focus strongly on consolidation and revision, with the acknowledgement that there is not always sufficient time within classes for the teacher to do anything other than introduce material. As a consequence, some students are positive about the chance to “actually learn it ourselves so we can refer and reflect on the lesson afterwards” (Marcus, Grade 10). By high school also, the pattern where academically able students both receive more homework and spend more time on it than other students is well established. Moreover, an increasing proportion of secondary students complete no assigned homework (Campbell, Hombo, & Mazzeo, 2000). When asked about homework, however, students make no reference to the personal development benefits of homework such as taking responsibility for learning and time management. While it is clear by their actions that academically focused adolescents have developed these skills, their lack of explicit reference to them as homework outcomes suggests that such skills are assumed to be in place. It also suggests that parents and educators of this age group no longer view homework as a means of encouraging more general socialization benefits. It is another warning to researchers to be cautious of generalizations about homework meanings that do not take possible developmental differences into account.

Intrinsic value of homework

While there is some developmental progression in understanding the importance or utility of homework, and some convergence with the adult viewpoint, there appears to be an absence of a similar pattern regarding the intrinsic value of homework. When children enter school, they may appear excited by the idea of homework, but it takes a remarkably short period of time before many are disillusioned. In one study, a significant proportion of students in the early years of school (grades 1 to 3) agreed that homework was dull and boring (Bryan, Nelson, & Mathur, 1995). By the middle years of elementary school it is the most common description of regular homework. From the student perspective, homework can be boring either because it is routine and more of the same, or it is just too easy. In each case, the teacher has usually assigned homework for a particular purpose (e.g., for consolidation of learning, or to instill regular revision and study habits) that is either not recognized or not acknowledged by the students. If we want students to be intrinsically motivated to learn and to complete homework, it would be of benefit if the task itself was valued and viewed as interesting and engaging, regardless of any links between the task and other outcomes.

Perceived homework costs

All tasks have costs associated with them. From a parent’s point of view, the costs of homework are most explicitly stated in terms of time taken to supervise children and the conflict or disputes within the family over homework and its completion. In contrast, many children and adolescents feel negatively about the homework activity itself, as well as the interactions surrounding it. Overall, the level of dissatisfaction with homework appears higher for those most closely involved, namely the students, than for either parents or teachers (Cooper, Lindsay, Nye, & Greathouse, 1998).

When so many students describe homework as boring and lacking intrinsic interest, it is not surprising that the activity is not liked. However, the attitude about homework for many goes beyond a neutral opinion to an active dislike. In Chen and Stevenson’s (1989) study, for example, more than 60% of fifth grade students in their U.S. sample felt negative about homework, while Leone and Richards (1989) found adolescents rated homework as a more negative experience than class work. Significantly, this latter study gives us a clue about one of the contributing factors to this negative attitude: the typically solitary nature of the homework task and the separation of homework from the social aspects of learning. In their study, adolescents reported higher levels of interest and positive affect when completing homework with friends rather than with family members or by themselves (Leone & Richards, 1989).

Homework activities frequently not only require students to work independently but have additional costs in terms of time taken away from friends. The social group for students in middle childhood and early adolescence is especially important; for many the social goals of schooling are more important than academic goals (Wentzel, 1989). As Urdan and Maehr (1995) argue, the relationship between social goals and achievement behavior is complex. Although academic and social goals are not necessarily in conflict, many students are explicit that homework is an activity that prevents or disrupts other more desirable leisure activities, such as sports or just spending time with friends. If homework is seen as a barrier to successful group involvement, there is no guarantee that it will be chosen over social, peer-oriented activities, despite parental and teacher pressure.

Comparison of adult and student viewpoints

There is little doubt that parents and elementary students interpret the purposes of homework somewhat differently. One of the complicating features of the acquisition of values and beliefs about homework is that typically, as the vignette from Mike and his mother illustrates, parents talk mostly in terms of long-term socialization goals, while children focus on the immediate negative consequences. A superficial response to this discrepancy between the general, overarching, socialization goals of parents and the relatively short-term, instrumental goals held by students would be to suggest that if children in the early years of schooling were to understand the longer term goals espoused by their parents, there would be less likelihood of conflict. This, however, underestimates the complexity of the issue and the developmental patterns in understanding and priorities.

There is a convergence of viewpoints of parents, educators, and students in middle and high school years in that homework is seen by all participants as a vehicle for academic progress. Consequently, there is a disjunction between the more sophisticated and abstract socialization goals for homework in elementary school and the relatively direct, achievement-related goals for older students. Because proximal goals and timely feedback are key aspects to improving self-efficacy (Pajares, 2002), it is ironic that these are more readily provided to older students in the context of the more explicit academic outcomes than with elementary students and outcomes such as the development of responsibility. The issue with secondary school students is not a lack of understanding about the academic benefits homework may provide, but the perception that the immediate, associated costs may be greater than the potential benefits. As a result, adolescents may reject those academic goals. This situation is exacerbated by the tendency of homework policies and practices to encourage extrinsic rather than intrinsic motivation through the types of activities required.

Implications for Practice

Before suggesting some implications for practice from the differing viewpoints of parents and children, a word of caution is in order. This article has focused on the adult perspective from a parent’s views rather than a teacher’s views. While these are very similar, especially with regard to the socialization goals of homework, research indicates some differences in viewpoints–specifically in expectations about the quality of completed homework and the time required to be spent on it. Bryan, Burstein, and Bryan (2001) review such issues in regard to students with learning disabilities. The importance of these differences cannot be understated since the likelihood of contention within the family is great when the messages from home and school are not completely in synch. Consequently, clear communication between student, parent, and teacher is essential about meanings and intended benefits of homework. School homework policies developed in partnership with the community would seem to offer a good starting point, especially if these policies provide a framework explaining the philosophy behind the setting of homework, the support parents can provide, and the mechanics of homework practices.

The second point is the need for consistency between the planned purposes of homework and the type of task assigned. For example, if the intention is to foster good work habits in the early years of school, this may be better met by assigning very small but regular amounts of homework in order to establish a routine. Surprisingly, many Australian schools in the first years of school provide a weekly sheet to be signed by the parents and returned at week’s end. Such a process essentially places the responsibility for remembering and time management on the parent instead of on the student. A limited amount of homework assigned each day will place fewer memory demands on the young child and is likely to help in the early establishment of a regular routine. Additionally, in such a procedure it is important for the child to be cognizant that one of the important reasons they are given daily homework is to help them learn to remember without reminders. It is then a small step to discuss issues of responsibility.

Perhaps the most important issue to consider is the type of homework activity assigned. It appears that McBeath’s (1996) argument of “a hiatus between class work and homework,” where class work is seen as far more varied, stimulating, and interesting than typical homework, has not been heeded sufficiently. School systems have accountability here as well, given the frequency of complaints about overcrowded curriculums. But however tempting it may be for teachers to make completion of sets of work begun in the classroom as part of homework, it will be viewed as a penalty for lack of performance by less able students. More importantly, in such circumstances the students are required to complete the work without both the academic and social support found in a classroom. Nevertheless, this is an area where there have been recent promising advances: innovative approaches to homework that encourage true homeschool partnerships (e.g., TIPS, Epstein & Van Voorhis, 2001) or initiatives in Strathclyde, Scotland for supported study centers open after school hours to support the learning of disadvantaged students (McBeath, 1996). What these have in common is a view that the social context, as well as the physical environment, is important for learning. They address the social isolation that many middle and high school students find so alienating about homework.

The challenge for teachers who do not have access to one of these programs is to assign homework that strengthens the targeted skills and knowledge but in a way that is relevant and interesting to students who all too often see homework’s costs. As a consequence, the levels of dispute within a family may diminish as students begin to focus on future homework benefits.

References

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Bryan, T., Nelson, C., & Mathur, S. (1995). Homework: A survey of primary students in regular, resource, and self-contained special education classrooms. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 27, 85-90.

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Pamela M. Coutts is an associate professor and Head of the School of Education, Australian Centre for Educational Studies, Macquarie University, Sydney.

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