The motivational benefits of homework: a social-cognitive perspective

The motivational benefits of homework: a social-cognitive perspective

Janine Bempechat

This article argues that, as a pedagogical practice, homework plays a critical, long-term role in the development of children’s achievement motivation. Homework provides children with time and experience to develop positive beliefs about achievement, as well as strategies for coping with mistakes, difficulties, and setbacks. This article reviews current research on achievement motivation and examines the ways parents and teachers encourage or inhibit the development of adaptive beliefs about learning. It then integrates the literature on homework and achievement motivation and shows that homework’s motivational benefits, while not named as such, have been in evidence for some time. Finally, the article argues that homework is a vital means by which children can receive the training they need to become mature learners.

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HOMEWORK–TASKS THAT TEACHERS assign to students that are meant to be completed during out-of-school hours–persists as a controversial aspect of children’s schooling. Beliefs about the value of homework and concerns over the quantity assigned have fluctuated, both as a function of advances in educational research and concerns about the United States’ ability to be competitive on an international level. While educators support homework for its value in reinforcing daily learning and fostering the development of study skills, a backlash against the practice has been growing since the 1990s.

Critics who condemn homework point to the fact that research on the topic has produced inconsistent findings and argue that its impact on achievement, especially in elementary school, is, at best, unclear. If, in the lower grades, homework contributes little or not at all to academic achievement, then why engage in a practice that can promote conflict between parents and children and interfere with development in other domains, such as athletics and the arts (Wildman, 1968)? Why burden overstretched working parents and low-income parents, who are likely to have access to fewer resources to help their children? Perhaps the best recourse is to minimize or eliminate homework altogether.

The purpose of this article is to argue that, as a pedagogical practice, homework plays a critical, long-term role in the development of children’s achievement motivation. More specifically, homework assignments provide children with the time and experience they need to develop beliefs about achievement and study habits that are helpful for learning, including the value of effort and the ability to cope with mistakes and difficulty. Skills such as these develop neither overnight, nor in a vacuum Rather, they are fostered over years through daily interactions with parents and teachers, whose own beliefs and attitudes about learning and education have a profound influence on children’s developing beliefs about their intellectual abilities (Sigel McGillicuddy-DeLisi, & Goodnow, 1992). In this context, the singular focus on grades and test scores as the primary test of homework’s effectiveness is short-sighted. If our goal is to prepare children for the demands of secondary schooling and beyond we need to pay as much attention to the development of skills that help children take initiative in their learning and maintain or regain their motivation when it wanes.

I begin with a brief overview of advances in research on achievement motivation that have provided us with a deeper understanding of how students’ beliefs about achievement influence their performance in school. I pay specific attention to the ways parents and teachers encourage or inhibit the development of adaptive beliefs about learning. I then turn to the literature on homework, and show that its motivational benefits, while not named as such, have been in evidence for some time. Finally, I argue that homework is a vital means by which children can receive the training they need to become mature learners.

Motivational Factors in Learning

Over the past 25 years, advances in social cognition have contributed to a much deeper understanding of achievement motivation in children and youth (Weiner, 1994). We no longer view achievement motivation as an inner need or drive that individuals have in greater or weaker strengths Instead, achievement motivation is now best understood as a collection of beliefs, attitudes, and emotions that influence students’ performance in school. These include students’ explanations for the causes of success and failure, their personal expectancies and standards for performance, confidence in their ability to do well, and beliefs about the nature of intelligence–innate or changeable (Eccles, 1993).

The social cognitive approach to the study of achievement motivation relies heavily on attribution theory, which argues that students come to perceive that success and failure in school can result primarily from effort (or lack of it), ability (or lack of it), and external factors, such as luck or task ease/difficulty (Weiner, 1994). These attributions vary in the extent to which they are perceived as internal/external, stable, and controllable. Effort, for example, tends to be perceived as internal, controllable, and unstable; while ability tends to be viewed as internal, stable, and uncontrollable.

Further, attributions are linked to specific emotions, which in turn, predict future achievement behavior. For example, a student who believes she failed a math test because she waited until the last minute to study (lack of effort) will likely feel embarrassed. This embarrassment will lead her to study in advance of the next test. In contrast, if a student believes he failed the math test because he is not good at math (lack of ability), he will probably feel incompetent and ashamed, and as a result, see little purpose in studying hard for the next math quiz.

The promise of this theoretical approach to children’s motivation to learn lies in the implication that negative attitudes, or more precisely, real-adaptive beliefs about learning, can be manipulated by careful intervention. For example, research has shown that children who are susceptible to learned helplessness–the tendency to fall apart in the face of difficulty or challenge–tend to believe that mistakes are a sign of low ability, a stable quality of the self over which they have no control. Yet when trained to view mistakes as the result of lack of effort, children adopt more positive ways of dealing with academic difficulty, such as taking more time to check their work and asking the teacher for help (Dicner & Dweck, 1978).

Origins of Achievement Beliefs

Children’s beliefs about learning and achievement develop in the multiple contexts of their homes, schools, and the broader culture (Rogoff, 1990). We know, for example, that parents’ and teachers’ beliefs about learning have a profound influence on the development of children’s own beliefs about what it takes to do well in school, as well as their efforts to learn and apply themselves (Stipek & Gralinski, 1991). Phillips (1987) studied children’s assessments of their own ability in a group of very accomplished, high achieving elementary students. Although all were exemplary students, some had surprisingly low perceptions of their abilities. Their parents, Phillips discovered, had rather low opinions of their children’s skills. These children’s beliefs about their abilities were predicted more reliably from their parents’ evaluations than by their own (excellent) objective record of achievement.

Schools and teachers are similarly influential in the development of students’ beliefs about achievement. The effects of low expectations, communicated subtly by teachers (e.g., by not allowing enough time to respond to a question) or by the school structure (e.g., through placement in lower tracks), results in lower achievement and lower self-assessments of ability (Oakes, 1985). Importantly, children as young as 5 are able to interpret what teachers think about their abilities from their teachers’ emotions. For example, when a teacher shows anger in the face of a disappointing grade, children correctly take this to mean that the teacher believes they did not try hard enough (low effort). In contrast, when a teacher expresses pity at a low grade, children assume, again correctly, that the teacher believes the student does not have the ability to do any better (low ability).

Findings such as these must figure prominently in any discussion about eliminating homework for children whose parents are poor, because such reasoning runs the risk of communicating to these children and their parents that the school believes they are incapable of helping their children. I return to this point later.

Homework and Academic Achievement

A great deal of research evidence now demonstrates that academic achievement is positively related to homework completion (Cooper, Lindsey, Nye, & Greathouse, 1998). For example, Keith and Cool (1992) found that, regardless of students’ ability or prior coursework, the amount of time they devote to homework increases their achievement.

Cooper’s extensive program of research on the academic benefits of homework has demonstrated that, across urban, suburban, and rural students, homework exerts its greatest influence in higher rather than lower grades (Cooper, Valentine, Nye, & Lindsey, 1999). More specifically, in middle and high school (Grades 6-10), there is a positive association between the amount of homework that students complete and their grades. In the lower grades (Grades 2-4), however, this relationship is negative. This finding, coupled with research showing that students’ emotions are depressed when they are engaged in homework (Leone & Richards, 1989), has led some to argue that homework can indeed be detrimental in elementary school. Others argue that if homework does not foster achievement, or worse, has a negative effect on grades, it may make sense to minimize or eliminate the practice altogether (Kralovec & Buell, 1991).

In fact, a careful examination of homework’s benefits for elementary school students suggests that a much more complex and nuanced interplay of factors is at work. Researchers have found that, because of their limited cognitive capacity, younger children tend to have less effective study habits and are less able to focus and avoid distraction than older children (Hoover-Dempsey et al., 2001). Teachers also use homework differently at different levels of schooling. A 2000 survey found that both elementary and secondary school teachers report that they assign homework in order to foster study and time management skills. However, elementary school teachers believe more strongly in homework’s value for the purpose of training students on how to study and use their time well. This implies that for elementary level teachers, the content of homework may be less important than the opportunity it provides to foster long-term time management skills, the effects of which would not be evident in younger children’s school grades (Muhlenbruck, Cooper, Nye, & Lindsey, 2000).

As mentioned earlier, the development of such skills occurs in the larger context of home and school. Parents–teachers’ partners in their children’s learning–play a critical role in the development of their children’s beliefs about and approaches to homework.

Parent Involvement and the Development of Adaptive Achievement Beliefs

Parents socialize their children for learning in two fundamental ways. Through their cognitive socialization practices, they help foster their children’s intellectual development by guiding their learning (Rogoff, 1990). They participate with their children in a variety of activities (reading, visiting the library) and daily household tasks (tidying up and putting groceries away). Through their motivational socialization practices, they influence the development of attitudes that foster school success, including a belief in the value of effort and a tolerance for mistakes and setbacks (Bempechat, Drago-Severson, & Boulay, 2002).

Parent involvement takes different forms. Their overt behavior (e.g., going to parent-teacher nights and other school events), their personal investment (e.g., showing that they enjoy the child’s school and their interactions with school personnel), and cognitive/intellectual support (e.g., helping with homework) serve to communicate to children that education is valued at home (Grolnick & Slowiaczek, 1994). In general, parents across social class and ethnic groups are willing to help their children with homework, and believe that doing so is part of their job as parents (Delgado-Gaitan, 1992). Not only do parents tend to believe that they can have a positive influence on their children’s intellectual development, they also perceive that teachers expect them to help their children with the assignments they send home (Hoover-Dempsey et al., 2001).

Those who have studied the effects of homework on academic achievement have discussed its non-academic benefits (Warton, 2001), its intermediary effects on motivation (Cooper et al., 1998), and its impact on the development of proximal student outcomes (Hoover-Dempsey et al., 2001) and general personal development (Epstein & Van Voorhis, 2001). In one form or another, all of these researchers are speaking to the development of adaptive motivational skills–including responsibility, confidence, persistence, goal setting, planning, and the ability to delay gratification–all of which students need increasingly as they progress through middle school to high school and beyond. Mounting research suggests that these skills are fostered through interactions with parents, as a result of the ways they socialize their children’s intellectual and motivational skills. Put another way, parent involvement is a key ingredient in the development of beliefs and attitudes that help to foster academic achievement.

For example, Grolnick has suggested that children whose parents support their intellectual development may develop a certain level of comfort and familiarity with school-like tasks (Grolnick & Slowiaczek, 1994). This, in turn, may foster beliefs that school-related activities are controllable, which facilitates the development of adaptive beliefs about the causes of success and failure. Relatedly, Cooper and his colleagues (1998) examined the relationship between student and parent beliefs and attitudes about homework and academic achievement in elementary and secondary school. At all ages, children’s attitudes about homework were positively associated with parents’ attitudes. And, in the higher grades, students’ attitudes about homework were directly predicted by their parents’ attitudes, which were positively and directly related to their children’s school performance.

For some students in this study, the lack of a positive effect of homework on achievement may have been the result of their parents’ own negative attitudes. In one study of urban and suburban fifth through ninth graders, most students reported that they were not happy while they worked on homework, and most reported that they did their homework alone (Leone & Richards, 1989). However, if they did their homework in the presence of a parent, the effect was more positive and their achievement greater.

More recently, in a test of the effectiveness of homework on academic achievement, Cooper, Lindsey, and Nye (2000) found that parents who had positive attitudes about homework facilitated its completion by helping in ways that promoted understanding, but were not so intrusive as to hinder its eventual completion. Similarly, Keith and Cool (1992) found that parent involvement (as measured through educational aspirations, communication about school and school events, home structure, and participation in school activities) had a significant positive effect on student achievement in several subject areas. Importantly, this effect was facilitated through homework–parents who are more involved encourage children to do more homework and reading at home (Hoover-Dempsey et al., 2001). In addition, they model for their children appropriate ways to deal with confusion, manage their time, and plan effectively for future assignments. In other words, when parents teach their children how to break a complicated project down into manageable pieces, they communicate the extent to which school outcomes are within the child’s control.

Further, when parents understand what teachers are requiring of their children, they then influence the ways students come to judge the difficulty of different assignments, the extent to which they will need to manage their time in order to meet deadlines, and appreciate that there are times when a more attractive activity needs to be deferred or abandoned in order to complete homework. Modeling and otherwise providing guidelines for how homework can be completed are critical ways parents help children regulate their time and develop their motivational skills, including goal setting, planning, persistence, and delay of gratification (Hoover-Dempsey et al., 2001). Delay of gratification, for example, may be easier when students have an intrinsic interest in the assignment (Bembenutty, 1999). Yet it is precisely when intrinsic interest is low that students need to be able to fall back on a repertoire of beliefs and strategies that will see them through difficulty and setbacks. Rather than assume that students will pick up these strategies as they need them, we must recognize that these strategies should be taught and fostered over many years. And parent involvement is vital to the development of these strategies.

Overall, the research suggests that assigning homework in the early school years is beneficial more for the valuable motivational skills it serves to foster in the long term, than for short-term school grades. Undoubtedly, parents are in a greater position to influence their children when they are younger than when they are older (Xu & Corno, 1998). In the early years, when parents’ attitudes about homework are positive, they can lay the foundation for students’ positive attitudes later, which are related to their grades (Cooper, Lindsey, & Nye, 2000).

What about low-income parents, who may not have either the time or the resources to be involved in ways that promote academic achievement? Does homework serve to make an already unequal educational playing field even more so? What about middle-income families where both parents work? Is it fair to ask them, after a full day’s work, to add homework supervision to the many tasks they need to complete in the evening? I argue below that the educational needs of all children are best met by policies that facilitate, not eliminate, parent involvement.

Social Class and Homework

There was a time when educational researchers believed that children at risk for school failure–those living in poverty, in single parent households, whose parents themselves have low levels of education, or speak English as a second language–were being done a disservice by parents who neither cared about nor were involved in their education. This “deficit model” approach (Glazer & Moynihan, 1963) to the persistent problem of underachievement gave way to a more sophisticated understanding of the ways child-rearing strategies are influenced by parents’ own culture and ethnicity. Many studies have shown that, across ethnic groups, low-income parents care deeply about their children’s intellectual development, and employ rich and varied means to encourage both a love of learning and a deep value for education (Ogbu, 1995).

Like their middle-income peers, many low-income parents provide a daily structure and place for homework completion, clearly communicate expectations and standards for both social behavior and academic performance, stay abreast of due dates for homework assignments and tests, and share stories of their own occupational difficulties, which they believe their children can avoid by doing well in school. They also help with homework, even if they have difficulty understanding it, and visit the school when possible (Delgado-Gaitan, 1992).

The notion that homework “punishes students in poverty for being poor” (Kralovec & Buell, 1991) is disingenuous at best and would have us feel sorry for, rather than challenge, low-income students to do their best. Further, both anecdotal and research evidence suggests that low-income parents (and their teachers) want their children to be challenged and prepared for the increasingly competitive world of work. Homework is an integral part of this preparation. To minimize or eliminate homework on the seemingly well-intentioned, but flawed assumption, that poor parents would be grateful to have less to do with their children’s education is to do a great disservice to these parents and their children. Such a policy would communicate that teachers feel sorry for these parents and believe that they lack the competence to help their children. The low expectations conveyed by this view would serve, ultimately, to suppress academic achievement.

Quite to the contrary, teachers want parents to be involved, in part because this makes them feel supported in their work. Importantly, when parents are involved in their children’s schoolwork, teachers are less likely to hold to stereotypes of low-income parents as uninterested in their children’s education (Epstein & Van Voorhis, 2001). Further, when homework is carefully designed to elicit parent involvement, even parents with little formal schooling make substantive contributions to their children’s learning (Epstein & Van Voorhis, 2001). Epstein has described her TIPS (Teachers Involve Parents in Schoolwork) homework design as an interactive program where students involve their families in carefully designed and clearly explained homework assignments. For example, the language arts homework assignments require students to engage in such activities as reading the writing prompts out loud, discussing the topic with members of their family, and taking notes on their family’s reactions to their story. Across subject areas, innovative programs such as TIPS foster more parent involvement, greater completion of homework, and higher achievement (Van Voorhis, 2001).

As previous research has shown, homework is a critical means of communicating standards and expectations (Natriello & McDill, 1986). Regardless of social class, teachers’ standards for homework completion improve academic performance, something that Catholic educators have realized for some time. Catholic schools are institutions where the poorest children in the United States do exceptionally well, as evidenced by lower dropout rates, higher GPAs and SAT scores, and greater college acceptance rates (Bryk, Lee, & Holland, 1993). Catholic schools help poor students attain high levels of proficiency through demanding coursework and consistently high expectancies and standards for schoolwork and homework. If anything, Catholic school teachers of low-income students report feeling particularly bound to demand hard work of their students, in part because they are aware of the hurdles they will face in the future (Polite, 1996).

At the other end of the social class spectrum, many middle-class parents complain that their children’s elementary school homework is stressful for the whole family, robbing parents and children of opportunities to pursue other family activities and interfering with children’s extracurricular interests. Some parents report feeling resentful that their own limited time to relax is taken up by their children’s homework (Xu & Corno, 1998), while others report that they routinely send notes to their children’s teachers explaining that they do not allow their children to finish homework that they feel takes too much time (Bempechat, 2000). In short, they feel sorry for their children when they have challenging homework. These are often the same parents who will later demand an exacting course of study from their children’s high school teachers, in order for their children to be as well prepared as possible for the increasingly competitive college application process.

Many parents do not realize that, in advocating for little or no homework, homework that is not “stressful,” or homework that does not become “their” homework, their children will pay the price in the long run in lack of preparedness for the academic demands and obstacles that will eventually come their way. These parents, in effect, rob their children of countless opportunities to develop adaptive learning beliefs and behaviors. Parents who actively protest a school’s homework policy on the grounds that it is too demanding run the risk of communicating to their children both low expectations and a belief that they lack the ability to rise to a teacher’s standards. This can serve to undermine children’s confidence and developing beliefs about themselves as effective learners. Parents who are not supportive of teachers’ homework policies will communicate their dissatisfaction to their children, who are likely to take on their parents’ negative attitudes (Epstein & Van Voorhis, 2001).

Conclusion

As they progress through elementary to secondary and post-secondary schooling, the tasks teachers require of their students become increasingly complex. For many students, mistakes, confusion, and academic struggle become a common aspect of learning. Children need to know that their teachers and parents believe in their ability to acquire knowledge and master new skills, especially when they are confronted with setbacks. Despite concerns and outright objections from some parents, teachers need to maintain appropriate standards of performance for their students through homework requirements. Under the guidance of adults who challenge their intellectual growth, homework provides students with the training they need to develop adaptive achievement beliefs and behaviors. All children, rich and poor, need to be pushed, not pitied, as they struggle to become mature learners.

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Janine Bempechat is a senior research associate at the Center for the Study of Human Development, Brown University.

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