Parental concerns about their children’s homework loads are nothing new. In recent years there has been an increase in the amount of homework given to students in elementary grades, and critics point to research findings that, at the elementary-school level, homework does not appear to enhance children’s learning. Why, then, should we burden young children and their families with homework? Wouldn’t it be better, as some propose, to eliminate homework altogether, particularly in these early grades.
The answer is, quite simply, no. A narrow focus on whether or not homework improves grades and achievement ignores the broader purpose in education—the development of lifelong, confident learners. Developmentally appropriate homework plays a critical role in the formation of positive learning beliefs and behaviors and is a key vehicle through which we can help shape children into mature learners.
The Connection between homework and achievement.
Most research on the homework-achievement connection is correlational. While correlation does not imply causality, extensive research has established that at the middle- and high-school levels, homework completion is strongly and positively associated with high achievement (Cooper et al., 2006; Trautwein, Niggli, Schnyder, & Ludtke, 2009). Very few studies have reported a negative correlation.
However, findings on the homework-achievement connection at the elementary level are mixed. Researchers point to a number of possible factors to explain these mixed results:
- Young children are still developing skills that enable them to focus on the material at hand and study efficiently (Muhlenbruck, Cooper, Nye, & Lindsey, 2000),(Dufresne & Kobasigawa, 1998).
- Teachers’ goals for their students are also quite different in elementary school. While teachers at both elementary and secondary levels note the value of homework for reinforcing classroom content, those in the earlier grades are more likely to assign homework mainly to foster skills related to self-regulation, such as responsibility, perseverance, and the ability to manage distractions (Coutts, 2004; Epstein & Van Voorhis, 2001; MetLife, 2007).
Although the relationship between homework and academic achievement in the elementary-school years is not yet established, eliminating homework at this level would do children and their families a huge disservice: we know that children’s learning beliefs have a powerful impact on their academic outcomes, and that through homework, parents and teachers can have a profound influence on the development of positive learning beliefs (Bempechat,2011).
The impact of Learning Beliefs
As noted above, developmentally appropriate homework can help children cultivate positive beliefs about learning. Decades of research have established that these beliefs predict the types of tasks students choose to pursue, their persistence in the face of challenge, and their academic achievement.
Broadly, learning beliefs can de defined as the way a person perceives his or her abilities, their goal-setting skills and expectation of success, the value he or she places on learning, and his or her self-regulating behaviors such as time-management skills.
Motivation researcher Carol Dweck of Stanford University posits that children with a “growth mindset”—those who believe that ability is malleable—approach learning very differently than those with a “fixed mindset”—kids who believe ability cannot change (Dweck & Molden, 2017).
Those with a growth mindset view effort as the necessary key to mastery. They see mistakes as helpful, persist even in the face of failure, prefer challenging over easy tasks, and do better in school than their peers who have a fixed mindset (Blackwell, Trzesniewski, & Dweck, 2007).
In contrast, children with a fixed mindset view effort and mistakes as implicit condemnations of their abilities. Such children succumb easily to learned helplessness in the face of difficulty, and they gravitate toward tasks they know they can handle rather than more challenging ones (Blackwell et al., 2007).
Studies have demonstrated that parents and teachers play a significant role in the development of positive beliefs and behaviors, and that homework is a key tool they can use to foster motivation, a “growth mindset” and academic achievement.
Homework Quality Matters
Teachers favor homework for a number of reasons. They believe it fosters a sense of responsibility and promotes academic achievement. They also note that homework allows students to review classroom material and practice skills. Finally, teachers value homework as a way to keep parents connected to the school and their children’s educational experiences.
While students, on the other hand, may not always enjoy the idea of doing homework, research shows that by high school most come to believe there is a positive relationship between doing homework and doing well in school (Coutts, 2004). Students value assignments that are challenging (neither too easy nor too hard) and that reflect teachers’ active selection of tasks that are interesting, enhance learning, and are well integrated into lessons (Dettmers, Trautwein, Ludtke, Kunter, & Baumert, 2010)
So what kind of homework is valued by students and instrumental in developing positive learning beliefs? Quality homework, assignments that are developmentally appropriate and meaningful, and that promote self-efficacy and self-regulation. Meaningful homework is authentic, allowing students to engage in solving problems or developing skills that are relevant to them (Alleman et al., 2010). Homework tasks that promote self-efficacy make efficient use of student time and have a clear purpose connected to what they are learning (Vatterott, 2010).
High-quality homework is homework that also develops students’ perceptions of their own competence by
- focusing them on tasks they can accomplish without always needing help (Darling-Hammond & Ifill-Lynch, 2006; Protheroe, 2009);
- differentiating tasks for diverse learning needs so as to allow struggling students to experience success (Katz, Kaplan, and Gueta, 2009; Van Voorhis, 2011);
- providing suggested time frames rather than a fixed period of time in which a task should be completed;
- delivering clearly and carefully explained directions.
Parents’ Beliefs and Actions Matter
It is well established that parental involvement in their children’s education promotes achievement motivation and success in school (see Bempechat & Shernoff, 2012). Parents are their children’s first teachers, and their achievement-related beliefs have a profound influence on children’s developing perceptions of their own abilities, as well as their views on the value of learning and education (Eccles, Roeser, Vida, Fredericks, & Wigfield, 2006).
Most parents want to be engaged in their children’s schooling and view involvement as part of their role as parents (Hoover-Dempsey et al., 2001). They also believe that doing homework fosters responsibility and organizational skills, and that doing well on homework tasks contributes to learning, even if children experience frustration from time to time (Coutts, 2004; Hoover-Dempsey, Bassler, & Burrow, 1995).
Many parents support their children’s homework in ways that come naturally to most of them:
- establishing routines for when and where homework by integrating it into family life, rather than viewing it as something that must be done after, and on top of, everything else
- eliminating distractions and communicating expectations that homework should be thoughtfully completed,
- helping children manage their time, providing reassuring motivational messages, and encouraging them to be aware of the conditions under which they can best do their work (Cooper, Lindsey, & Nye, 2000; Jeynes, 2010).
These simple actions do much to foster the development of self-regulation, which is critical to school success (McCann & Turner, 2004). From elementary through high school, children encounter increasingly complex learning tasks and must develop skills and strategies to help them organize and plan their work and learn independently. (Zimmerman & Schunk, 2011).
Especially in the early grades, homework gives parents the opportunity to cultivate beliefs and behaviors that foster efficient study skills and academic resilience (Xu & Corno, 1998; Patall, Cooper, & Robinson, 2008). Indeed, across age groups, there is a strong and positive relationship between homework completion and a variety of self-regulatory processes (Ramdass & Zimmerman, 2011).
However, the quality of parental help matters. Sometimes, parents with the best of intentions can unwittingly undermine the development of children’s positive learning beliefs and their school achievement. Parents who maintain a positive outlook on homework and allow their children room to learn and struggle on their own, stepping in judiciously with informational feedback and hints, do their children a much better service than those who seek to control the learning process (Dumont et al., 2012; Pomerantz, Moorman, & Litwack, 2007; Viljaranta et al., 2018).
Parents’ attitudes and emotions around homework are consequential in shaping their children’s attitudes and approaches toward homework. For example, parents who display positive attitudes and emotions during a homework task may be able to guide the development of their children’s positive attitudes and emotions, which are more predictive of higher achievement than are negative attitudes and emotions (Else-Quest et al., 2008).
Moreover, parents who view helping with homework as a satisfying aspect of parenting rather than an obligation display more positive emotions around homework, which in turn are associated with children’s positive emotions and stronger perceptions of academic self-efficacy—confidence in one’s ability to succeed (Moè & Katz, 2017).
Children are more likely to focus on self-improvement during homework time and do better in school when their parents are oriented toward mastery – the development of skill and knowledge . In contrast, if parents focus on how well children are doing relative to peers, kids tend to adopt learning goals that allow them to avoid challenge (Madjar, Shklar, & Moshe, 2016).
Debates over the merits and harms of homework continue today as its value is again being scrutinized and weighed against possible negative impacts on family life and the well-being of children. However, extensive amounts of research can help us understand that homework, including in elementary grades, is a key instrument in helping children develop skills they will need growing up, in beginning to instill a sense of responsibility and in cultivating positive learning beliefs.
Natalie teaches Year 2 classes. She loves arts and craft and everything “do it yourself”, learning about new cultures and languages, and spending free time outdoors.