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Homework hurdles

Nov 15, 2012,

TO DO OR NOT TO DO

RIGHT TIME From Class III to V homework can extend to an hour.

Should children be allowed to relax the entire evening or should they be subjected to assignments to hone their skills? While homework is often perceived as a burden, research suggests that the right kind and right amount of homework can extend student knowledge, rather than put them off a subject, writes Aruna Sankaranarayanan

Similar to ‘exam’, the word ‘homework’ elicits strong reactions from students and parents.  Complaints about homework by children range from benign grumblings to rigid refusals, often resulting in tantrums and tears.  Many a parent complains that her relationship with her child is marked by stress and storms due to homework battles. 
Exasperated and desperate, parents look to tutors for help.  Teachers, on the other hand, continue piling on pages as they are pressured to complete a gargantuan syllabus in 40-minute periods.  As parents expect stellar results, teachers feel justified in assigning homework.  

Should children be allowed to relax and unwind the entire evening or should they be subjected to a series of assignments to hone their skills?  While homework is often perceived as a burden, research suggests that the right kind and right amount of homework can extend student knowledge instead of enervating children’s enthusiasm for a subject.  Using principles of cognitive and educational psychology, teachers may set meaningful assignments to aid student understanding while alleviating stress in homes.

Educators assign homework because they believe it helps children retain facts and review concepts.  Homework also encourages self study, which is a skill that can be cultivated and nurtured over a lifetime.  Thus, homework is thought to enhance learning and self-discipline.  Parents also get to know what is being taught in school when children bring work home.  


On the flipside, long, tedious assignments can sap children of their fervour to learn.  When children are saddled with monotonous exercises, they have scant time for other pursuits.  As parents try to squeeze in extracurricular activities, children are deprived of downtime.  At times, parents get over-involved in their child’s learning, leading to a high-pressure home atmosphere.  As Wildman writes, “Whenever homework crowds out social experience, outdoor recreation, and creative activities, and whenever it usurps time devoted to sleep, it is not meeting the basic needs of children and adolescents.”

While researchers have found both benefits and baneful effects of homework, psychologist Harris Cooper undertook a comprehensive examination of studies on homework. Comparing experimental studies conducted over a decade, he found that the average student who did homework outperformed 73 per cent of those of didn’t.  Some parents argue that homework should be completed in school itself under supervision.
Cooper found that while supervised study benefited younger children, middle and high-school students performed better when given homework.  Young children do not always have the requisite study skills to gain maximally from homework.  However, for older children, homework can reinforce concepts and build problem-solving skills.

Enhancing homework quality

In September 2011, Annie Murply Paul wrote an article in The New York Times, describing how the quality of homework assignments may be enhanced.  Citing research in psychology, the article offers guidelines on the kinds of homework that are most effective.
Instead of giving students homework one chapter at a time, teachers may set assignments so that children revisit content taught earlier on a regular basis. This approach, called spaced repetition, leads to better retention according to researchers at University of California-San Diego.  Second, testing students also promotes learning as we are likely to consolidate a memory every time we retrieve it. Thus, asking students to study and take short quizzes may aid their recall. However, in the Indian context, children are often encouraged to learn by rote.  Rote learning is a relatively passive form of learning. Instead, when students are made to process material actively by performing conceptual and meaningful exercises, they are more likely to remember content for a longer period.  

Educationists Stephanie Harvey and Anne Goudvis provide strategies for teachers to help children learn material at deeper levels.  Instead of asking straightforward questions on a chapter, the assignment may get children to make connections between the current lesson and previous ones.  Another technique to make students engage with text is to ask them to frame questions.  For science, geography, history and literature lessons, children may be asked to visualise and draw figures based on descriptions provided.

How much

The next big question deals with the amount of homework.  Kindergarten, by and large, should be homework free.  As a child is just entering formal schooling, he should be first allowed to form a positive emotional bond and feel secure with his friends, teachers and the school.  In the early primary classes, homework should not exceed half hour to forty minutes.  From Grade III to V, homework may extend to an hour.  From Grade VI onwards, homework may range from an hour to two hours depending on the child’s grade.  Different subject teachers should coordinate with each other so that children are not overburdened. Further, homework need not be a daily affair. Every school may assign one day of the week as a homework free day so that children can pursue other interests.  
For children with learning difficulties and attentional issues, teachers may make accommodations on homework so as not to tax them inordinately.  In order to dispel negative connotations associated with homework, teachers should refrain giving homework as a form of punishment.  Dumping an extra twenty sums for homework because VII C was badly behaved sends the wrong signal about homework to students. 
Children view homework as a teacher’s vengeance rather than an exercise in self-growth.  Research also suggests that children tend to take homework more seriously when teachers correct assignments every now and then and provide constructive feedback.

In addition to being mindful of individual differences in children when assigning homework, teachers must also be aware that parental support also varies considerably from child to child.  While parents from dual income homes may not have time to help a child make an elaborate project, parents of first-generational learners may not be able to provide supporting services at home.  Some parents even outsource projects to ‘professionals’, a practice that should be discouraged by schools.  Children whose needs cannot be met at home may require supporting services at school, possibly after school hours.  By giving students creative and meaningful assignments that are neither too taxing nor tedious, and spacing assignments comfortably apart, children may start looking forward to homework. 

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