The Sisyphean Problem of Homework: Is It Too Much & Short On Value? | Jeannette Lee Parikh | 7 Min Read

November 7, 2022

It’s been two months now since the school year began. We’ve all facilitated and attended Back to School nights and the opening of the year socials, so parents, administrators, and teachers can get to know one another and reconnect. One of the perennial conversations, like Sisyphus interminably rolling a boulder up a steep hill, is that of homework. What parents always want to know: How long should my child be spending on homework? Do you know how long my child actually spends on homework? For teachers, this conversation of forever explaining one’s homework policies can feel like eternal punishment.

Across schools, there are department and faculty meetings in which teachers and administrators discuss posting homework in a timely manner with clarity of expectations (how much, where to submit, due dates, etc). Some institutions, like mine, use the 10-minute-per-grade metric for how much homework faculty should be assigning students on a daily basis. It amounts to 90 minutes in total/night for 9th-graders all the way up to 120 minutes in total/night for 12th-graders. But, as anyone who has a child and works in schools knows, student pacing is variable. What takes one student 15 minutes can take another 30 minutes and yet another, 45 minutes. This metric can be a good place to begin to help faculty think about homework load. And….

As a department chair who designs curriculum and reads about the science of learning, I have come to the conclusion that all these conversations on homework (is it too much and how long should it take?) miss the point. Instead, homework is only stressful and time-consuming because we, teachers, have designed homework to be stressful and time-consuming, resulting in students experiencing cognitive overload. And administrators have supported this learning paradigm under a misguided understanding of rigor and high standards. A colleague who is a science department chair at another institution once disclosed that what is happening in the classroom is fantastic, but homework is a problem. I repeat: But homework is a problem! The truth is that as long as we think of homework as a problem, it will remain a problem. Instead, I suggest we expand our scope to consider that homework isn’t the problem, but rather course design is the fundamental issue. Essentially, what we have is a design problem.

The question isn’t how long homework should take; instead, we should be asking: How can we design classes so that students, as whole humans and not just brains in a jar, develop as intrinsic learners who are willing to work on wicked problems that include moments of failure? Yes, failure should be a learning feature, so students learn and practice resilience. How can we design developmentally appropriate courses and lessons where students have spaces for individual and collaborative learning? We know that the frontal lobe of the teenage brain isn’t fully connected to the limbic system, so our course structures should account for some poor decision-making and space for appropriate pivoting on the part of teenagers. How can we design classes that include enough scaffolding and spaces for retrieval, interleaving, and spaced learning instead of attempting to cover breadth as quickly and as much as possible, so students can truly master skills and knowledge? How can we design classes that include dual coding (which is the combination of words and visuals) and time for absorption, so students can lean into their learning zone? How can we design classes so students build upon prior learning and make connections within and across the topics of a subject, across subjects and departments, with their interests, and what is happening in the world around them, so they recognize and understand the purposes of what they are learning in class? How can we design classes that encourage focus and allow students to practice deep reading, which enables the internalization of knowledge as well as the development of analogical reasoning, inference, perspective-taking, empathy, critical analysis, and insight generation?

From a practical perspective, we also need to design classes that are tailored to our semesters. Not the length of the semesters of where we went to college, graduate school, and even high school. What can a student learn in a 15-week or 12-week chemistry class, for instance, or a 6-week or 12-week English class, for example? We need to practice the principles of backward design when we design courses, so we are clear on the learning objectives and the types of learning activities that will allow students to authentically achieve mastery of these learning objectives.

And finally, what is the place of homework in this redesign?

Homework has, arguably, three purposes: practice, preparation, and connection. It can be a space where students practice skills and content. It can be a moment for pre-learning what will be explored the next day. It can be a place for students to make connections between previous and current learning.

As a result, the purpose and relevance of homework should be made explicit to students. Homework should be reviewed in class to ensure that students and teachers have the same understanding of its learning value. It should be flexible and differentiated enough that students only complete enough homework to achieve the explicit learning goals of the homework, which are to practice a skill, prepare for a discussion, and deepen student understanding. Just as importantly, it should be a learning activity that students can complete independently with appropriate scaffolding. Neither passing nor failing the class should be based on homework completion.

It is important to point out that each discipline has its own homework constraints. In English and History, the reading should happen asynchronously because of the variable reading rate among students; however, the number of pages assigned should not be so many that students focus on completion and not practicing deep reading. All assignments, particularly the essay process, can be moved to class time so the teacher can support the student. In Science classes, the labs have to occur in class. However, it might make sense to introduce new material during hands-on STEM classes, so that students can achieve proficiency with teacher support. Homework can be a great place for students to consolidate their new skills. In languages, similar to STEM, homework practice can reinforce the new material introduced in class. In a 1997 study of language teachers, it was found that “the skills of reading and writing were reinforced far more than the skills of listening and speaking in homework.” In the Arts (visual), homework can be an exploratory space for students to refine their skills and research: for example, students can bring still-life objects from home or take photos in settings outside of school that can be used as a reference in class.

Regardless of the discipline, all of the approaches above aim to reduce the cognitive overload of homework, so that homework can be independent, meaningful, and allow for the application of information that can be retrieved to promote authentic student learning.  To support these goals and make optimal use of class time and teacher support, classes could also be redesigned using the Flipped Mastery model, the Agile Classroom model, and Project Based Learning, which all seek to meaningfully stretch students into their learning zones to achieve mastery of skills and knowledge. These approaches also redefine homework as out-of-class work that is a natural continuation of what occurs in class.
Finally, we should also be mindful of the fact that students already spend anywhere from six to eight hours a day in school. We should encourage the development of non-academic passions instead of unnecessarily lengthening the academic day with homework. Students, as whole humans, have the right to a full life. They should be able to have enough unstructured time to read for pleasure, play, spend time with family, and follow any of their interests. By the time students arrive at high school, many of them no longer read for pleasure because they don’t have the time, and many of them point to the amount of homework as the main reason. We must always remember that we are in a field that supports the development of the whole child. To disrupt the tedium and frustration of rolling the homework boulder up the hill, we need to change the learning paradigm by getting out of Hades. If homework is too much and doesn’t have enough value, then we need to redesign our courses, not just on an individual teacher and class basis but perhaps as a department and even as a school.

You may also be interested in reading more articles written by Jeannette Lee Parikh for Intrepid Ed News.

Jeannette Parikh

Jeannette M E Lee Parikh, PhD, is the assistant editor for Intrepid Ed News as well as the chair of the English department and head of community reading at The Cambridge School of Weston (CSW). Before CSW, where she has been since the fall of 2010, she taught at the college level for six years. She is an ISTE Certified Teacher and OER advocate. She is an experienced practitioner of integrating department-wide academic technology that serves pedagogical and curriculum goals. Her teaching philosophy exists at the intersection of the science of learning and cultivating creative thinking, joy, curiosity, playfulness, and self-awareness in all learners. She has presented at conferences on the importance of deep reading, critical listening, authentic discussion, and strategic writing in the 21st-century classroom.

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