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Here’s what you need to know about homework and how to help your child

Does homework help with academic success? chrisyarzab/flickr, CC BY-NC

Here’s what you need to know about homework and how to help your child

Many parents and educators view homework as an important indicator of classroom rigor. The Back-to-Basic movement, which emphasizes the need for schools to teach basic academic skills in particular, has increased the emphasis on homework as a measure of a school’s success.

In fact, many parents and students judge the difficulty of a course or teacher by the amount of homework assigned. Furthermore, many educators believe that asking parents to help their children with homework is a particularly effective strategy for enhancing children’s achievement.

Many parents, too, agree that their involvement will make a positive difference. In a recent study conducted by the US Department of Education, 90% of parents reported that they set aside a place at home for their child to do homework, and 85% reported that they checked to see that homework had been completed.

But does helping with homework really improve student achievement? As a high school and college teacher who has assigned homework, and a mother of two sons who were not always too enthusiastic about completing homework, I have studied the many ways that families from different income levels support their children’s academic success.

I have come to believe that homework can not only enhance children’s achievement but can be a powerful opportunity for parent-child nurturing. But research also tells us that it is not just any homework assignment that will have that kind of impact.

Here is what we are learning about homework.

When parent involvement helps

Despite a widespread belief that parent involvement in homework is good for kids, researchers are discovering that it can have both positive and negative effects.

In 2008, three researchers – Erika A Patall, Harris Cooper and Jorgianne Civey Robinson – conducted an extensive review of research on the effects on students of parent involvement in homework. They found that the effects of parent involvement appear to be strongly influenced by four factors:

  • the nature of the homework assignment
  • the particular involvement strategy used by the parent
  • the child’s age and ability level
  • the time and skill resources in the home.
When does parent involvement help. New Jersey State Library, CC BY-NC

The researchers found that homework assignments in which students are expected to memorize facts, and the parent is expected to teach school skills, provide less meaningful opportunities for parent and student interaction in the learning process.

In contrast, homework assignments in which students choose a project that requires in-depth investigation, thought and some creative license enable meaningful parent participation. Parents can play supportive roles in discussing the project with their child, which is more enjoyable both for the child and parent.

For example, students may demonstrate math skills; share ideas and obtain reactions to written work; conduct surveys or interviews; gather parents’ memories and experiences; apply school skills to real life; or work with parents or other family partners in new ways.

Strategies for parents

In addition, how parents help their child with homework appears to have distinct effects on student achievement.

Most parents engage in a wide variety of involvement strategies, such as creating “school-like routines” in which they make rules about when, where or how homework is done. They also interact with the teacher about homework and provide general oversight or monitoring of homework completion.

In some instances, parents control these structures; in others, parents follow the student’s lead.

For instance, parents may engage in the learning processes with the child (eg, engage in homework tasks with the child or in processes that support the child’s understanding of homework). Parents may also help their child learn self-management skills (eg, coping with distractions).

The strategies that parents use may vary depending on their beliefs about child-rearing and broader cultural values. Yet these different parent involvement strategies appear to have distinct effects on student achievement.

Strategies that support a child’s autonomy and also provide structure in the form of clear and consistent guidelines appear to be the most beneficial.

For example, in a 2001 study, researchers reported that parent homework involvement that supported autonomy was associated with higher standardized test scores, class grades and homework completion.

In contrast, direct aid (doing the homework for the student) was associated with lower test scores and class grades.

In another study, parent involvement in homework was reported by students to have a detrimental effect if the parent tried to help without a request from the child or was perceived as intrusive or controlling by the child.

Age matters

Researchers have also noted that the age and ability level of a child strongly influenced the amount of help with homework that parents provided and its subsequent benefits to the child.

Parents reported spending more time helping their elementary-age children with homework than their secondary school-age children. Parents of low-ability students reported spending more time helping with homework than did parents of high-ability students.

Parents are more likely to help younger kids. Asheboro Public Library, CC BY-SA

While teachers and parents of elementary-aged children were more likely to work together to help students complete their assignments, parents of secondary school students often did not monitor their adolescents’ homework as faithfully as when their children were younger. This, in part, is because they were not expected or asked to do so by secondary teachers.

As a result, low-ability students in middle and high school were less likely to complete homework or to achieve academically.

Another factor was that parents of older students often reported feeling increasingly less able to help with homework.

What can educators do?

These research findings have important implications for how teachers design homework assignments and how parents and teachers might participate in the homework process.

First, students (and parents) need to know why they should be doing a particular homework assignment. What skill is to be practiced/reinforced? Why does this skill matter?

Teachers need to explicitly communicate the purpose of a particular homework assignment and emphasize how the skills they are learning in a homework assignment can be applied in the real world.

Second, educators should design homework assignments that are more meaningful and allow for creativity. Students should be able to have a choice in how they carry out an assignment.

Third, students have different learning styles, and educators need to consider how they might need to express their learning differently (via audiotapes, videotapes, posters and oral presentations rather than the standard written report).

Fourth, teachers should design interactive homework assignments that involve students in interactions with peers and with family and community members. For example, authors Alma Flor Ada and F Isabel Campoy have developed an approach of creating family storybooks that are used as reading and writing texts in the classroom.

Another group of researchers designed “interactive” homework assignments that guided students on how to conduct conversations with family members in math, science and language arts.

Another team of educators worked with teachers and parents to develop curricular approaches that brought students’ cultural backgrounds and families’ “funds of knowledge” into the classroom. For example, class lessons and homework were based on how parents use math in cooking or sewing or how workers use reading and math to build a house.

Homework is a daily activity for most students that takes time, energy and emotion, not only for students but for their families as well. Given these investments, it is important that homework be a more beneficial learning experience, in which parents too can bring their interesting and enriching skills.