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Got Questions? Ask the Homework Lady

The more homework students do, the more they learn, right? For too long, educators and parents have clung to that erroneous idea, according to "Homework Lady" Dr. Cathy Vatterott. Fewer, more focused assignments benefit students more, she says. Included: Tips for more effective homework assignments.

"We have a moralistic attachment to homework. We use homework to reward virtue and punish vice. We see lots of homework as a sign of academic rigor. The belief in the value of homework is akin to faith," says Dr. Cathy Vatterott, professor of middle level education at the University of Missouri, aka, the Homework Lady.

For too long, parents and educators have equated more homework with more rigor and more learning, according to Dr. Cathy Vatterott, professor of middle level education at the University of Missouri, aka, the Homework Lady.

A former teacher and principal, Dr. Vatterott suggests that the blind faith many have in the value of homework needs to be shaken, and that teachers need to look at giving fewer, better quality homework assignments. She also is a big proponent of afterschool homework clubs, which provide all students with a quiet place to work and resources to use.

Dr. Vatterott discussed her views and her research at this year's Association for School Curriculum Development (ASCD) conference.

Education World: How has homework traditionally been viewed?

Dr. Cathy Vatterott: We have a moralistic attachment to homework. We use homework to reward virtue and punish vice. We see lots of homework as a sign of academic rigor. The belief in the value of homework is akin to faith.

Some other beliefs about homework -- that could be based on faith, tradition, or moral judgments:

  • The role of the school is to extend learning beyond the classroom.
  • Intellectual activity is intrinsically more valuable than non-intellectual activity, like throwing a ball.
  • Homework can instill positive values.
  • Lots of homework is a sign of a school with tough standards and rigorous curriculum.
  • Teachers can't possibly cover all the curriculum without homework.
  • Good teachers give homework. Good students do their homework.

Homework is overrated as an instructional strategy. There is a lot of bad homework being given out there.

EW: Why do you think the beliefs about homework are so hard to shake?

Dr. Vatterott: Because they are tied to our puritan value that hard work is good for you and more hard work is even better for you.

EW: Why is the appropriateness of homework getting more attention these days?

Dr. Vatterott: I think it's because families are so overwhelmed with jobs and their children's outside activities -- they see their children experiencing the same stress they are and they see less homework as one remedy. I also believe the pendulum is swinging back in our culture, [and people want] to slow down a little, do less, have a better quality of life, and let kids be kids.

EW: How can teachers improve their use of homework?

Dr. Vatterott: We need to adjust homework to meet families' and students' time. Homework should not be a source of stress in families. We don't look enough at why homework isn't done. We [also] don't use homework enough to check for understanding; grading is not as important as feedback. We should limit the amount of homework that counts toward the final grade.

We also shouldn't be looking at piling on more work, we should be focusing on developing more complex skills. Homework is more beneficial for rote memorization or practice and rehearsal of a skill than for complex tasks or new learning.

[In addition,] We need to look to see what we're doing with kids. If they are behind in math, they may need to spend more time in math.

We also need to teach parents how to supervise homework and develop a system of two-way communication between teachers and parents.

EW: What are some characteristics of a good homework assignment?

Dr. Vatterott: Homework that cannot be done without help is not good homework. Quality homework tasks help students to:

  • practice a skill.
  • process a skill and reflect.
  • learn to make good choices.

Quality assignments also re-enforce what the teacher is doing in the classroom and can help students prepare for a new topic. Before a lesson on measurement, for example, you could ask them to go home and find out how someone they know uses measurements.

EW: What are the benefits of doing homework?

Dr. Vatterott: Homework is a class issue. I believe the homework gap can compound the achievement gap. Kids who do homework have more in depth learning. It impacts their future learning and perfection of skills. It also affects their grades.

EW: Is there any research that shows that assigning more homework improves student achievement?

Dr. Vatterott:Research shows there is a slight correlation between homework and achievement in middle school and high school, although we can't prove that homework causes high achievement. In middle school, students doing between 15 minutes and one hour of homework a night do just as well as students spending one to two hours on homework. For high school students, achievement declines after more than two hours of homework a night.

There is zero correlation between the amount of homework given and achievement at the elementary level.

The correlation of homework with achievement also varies depending on the subject. The highest correlation [between homework and achievement] is with math, followed by reading, and the lowest correlation with social studies.

Most of the research done about homework has to do with time, not task, and many of the times have been self-reported. The guidelines for assigning homework are no more than ten minutes per grade level per night.

EW: What are your views on assigning work over summer vacation that will be graded?

Dr. Vatterott: I think it is totally inappropriate and maybe even illegal! In fact, in one state a student filed a lawsuit [over the issue.] I think parents should "just say no" and demand their child not be penalized.

EW: What are some of the downsides of assigning a lot of homework?

Dr. Vatterott: The main reason the kids in my middle school failed was [failure to do] homework. Homework should not cause students to fail. Giving a zero is not holding a kid accountable. Being accountable is making them finish the homework.

Directly and on tests, homework affects grade level retentions and grade point averages. It also affects motivation. [If students don't do homework,] the teacher starts to label the students as lazy. They don't experience success as an individual learner, which inhibits their desire for continued learning. There is a failure to experience a sense of efficacy in independent learning.

The inability to complete and keep up with homework also is a factor in teens dropping out of school.

Teachers need to limit homework because kids need downtime, sleep, fresh air, exercise, and positive family time.

This e-interview with George Pawlas is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.