How Much Homework Is Too Much?

Jonathan Chein

Jonathan Chein

In the last couple years, there’s been a national discussion about how much homework schools should be giving to students. Parents see their children coming home from school with assignments to complete, and it’s only natural for them to wonder if the extra time studying is worth it.

My answer to parents concerned about homework is, “It depends on the quality of the homework—and how intentional teachers are about giving homework.” In some cases, additional practice helps. In others, it can actually hurt your child’s education. Let me explain further.

How Homework Can Help Students Learn

There’s a reason that teachers send children home with assignments to complete in the evening. If completed, homework has been shown to help students reinforce what they learn in the classroom and increase retention of factual knowledge. It can help reinforce critical life skills such as time management and independent problem solving. Plus, it creates opportunities for parental involvement—which has been proven to increase academic achievement.

At its best, homework is additional practice for students. Practice is important because it helps students make a skill automatic and encourages the brain to move knowledge from short-term working memory into long-term memory.

If kids are invested and engaged, homework can really help them learn. After all, the more a student practices something, the better they get and the faster they become.


The Challenges Educators Face When Giving Homework

Homework stops benefiting students when it’s done wrong. For practice to be most effective it has to be on the edge of too challenging—but that can be hard to monitor when children are completing assignments alone at home.

As an educator, I’ve seen too many times where the students will repeatedly make the same mistake throughout an assignment. In those cases, homework isn’t helping students. In fact, without getting timely feedback, it actually reinforces the wrong knowledge in their brain and leads to frustration.

Another problem is that without an educator monitoring students, homework could be either too challenging or not challenging enough. Neither benefits students. When homework is too hard, students become frustrated and often give up. When homework is too easy, students feel it’s a waste of time—which leads to feelings of resentment.

Homework that’s not designed well can also be damaging to the relationship between parents and their children. As a parent myself, I know how important it is to teach my kids the value of responsibility, of work, and commitment. I want them to follow through on the assignments they’re given. Yet if my child is given homework that feels unproductive or like busywork, it creates an internal battle for me as the parent. Do I undermine the teacher and tell my kids they don’t need to do their homework? Or do I support the teacher and say “You have to do the homework?”

Another issue is how schools use homework to assess students and assign grades. As a teacher, I only know what the product was, not sure if it was a result of working with tutor or parent. Students may turn in a perfect piece of work—but if they got help along the way, the struggles and mistakes that could better inform teaching gets erased and edited, and the final mistake-free product that the teacher sees cannot result in meaningful feedback.

How Much Homework Is Too Much?

At Whitby, we believe that teachers should be very intentional about the homework they assign. The key to the “right” amount of homework is to make sure it’s given in a deliberate way that benefits students.

Good homework should be challenging, but not so hard that it’s discouraging. Students feel much more positive about their homework if they can complete it in a reasonable amount of time.

One of the ways that educators can hit that balance is to figure out ways for students to receive immediate feedback or to design homework that isn’t practicing a skill, but frees up in-class time. Teachers can effectively leverage homework to have students watch a video, read a chapter at home, reflect on a class or assignment, or create a second draft of an essay based on feedback received that day. Then subsequent class time can be used more efficiently to promote learning. Practice, discussions, engaging in activities and asking questions about the concepts and material for questions, practice and discussions about the material.

Teachers can also make homework feel less overwhelming by giving students some flexibility about when they turn in the assignment. Then it’s possible for students to work around performances or other commitments. Grade level teams also coordinate so that students don’t have too many assignments due the same day. An amount of homework that may seem reasonable on a normal day will feel unreasonable if that student has a big presentation due at the same time.

The Other Work of Childhood

The research shows that kids grow to be more creative, confident, and resilient when they are rested and have opportunities for unstructured play. As educators, it’s important for us to take that into consideration when we’re assigning homework. We have to decide, “Is this homework worth it?”

Whitby educators are very intentional about what we assign outside of class and work to respect students’ unstructured time, family time and other outside activities. When Whitby teachers assign homework I’m confident that the vast majority of work assigned is “good” homework. I don’t want to be the school that brags about our students spending hours and hours each night doing homework, but we don’t shy away from giving kids work to do at home when the assignment will help them learn. After our students graduate from Whitby, they frequently tell us “We’re doing more homework at our new high school —but we’re not learning any faster or deeper.” That’s music to our ears.

To learn more about the Whitby difference, sign up for a tour of our IB and Montessori classrooms, or download our guide to choosing a private school.

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Jonathan Chein

Jonathan Chein

First tasting middle school in the 80s, Jonathan Chein decided to go back and try to improve on the experience. Seventeen trips later, Jonathan still loves middle school students and his role as Head of Upper School at Whitby School. Over the years, Jonathan has learned that the value of a student's journey through middle school is defined not by a student's ability to avoid the bumps along the way, but by increasing one's comfort and ability to engage those bumps and to even start seeking them out, knowing that their navigation is what defines growth.