The Healthy Tension of Homework

During my first few years teaching, I was frequently surprised at just how often a simple comment about homework led to a rather vehement defense of teaching philosophies and lamentations about "kids these days." I've since learned that when bringing up the subject at any meeting, I need to choose my words very carefully.

It usually comes up as some variation of this question:

How much homework is enough/too much?

Every teacher (and student) has an opinion on this. Generally speaking, that opinion gets to the teacher's very philosophy of teaching. In my experience, the most common response to this question is something like this:

"My subject is very challenging. To succeed in (subject), students need to do x hours of homework every night."

Of course, how can I argue with that? At a college prep school, our classes are supposed to be challenging. And if the AP Calculus teacher or the freshman English teacher (just to pick random examples) say that 45 minutes of homework is required to really do well, they most certainly have their reasons. And 45 minutes certainly doesn't sound excessive. (There is plenty of research on the effectiveness of homework in general, and what types of homework are most useful. For the purpose of this exercise, let's assume that teachers have read all that research and only give "good" homework assignments.)

So let's think this through, using that arbitrary 45-minute number. If a student has seven classes, that 45 minutes per subject would add up to over five hours of homework a night. Let's say one of those classes is an elective like PE, so now we're down to four and a half hours of homework. Still a lot of time. Well, my school is on a block schedule, so those classes meet every other day. If students only do their homework the night it's assigned, that's a little over two hours per night.

Two hours? That sounds completely reasonable. How many teachers ever did less than two hours of homework a night? And we are all successful, right? After all, we're teachers! Let's see how that two hours each night would fit into a typical student's schedule.

Sally is on the freshman volleyball team. And tonight she has a game right after school. No problem, her game will be over by 4:30 p.m. or so, that's plenty of time for homework. Well, tonight she has to stay and help work the varsity volleyball game, so she won't get home until after 9:00 p.m. She will have some downtime during the night, to eat dinner and, yes, to work on homework, but a gym isn't always the most studious location.

OK, so Sally might have a tough time during volleyball season. But that's part of being a student-athlete, right? She'll figure it out, and be stronger for it, an expert at time management. Wait, Sally also plays on a club volleyball team, so she's in season pretty much all year. Plus she helps coach a youth team, and does community service at her parish. So for Sally, those two hours of homework are never going to be easy to fit in.

If the teacher I've been conversing with hasn't left yet and we are still talking, this is when I'll be asked, "Great, so are you saying we shouldn't assign homework? Have fun watching grades/AP scores/SAT scores plummet."

That's not what I am saying. What I am saying is that teachers need to be aware of this reality. My anecdotal experience, backed up by many of my more veteran colleagues, is that high school students today are busier than they've ever been. Sure, there have always been athletes and actors and other busy students, but the rise of club sports and the push for full résumés has certainly led to more busyness.

When I was in high school, I did do four hours of homework, especially in my first years of high school. I didn't have many friends, no social life to speak of, no job, and few extracurriculars. Undoubtedly, those hours at home spent doing schoolwork helped my academics. If I'd spent time playing soccer or cultivating relationships, I would probably have learned "less" Latin. Would that have been all bad? I don't know. While I changed over my four years in high school, I was certainly not the most well-rounded student. Maybe a B in English in exchange for more time spent cultivating relationships would have been a good thing.

What does all this mean for teachers today? One thing is clear, there's no magic number for how much homework is too much. But I do think there needs to be an awareness of just how involved our students tend to be. Teachers can be mad that students would rather play sports than study Calculus or Latin, but getting mad won't change anything. They're not going to give up swimming just because teachers want them to care more about school, and this culture of busyness isn't going to change any time soon.

The way I see it, there are two ways forward. 1. Teachers continue holding the same standards as they have in the past. If I did four hours of homework to get straight A's, then there's no reason our students can't do the same. If they want to spend that time on something else, that's their choice, but they shouldn't expect A's. 2. Teachers can lower their standards, acknowledging both that students would perhaps know "more" Math/Science/Latin if they did more work at home, and also that there's a limit to what is considered reasonable.

I find this tension to be healthy, and worthy of continued debate. There is no clear answer that I've come up with. My own homework policies have evolved quite a bit over the last seven years, with more "optional/recommended" homework assignments and more opportunities to earn points in ways other than homework.

Personally, I'm glad that so many of my students are so well-rounded, and I wouldn't necessarily change much just so that they could read a bit more Vergil. And to be sure, many students balance demanding courses and extensive extracurriculars in a way that I never would've imagined possible. But I've also see the students suffer the stress of trying to do all that. Homework isn't the only cause of that stress, but it's the one piece I can control in my classroom, so I think about it a lot. Again, it's a healthy tension, and one that's not going away.