Homework Overload: How Much Homework is Too Much?

Homework is a critical learning modality that helps students practice what they’ve learned and reinforce learning concepts. With students learning remotely, face-to-face, or a combination of both, the concept of homework takes on a whole new meaning. Much of student learning is already occurring at home, so the question we must ask ourselves is when does homework become a stress point for students because they have so much of it that they cannot achieve an optimal home-school balance? At what point does homework hurt more than it helps?

The Homework Misperception

The vision of a diligent pupil determinedly studying, reading, and practicing lessons for hours every evening is an image that we often associate with intelligence and the kind of focus that we expect of high-performing students. This construct, however, is often misleading. Young people develop their interpersonal, social, and physical wellness skills during their youth, along with their intellect. Students that spend every hour of their afternoons, evenings, and weekends on homework are at risk of unhealthy levels of stress on top of the kind of sedentary lifestyle that, if persistent, can be problematic. Where then, is the optimal tipping point between enough work to help students solidify learning and too much that it becomes unhealthy?

The Ten-Minute Rule

Years of research into the benefits and risks of homework indicate that while it is an effective learning tool for high school students, it is less necessary for elementary and middle school students. The National Parent Teacher Association (PTA) and the National Education Association (NEA) advocate for teachers to follow the ten-minute rule. This guideline recommends that students receive, on the aggregate, ten-minutes of homework per grade level. So a fourth grader would have no more than 40 minutes of practice work after school hours. By following this rule, students receive more practice work—and the benefits it offers relative to enabling students to develop student skills—as they age and mature.

Quality or Quantity?

While the ten-minute rule offers an easy-to-follow, quantitative approach to homework management, some parents and student advocates argue that it’s not the quantity of homework that matters, but the quality of it. They believe that homework should reinforce crucial concepts and be tailored to the needs of each student, rather than accomplish a time requirement. After all, they argue, students learn at different speeds. What might take one student ten minutes might take another thirty. How then, can the ten-minute rule be equitably applied to students across a classroom? As a teacher, ask yourself if the work you are giving your students is worth the time spent.

When Too Much Homework Can Cause a Burnout

The other possible risk of a homework distribution methodology predicated on higher expectations as students age is the risk of high school student burnout. High school students facing social and athletic expectations and the stress of college applications, SAT prep, or post-graduation expectations are at risk of astronomical stress levels. Add to their pile of pressure, evenings packed with homework, and it’s no surprise that youth feel they are under as much stress as their parents.

How to Safely Manage Your Students’ Homework Impact

Depending on the grade level that you teach, you will either have total or partial control over how much homework you are assigning to students. If you are a middle or high school teacher who shares instruction with fellow teachers, maintain an open dialogue about planned assignments. Collaborate to ensure time-consuming projects, writing assignments, or study needs do not overlap to avoid days or weeks of excessive at-home work. 

For elementary school students, promote other sources of proven academic improvement skills other than homework. Studies show that evening reading, particularly with parents, can be a more influential factor in academic improvement than homework. Similarly, studies show that a more reliable predictor of academic achievement for elementary and middle school students rather than homework is family meals. By freeing-up students by assigning less homework, you can hopefully give families more quality time to spend together.

The last step that you can take to monitor your students’ homework efforts is to simply ask your class how long their homework assignments and study sessions take per evening. Based on their feedback, adjust your homework strategy accordingly. Remember that you can help shape your students’ development comprehensively—intellectually, emotionally, socially, and physically—as long as they have the time and space to achieve the appropriate balance in their lives.

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