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Studies: Homework: To do or not to do?
 

 

Homework: To do or not to do?

Elizabeth Yeow

Copyright 2002 by Elizabeth Yeow
Included here with permission of the author

Every fall excitement fills the air as students arrive at school with new backpacks and school supplies, eager to meet their new teacher. Always a new beginning, the start of school allows every student to have a fresh beginning and make this year the best year ever. Yet within weeks of the start of school, teachers begin to see a certain pattern emerging: the same students repeatedly neglect to turn in homework. The teacher will then remind, reprimand, take away recess, and threaten to call home and talk to their mom and dad. Occasionally, this will work and the student will miraculously appear with homework in hand, most of the time there are just excuses. More often, the teacher becomes more frustrated and disheartened, the student’s grades drop and he or she will feel like a failure. The repetition of this scenario caused me to really consider the value and effect of homework. Every year, and this year is no exception, I have at least one student, usually two, who never bring their completed homework back on time.

I was puzzled by these students’ attitudes towards homework. I wanted to understand more about their perceptions of homework and to find out what kind of support they were receiving at home. Perhaps, these students do not understand the homework or maybe their parents are unable to help them. Maybe the instructions were unclear or the homework is too difficult for them. I wanted to understand more about their parents’ views about school and homework. I also wanted to know more about other issues that may be going on at home. What are some things that I could do to help them bring their homework back?

As I began this study, I had several assumptions. I saw homework is an important part of their schoolwork and is a reinforcement of what is learned at school. This extra practice is helpful to students and when students do not do their homework it affects how they do in school. Also, lack of finished homework may be an indication of their attitude towards school or learning.

Background Information

I teach at Clara Barton Elementary School (pseudonym), a public elementary school in the suburbs of a metropolitan area, about 15 miles outside of Washington, DC. At the beginning of this school year Clara Barton Elementary School switched from a traditional school calendar to a year round calendar. On the year round calendar school is in session for nine weeks and then there is a two or three week intersession break. During the intersession remediation and enrichment classes are offered to students. The cost of attending intersession is five dollars.

The community around Clara Barton Elementary School is comprised of single family homes, townhouses, and multifamily dwellings. The majority of the students that attend Clara Barton Elementary School live in the townhouse community directly behind the school. The townhouse community accepts Section 8 housing certificates. Many of the townhouses house more than one family. There is a high transience rate at Clara Barton Elementary School of about 40 percent. Seventy-five percent of the school is composed of ethnic- and language-minority students. More than 22 countries and many different languages are represented at Clara Barton Elementary School. Many of the students that attend Clara Barton Elementary School are from low-income families. Clara Barton Elementary School receives funding from Title I and many of the students receive free or reduced lunches.

The school is organized primarily into self-contained classrooms. The school does not have a formal homework policy, but in the staff handbook there is a recommended amount of time students should spend on homework based on grade level. Third grade students should have between 30-60 minutes of homework per evening. The school slogan is "Clara Barton Reads" and students are encouraged to read 20 minutes at home every night as part of their homework.

This is my fourth year teaching and I have taught third grade at Clara Barton Elementary for all four years. I am an Asian female. The students in my class are all in the third grade. The class is composed of 18 students, 8 boys and 10 girls. Sixteen out of the 18 are ESOL students. Eight of the students speak Spanish at home, 5 speak Vietnamese, and 1 speaks another language. Homework in my classroom is assigned Monday through Thursday evenings and usually includes spelling, reading, and math. When students arrive at school in the morning they take out their homework and stack it on a table at the back of the room. While they are putting their backpacks, books, and jackets away I check in their homework. Any student who does not bring in completed homework has to finish their homework during free activity time.

Selecting a Focus Group

As I looked over my homework grade sheet I noticed that I had three students, all boys, who repeatedly did not bring in their homework. Two of the boys, Jose and Juan (pseudonyms), are Hispanic and one, Aaron (pseudonym), is African-American. Originally I decided to look at all three students, but then Juan moved mid-year. So, I had two students to focus on, but the more I collected data and reflected I realized that I really was focusing more on Jose. Due to time constraints and the inability to contact Aaron’s mother I decided to focus this study about Jose.

Known Information

Jose is a third grade, ESOL student. His primary language is Spanish; however he is very fluent in English. Jose has helped translate a few words for me before. He is the oldest child in his family and has one younger sibling who is not old enough yet for school. He lives with his mother, father, grandmother, and younger sister. His father and mother both work full-time. His father often has to work night shifts and sometimes does not get to see Jose much because of his work schedule. Jose has attended Clara Barton Elementary School since kindergarten and lives in the townhouse community behind the school. Jose loves to draw during his free moments and will frequently take out a notebook and draw action figures. Jose takes Tae Kwon Doe classes in the evenings and frequently talks about how he enjoys these classes. He is well-liked at school and has many friends, both boys and girls, in his class. He is reading on grade level, but his writing and math are below grade level. Frequently Jose needs short extensions on in-class assignments.

Cultural Questions

As I considered my puzzlement over students’ attitudes towards homework I realized there may be many different things contributing to this puzzling situation. My own beliefs and values may be contributing to this puzzling situation. Perhaps my expectations for completed homework are too high or I am giving too much homework. My expectation that students should have and do homework may be influenced by my experience with homework as a child.

In the last thirty years the controversy over the value of homework has come up again and again. Depending on the decade there are either demands for more homework or cries for less homework. Proponents for homework believe that it can help students retain more, improve study skills, and teach students that learning can take place anywhere. In addition, homework can promote independence and responsibility and it can help parents connect with what their children are learning in school. Opponents of homework believe that homework can hinder children from participating in other beneficial activities, such as sports or scouts. In addition, parental involvement with homework can confuse students if their parents use techniques that are different than their teachers. Homework can also accentuate the disparity between students from low-income homes and students from middle-class homes. Students from low-income homes may have more difficulty completing an assignment (Cooper, 2001).

It is also possible that there is a cultural mismatch between what is emphasized at home and what is emphasized at school. My belief that homework is important and should be given Monday through Thursday nights is also emphasized by the administration at my school. Perhaps Jose’s parents do not value schoolwork and homework as much as it is emphasized in school. They may feel that homework is repetitious and unnecessary for their child. Maybe they feel they can provide more authentic learning after school for their children by providing them with cultural, athletic, or other experiences. Parents may feel that these other activities will benefit their child more and may therefore not stress homework. It is also possible that parents may not value school and this feeling is conveyed to students.

Outside influences may also affect Jose. Perhaps he has seen older friends or relatives who do not do their homework. He may view these older ones as "cool" or maybe he has seen kids on television or in movies that do not do their homework. Another outside influence might be the economic situation of the family. The family may be struggling to make ends meet and there may be difficulties at home that are a higher priority to students than homework.

These cultural influences are important for me to look at because they could change the way I administer homework or the amount of homework that I give. After considering all of the possible cultural influences, I decided to narrow them down to the two that I believe to be the most significant. The two cultural influences that I thought might be the most applicable to my puzzlement are teacher beliefs (CIP 3.1) and a cultural mismatch between home and school (CIP 3.3.2). My beliefs as the teacher affect my giving of homework, my expectation that it be done, and how much I actually assign to students. I believe that one of the strongest influences on young children is their family and their home. Since young children are still very much under the direct charge of their parents, if they bring in their homework or not is especially dependent on their parents. Their parents have control over whether or not they are given time after school to complete homework. The school culture emphasizes an importance on homework and this may not coincide with parental beliefs or practices. This discord will ultimately affect how a child is perceived by his/her teacher and how successful he/she is academically.

Data Collection

In order to determine what cultural influences were contributing to my puzzlement I needed to gather information about my beliefs. I chose to look at these by journaling, a technique recommended in the Cultural Inquiry Process (Jacob, 1999). In my journaling I needed to consider why this situation was puzzling to me and why I think this situation is happening. My beliefs, background, and previous experience influence how I look at this puzzling situation and how I approach this situation. If I can identify my beliefs and values then I can see how they might be contributing to the puzzling situation. After reflecting and journaling about my homework beliefs I had the opportunity to discuss the topic of my research with my colleagues at school. Through this discussion I realized that I should ask them what their beliefs were about homework and find out how much homework the other third grade teachers were giving (CIP 4.1).

Information also needed to be gathered about a mismatch between the student’s home culture and the school curriculum (CIP 4.3.2). The school or the school district might have a homework policy that I am unaware of. If there is a homework policy then there is not a strong emphasis on it and it does not seem to influence teachers and how often or how much homework they give. Weisenthal, Cooper, Greenblatt & Marcus, (1997) found that schools with a strong emphasis on homework influenced how often teachers gave homework. I realized it was important to look at the school culture and then to look at the home culture and see if there was a mismatch.

In order to find out more information about Jose’s home culture I considered visiting his home but I had difficulty contacting his parents. I sent many notes home, called home and tried to leave messages. Eventually I was able to speak to Jose’s father. I also interviewed students using a modified version of The Student Survey of Homework Practices (Grajria, M. & Salend, S. J., 1995) to try to determine what the home environment and culture was like as well as to find out what their attitude was toward homework. I looked at Jose’s school history and contacted Jose’s second grade teacher to see what Jose had been like as a second grader.

Findings

I grew up in an environment where receiving and doing homework was part of a daily routine. Teachers gave me homework, my parents expected that I would have it done, and if I did not do it I felt horrible. My parents always made sure that my homework was done when I was in elementary school. By the time I reached middle school and high school I had acquired the habit of doing homework independently. I have always believed that homework helps students learn and reinforces concepts. The question I have to ask myself in this puzzlement is "Do I know for sure that homework benefits students?"

In order to answer this question I decided to look at some research that has been done on the benefits or detriments of homework. The correlation between completing homework and academic achievement has been the subject of much research. Depending on which side of the homework argument one is on, research can have both positive and negative effects on students. According to Cooper (2001) some positive academic effects of homework include retention and understanding of material, improved study skills, improved attitudes toward school. Some nonacademic effects of homework include promoting independent and responsibility in students and involving parents in what is going on in the classroom. Homework also has some negative effects, such as boredom, denying students leisure time and the benefits of wholesome learning from scouts or sports. Homework can lead to cheating and can emphasize the disparity between the homes of low-income and middle class students. Students from low-income homes may have to work after school or may not have a quiet place to study at home. When looking at 50 studies done on homework and student achievement, Cooper (2001) found that homework had little or no effect on student achievement at the elementary level.

After reading some research on the effects of homework on academic achievement I had to seriously consider how my beliefs fit into this. I realized that giving homework benefited me as the teacher. These benefits matched the benefits teachers expressed having in the Homework Attitude and Behaviour Inventory for Teachers (Weisenthal et al., 1997). Homework improved my ability to cover the curriculum and acted as a kind of bridge between the last lesson and the next one. Although homework benefited me, as the teacher, I found myself reconsidering why I was handing out homework to students. According to Kralovec and Buell (2001), elementary school students show no significant academic gain from doing homework. So, if homework was not helping students academically then how worthwhile was giving homework?

I found out that the other two third grade teachers, both males, at my school were not giving as much homework as I was. One teacher usually gave only spelling and reading as homework. Every once in a while he would give math homework. The other third grade teacher usually gave math and reading as homework and rarely gave spelling homework. I, on the other hand, gave math, spelling, and reading as homework. Why weren’t the other teachers giving as much homework as I was? According to Weisenthal et al. (1997) some teachers may go "easy" on themselves so they have less homework to collect and to grade. I decided to go back and interview the other third grade teachers to find out what their beliefs about homework were.

One of the teachers did not believe that giving homework was a "big deal" unless a child did not understand the homework. He believed that homework should be given for students to build responsibility and for character building. In his experience the ones that don’t bring their homework back are usually the ones that don’t understand the concepts. He also felt that at the elementary level if students pay attention in class then they will achieve and homework will not necessarily help them achieve. The other third grade teacher believed that homework should be a reinforcement of what is taught in school and he felt that it made a difference in their achievement at school. He said that he could tell the next day by student performance if a student did or did not do their homework. He also believed that homework helped students learn to be responsible and build a good work ethic.

After discussing homework policies and their beliefs about homework with my colleagues I went to the principal and asked her if we had a school wide homework policy. She referred me to the staff handbook. Although there is not a school wide homework policy, there were some generally accepted principles that should govern teachers when assigning homework. Some of the principles include, flexibility and differences in the assignments to individual students, homework should be reasonable in view of the pupil’s situation including health, housing conditions, outside work or responsibility, leisure-time activity and conflicting demands of home and school. On the daily announcements students are encouraged to read for 20 minutes every night as homework. Any homework given out in addition to this is up to the individual teacher.

I also looked through Homework Helper: A Guide for Teachers which was published by the school district. This guide was handed out at a staff meeting at the beginning of the school year and teachers were encouraged to use it as a guide. Since that time homework has not been discussed with the staff. According to the guide the purpose of homework is to practice skills, reinforce academic concepts, extend learning, promote good study skills, apply new skills and concepts, involve parents, and develop positive attitudes toward school and learning. The guide does not discuss the amount of homework to be given. Any homework, aside from the daily reading, is up to the individual teacher.

In order to gather more information about Jose’s home culture I tried to contact Jose’s parents through notes and phone calls home. After repeated attempts to contact Jose’s parents, his father appeared one afternoon at my classroom door. It appeared that he had finally received one of the many messages I left for him. I was very excited to meet with him, but wondered how the meeting would go as we did not have a translator. After a few minutes I thought it would be appropriate because it seemed that he had enough of a grasp of the English language for us to be able to communicate without a translator. Our meeting was short (we really did need a translator). I asked him a few questions about his job and Jose’s behavior and work habits at home. He seemed very responsive and concerned. Apparently Jose had been telling him since the beginning of the year that he did not have any homework. He had believed Jose and did not try to contact me to confirm it. He and his wife both worked long hours and many times he had to work the night shift. Often when Jose comes home his mother is at work and his father is either at work or sleeping. His grandmother, who speaks only Spanish, is there to watch him. Jose’s father said that he or his wife always asked Jose if he had finished his homework. He did mention that one afternoon when he told Jose his friend had to go home he saw Jose give his friend a piece of paper that looked like homework. His father didn’t ask about it and forgot about it until his meeting with me. The weekly notes that I had been sending home did not reach Jose’s parents either. Jose’s father suggested that he could sign Jose’s homework every evening and maybe this would help Jose do his homework and bring it to school. The day after meeting with Jose’s father, Jose did not have his homework. He did bring his homework the next day signed by his father, but since then he hasn’t had anything signed by either parent.

I realized through this brief interaction with Jose’s father that he and his wife both cared about their son and his success in school. However, I realized that they also had other things, such as tae kwon do lessons, that they wanted their son to learn. González (1995) points out how important it is for teachers to know their students’ culture and to not have a "prepackaged" awareness of cultural diversity. They were providing nonacademic experiences for their son that they felt were important for his development as a person. In addition, I realized that Jose’s father wanted his son to do his homework, but was very limited due to his work schedule to encourage and help Jose. I’m not sure why Jose’s mother did not return phone calls or come to school with Jose. I have only seen Jose’s father with him when attending school events. Although Jose’s father indicated that they asked Jose about his homework they did not seem to do anything to encourage or require that Jose do his homework. Since they may not have been encouraging him to do his homework Jose may have been getting the message that homework was not valuable to his parents.

I contacted Jose’s second grade teacher to discuss his homework habits in second grade. I found out that he rarely brought in finished homework and Jose’s second grade teacher frequently tried to contact his parents to discuss work habits. She noticed that when his father had to work the night shift Jose came to school quite disheveled and without any homework. When Jose’s father switched to working during the day Jose seemed more attentive in school and sometimes was able to bring in finished homework. Jose’s achievement in school, including homework completion, seemed to be directly affected by his father’s work schedule. Tapia (1998) indicated that the most important factor influencing poor students’ academic performance is family stability. Jose’s feeling of family stability seemed to be affected by seeing his father regularly during the afternoon and evening.

To find out my class’ attitude and homework habits I passed out the Homework Survey to my whole class and read it to them as they circled responses. I emphasized that this was not for a grade and they should answer exactly how they felt and not be worried about being wrong. Some sample questions from the survey are as follows:

- I get easily distracted when I am doing my homework

- I feel unsure about which homework assignment to do first

- I feel teachers are unfair and give too much homework

- Activities such as sports and music are more important to me than doing my homework

- Someone checks my homework for me when I am done.

- Someone at home asks me if I have finished my homework.

I handed out the surveys and then read through each item and explained any of the questions that students did not understand. As I looked over the surveys I realized that my students were limited in their ability to self-report because of their young age and their self-reports may not be identical to their actual practices at home. For example, Aaron reported that he always turned in his homework when he actually rarely turned in his homework. Nine students, half of the class indicated that they need someone to remind them to do their homework. Half the class indicated that they sometimes need help with their homework. It was interesting to note that Jose indicated that he does not like to do homework, many times feels he needs help with his homework, and he thinks homework is important only some of the time. Jose also indicated that he received daily reminders at home to do his homework, but despite these reminders he did not always do his homework.

Interventions and Monitoring

One intervention I tried was to change homework assignments so there wasn’t as much of a mismatch between Jose’s culture and the school curriculum (CIP 5.3.2). Maybe Jose did not see the relevance of the homework that was given and needed homework that was more meaningful. Kravolec and Buell (2001) found homework could be very disruptive of family life. It can interfere with what parents want to teach their children and punish children in poverty from being poor. Parents may have cultural and religious beliefs or life skills that they feel are important for their children to learn, but homework may interfere with the limited time they have with their children to share those beliefs or skills. Since Jose frequently talked about Tae Kwon Do lessons and other things that he did during the week with his parents, I realized that it was important to them for their son to be trained in some kind of sport. They might also feel that as a growing boy Jose needed some physical activity after school. Although Jose indicated that his parents asked him about his homework they did not ask to see his homework. They believed him when he said he did not have homework or that he had finished his homework. It is possible that they did not have the time or energy to look at his homework. They both worked long hours and it is possible that they had many daily survival demands that are more important than Jose’s elementary school homework.

Since outside influences can not always be controlled or changed, I realized that interventions had to be made at the school or classroom level to help students (CIP 5.4.1). It seemed that Jose was not getting the support that he needed from home because his parents’ time is occupied with work and other basic survival issues, so one intervention was to give less challenging homework. Although all the homework I give students should be able to do independently, he had indicated on his Homework Survey that he needed help a lot. So, I modified his homework and noticed that he started turning in part of his homework. His parents’ limited English may affect Jose, so I tried to give more homework that was self-explanatory and made sure that he understood all the directions before he left school.

Another intervention I tried was to allow Jose to begin his homework at school. I let him start his homework at school. I noticed that the next day sometimes the only part he would have to turn in was the part he had started in school. Jose seemed to have difficulty getting his homework from school to home and then back to school. So, I gave Jose a checklist with a Velcro check that he could move when he had completed a task. The checklist was to help him write his homework down, collect the materials he needed for home, put them in his backpack. His father was given a matching one to keep at home. Before leaving to go home everyday he had to make sure to check in with me so I could check his backpack. After receiving the checklist I watched Jose everyday and noticed that he wasn’t following it. I reminded him and encouraged him to use it, but he still didn’t use it.

On a daily basis I continue to check Jose’s backpack and give verbal reminders to use his homework checklist. He lost the Velcro check for his end-of-the-day checklist on his desk, so I gave him a new one, but he still hasn’t used it. He has gotten used to checking with me before leaving. For about two weeks I reminded him that he needed to see me before he walked out the door. Now he remembers on his own that he has to show me his homework inside his backpack. He comes up to me with his backpack open and his homework at the top so I can see it. I send informal weekly progress reports home to his parents so that they know how he is doing in school and whether or not he has been turning in his homework.

Summary and Implications

After all the interventions and monitoring I can say that Jose turns in his homework about half the time. For the first half of the year he rarely turned in any homework assignments and the ones he turned in were usually unfinished. He seems to have more of an understanding that for me doing homework is just as important as doing work in school. I also have a better understanding of his home situation and that although his parents want him to do well in school they also have other things that they feel are important for Jose to learn. The communication between home and school is definitely better. In addition I feel that I am more aware that the situation at home greatly affects students’ ability to work on homework and bring it back to school.

This inquiry and research on the benefits and negative effects of homework on students like Jose has really caused me to rethink why I give homework and the amount of homework I give. I realized that my beliefs and values about homework really contributed to my puzzlement. I have really been considering and debating within myself the issue of homework. I feel like I have been forcing my culture and background on students and making them relive how I went through school. Do I give homework for character building or do I really believe that it will help students’ academic achievement? Checking homework usually takes fifteen minutes in the morning. Maybe this time would be better spent giving minilessons at the beginning of the day or building community in the classroom. Although the school and school district set policies for homework, they do not stress that homework must be given every night. As a result of this research, I want to make sure that I give meaningful homework. I have also decided to give more differentiated homework. Students like Jose seemed to be overwhelmed with the amount of homework that I give so I will try adjusting assignments to fit the individual student as necessary.

References

Cooper, H. (2001). Homework for all — in moderation. Educational Leadership, 34-38.

Gajria, M. & Salend, S. J. (1995). Homework practices of students with and without learning disabilities: A comparison. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 28 (5), 291-296.

González, N. E. (1995). The funds of knowledge for teaching project. Practicing Anthropology, 17 (3), 3-6.

Jacob, E. (1999). Cultural Inquiry Process Web Site [WWW Page]. URL http://cehdclass.gmu.edu/cehdclass/cip/.

Kralovec, E. & Buell, J. (2001). End homework now. Educational Leadership, 39-42.

Tapia, J. (1998). The schooling of Puerto Ricans: Philadelphia’s most impoverished community. Anthropology and Education Quarterly, 29 (3), 297-323.

Weisenthal, R., Cooper, B.S., Gsreenblatt, R., & Marcus, S. (1997). Relating school policies and staff attitudes to the homework behaviors of teachers: An empirical study. Journal of Educational Administration, 35 (4), 348-370.


 
 
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