The homework debate


The homework debate has reignited after more research into the impact it has on grades. Karen Sullivan takes a look.

Research from the OECD has prompted suggestions that homework for UK students must be increased in order for them to compete in the international rankings (particularly in maths).

The study, spanning 65 countries, showed a “clear link” between time spent on homework and higher performance. British teenagers spend 4.9 hours a week on homework, whereas students in Shanghai spend 13.8 and in Singapore 9.4. While these jurisdictions top the international tables, the UK is 26th and it is suggested that this performance is partially the result of inadequate levels of homework. All very cut and dried. Or is it?

The study goes on to say that while the amount of homework assigned is associated with mathematics performance, “the average number of hours that students spend on homework ... tends to be unrelated to the school system’s overall performance”.

In fact, there is other recent evidence to suggest that doing more homework can be harmful. This research found that students in high-achieving communities who spend too much time on homework experience more stress, physical health problems, a lack of balance and even alienation from society.

“Our findings on the effects of homework challenge the traditional assumption that homework is inherently good,” wrote Denise Pope, a senior lecturer at the Stanford Graduate School of Education and a co-author of the study, which was published in the Journal of Experimental Education. In particular, they found that too much homework is associated with:

• Greater stress: 56 per cent of the students considered homework a primary source of stress; 43 per cent saw tests as a primary stressor; 33 per cent put the pressure to get good grades in that category too.

• Reductions in health: many students said their homework load led to sleep deprivation and other health problems. The researchers asked students whether they experienced health issues such as headaches, exhaustion, sleep deprivation, weight loss and stomach problems. Most did.

• Less time for friends, family and extra-curricular activities: both the survey results and students’ responses showed that spending too much time on homework meant that students were “not meeting their developmental needs or cultivating other critical life-skills”. Students were more likely to drop activities, not see friends or family, and not pursue hobbies.

While further studies have indicated that spending more than two hours a night doing homework is linked to achieving better results in English, maths and science, there is also evidence that it is what students actually do, rather than how much work the school has set, that makes a difference – and that children from homes where they are encouraged to work fare, as you might expect, better.

What a broad overview of the research suggests is that “better results” often boil down to a few points on a standardised test – not a significant shift in grades – and I can’t help but wonder whether the potential for overloading already stressed and over-tested students is really the answer. 

One piece of research noted that students who reported that they enjoyed school got better results. Does homework lead students to enjoy school? Or perhaps more to the point, would “fun” homework, such as projects, reading and reviewing books, using maths and science in creative and practical ways, make it less like homework and something enjoyable instead? 

Something simultaneously relaxing and stimulating that would benefit students on all levels, including emotionally and academically?

The homework debate is far from over and it’s going to take more than an international league table to convince me that scoring an extra point or two is worth stealing the time that children need to grow, develop, define themselves and, yes, relax and play.

  • Karen Sullivan is a best-selling author, psychologist and childcare expert. Email


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