Homework improvement

A study on homework co-authored by a University professor unduly emphasized the time students spent on assignments

A new study calls into question the merits of studying. Three co-authors, including University Education Prof. Robert H. Tai, recently published “When Is Homework Worth The Time?” a study that aims to debunk the common ideology that more homework translates to more achievement. Although the study is a valuable addition to the existent literature on academic homework – a body of research that upholds the mantra that “practice makes perfect” and recommends teachers give more assignments – “When Is Homework Worth The Time?” is ultimately too narrow in approach and unimaginative in thinking to be worth too much of our time.

The researchers were interested in math and science curricula in high schools, and given that many high schools – like public universities – have their standards set by the state, their recommendations at the secondary level will also interest those who set standards in higher education. The researchers wanted to examine whether assigning homework had any effect on overall grades for a sample of about 18,000 10th graders. To do this, they assembled the transcripts for these students previously collected in samples by the National Center for Education Statistics, an affiliate of the Department of Education.

The study then performed the traditional regression analysis to test whether the time students allotted for homework could account for their final grade. By focusing on the time spent on homework, the researchers picked a misleading variable that gives an ambiguous picture of students. That a student spends a lot of time on homework could be evidence of their work ethic – or their ineptitude. Likewise, students who spend the least time on their homework might do so out of proficiency rather than uninterestedness.

It is thus no surprise that the researchers were unable to find a strong correlation between time spent on homework and the grade that a student received. The study did account for numerous lurking variables, such as attendance in class, that could also impact one’s grades. But by focusing mainly on time spent on homework, the researchers made a poor empirical choice that disallowed more robust observations. Hence, they are unable to come to firm conclusions on homework. Their prognostication, according to UVA Today, that “more research be done on the form and function of homework assignments” misses the more immediate point: that extensive studies such as this should exemplify vigorous research rather than call for it.

The danger lies in the study other’s conclusion. The researchers did find that time spent on homework was positively associated with better scores on standardized tests. With standardized tests becoming the preferred metric of state and federal agencies, some may simply read this study as a vindication of the philosophy of providing more homework, when the researchers’ ideas are more nuanced. By permitting an imprecise focus, the authors of the paper left ambiguous conclusions that will now act as fodder for a politician with an interpretative bent.


Published November 25, 2012 in Opinion





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