Rethinking Homework Help

Friday, Apr 29, 2016

Many of our elementary, middle, and high school experiences have given us fond (perhaps not so fond) memories of homework. Ideas that we had been introduced to in the classroom were ideally reinforced with assignments that we were expected to complete during the time we weren’t at school. We were told that we were assigned homework because it was necessary, because it would instill in us a work ethic and study skills that we’d need to be productive adults–and that’s to say nothing of how effective homework was at helping us to grasp the complicated nuances of the subjects that we were learning in school. We needed the extra practice, right?

Well, perhaps not.

Some researchers are beginning to question the validity of homework as a tool that actually helps students. First, a focus on homework completion is potentially regressive–that is, it hurts students from vulnerable populations. Think students struggling with poverty, students lacking parental support, students with learning needs, and students from racial groups that have been long neglected by our educational systems. Additionally, there is research that shows that there really is no correlation between homework and student academic performance, at least for most elementary school students. Homework’s impact on academic performance increases for middle and high school students.

There are other issues as well. Many students from those targeted or marginalized populations attend schools that give students large homework loads, assuming that the homework will reinforce skills learned in classrooms. But the teachers aren’t always available to assist students with homework, and the parents or support systems aren’t always available for these students. The issue becomes that these students cannot comprehend their homework assignments, and thus, can’t complete them–or if the homework is complete, it’s not necessarily correct.

Many community organizations are attempting to remedy this by offering homework help to the students that they serve. Their aim is to help the students and reduce the amount of time that the students will have to spend on homework while at home, freeing up students’ time so that they can spend it relaxing or with their family. For middle and high school students, this homework help can be very valuable. However, as we said above, complete homework isn’t necessarily correct homework, and struggling students who receive help that is incorrect or learn ineffective habits can actually exacerbate their achievement problems.

Also, there’s evidence that many organizations just don’t have the staff necessary to ensure that every child receives an equal amount of homework assistance. When the ratio of staff to student is 1 staff member for every 25 students, there isn’t really any hope of individualized help, which means that homework–and homework help–can become a game of completion rather than a tool that eventually helps students become more proficient in their areas of study.

Is there a solution? Not a simple one.

A focus on building comprehension skills in children, and encouraging them to engage with their work in different, more meaningful ways can go a long way toward positively effecting student achievement. Especially in the case of young children, there is not so much a need for help with specific homework assignments as there is a need for children to increase their ability to read and comprehend texts.

Young learners also would benefit from improving their communication ability. This includes their use of oral language in addition to comprehension. If they are guided toward improvement of these skills, they will gain skills necessary to meaningfully engage with their work and be empowered to communicate about not only their academic expectations, but any misunderstandings that arise.

If our goal is to make sure that our students are truly engaged readers and critical thinkers, then we have to make sure that we focus on assisting them with essential skills that will serve them throughout their academic careers–and those skills are developed from targeted reading and literacy instruction as well as homework help.