If you made it past the headline, you’re likely a student, concerned parent, teacher or, like me, a nerd nostalgist who enjoys basking in the distant glow of Homework Triumphs Past (second-grade report on Custer’s Last Stand, nailed it!).

Whoever you are, you’re surely hoping for some clarity in the loud, perennial debate over whether U.S. students are justifiably exhausted and nervous from too much homework — even though some international comparisons suggest they’re sitting comfortably at the average.

Well, here goes. I’ve mapped out six, research-based polestars that should help guide you to some reasonable conclusions about homework.

How much homework do U.S. students get?

The best answer comes from something called the National Assessment of Educational Progress or NAEP. In 2012, students in three different age groups — 9, 13 and 17 — were asked, “How much time did you spend on homework yesterday?” The vast majority of 9-year-olds (79 percent) and 13-year-olds (65 percent) and still a majority of 17-year-olds (53 percent) all reported doing an hour or less of homework the day before.

Source: Met Life Survey of the American Teacher, The Homework Experience, 2007.
Source: Met Life Survey of the American Teacher, The Homework Experience, 2007. (LA Johnson/NPR)

Another study from the National Center for Education Statistics found that high school students who reported doing homework outside of school did, on average, about seven hours a week.

If you’re hungry for more data on this — and some perspective — check out this exhaustive report put together last year by researcher Tom Loveless at the Brookings Institution.

An hour or less a day? But we hear so many horror stories! Why?

The fact is, some students do have a ton of homework. In high school we see a kind of student divergence — between those who choose or find themselves tracked into less-rigorous coursework and those who enroll in honors classes or multiple Advanced Placement courses. And the latter students are getting a lot of homework. In that 2012 NAEP survey, 13 percent of 17-year-olds reported doing more than two hours of homework the previous night. That’s not a lot of students, but they’re clearly doing a lot of work.

That also tracks with a famous survey from 2007 — from MetLife — that asked parents what they think of their kids’ homework load. Sixty percent said it was just right. Twenty-five percent said their kids are getting too little. Just 15 percent of parents said their kids have too much homework.

Source: OECD, PISA 2012 Database, Table IV.3.48.
Source: OECD, PISA 2012 Database, Table IV.3.48. (LA Johnson/NPR)

Research also suggests that the students doing the most work have something else in common: income. “I think that the debate over homework in some ways is a social class issue,” says Janine Bempechat, professor of human development at Wheelock College. “There’s no question that in affluent communities, children are really over-taxed, over-burdened with homework.”

But the vast majority of students do not seem to have inordinate workloads. And the ones who do are generally volunteering for the tough stuff. That doesn’t make it easier, but it does make it a choice.

Do we know how much homework students in other countries are doing?

Sort of. Caveats abound here. Education systems and perceptions of what is and isn’t homework can vary remarkably overseas. So any comparison is, to a degree, apples-to-oranges (or, at least, apples-to-pears). A 2012 report from the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development pegged the U.S. homework load for 15-year-olds at around six hours per week. That’s just above the study’s average. It found that students in Hong Kong are also doing about six hours a week. Much of Europe checks in between four and five hours a week. In Japan, it’s four hours. And Korea’s near the bottom, at three hours.

How much homework is too much?

Better yet, how much is just right? Harris Cooper at Duke University has done some of the best work on homework. He and his team reviewed dozens of studies, from 1987 to 2003, looking for consensus on what works and what doesn’t. A common rule of thumb, he says, is what’s called the 10-minute rule. Take the child’s grade and multiply by 10. So first-graders should have roughly 10 minutes of homework a night, 40 minutes for fourth-graders, on up to two hours for seniors in high school. A lot of of schools use this. Even the National PTA officially endorses it.

Homework clearly improves student performance, right?

Not necessarily. It depends on the age of the child. Looking over the research, there’s little to no evidence that homework improves student achievement in elementary school. Then again, the many experts I spoke with all said the same thing: The point of homework in those primary grades isn’t entirely academic. It’s about teaching things like time-management and self-direction.

But, by high school the evidence shifts. Harris Cooper’s massive review found, in middle and high school, a positive correlation between homework and student achievement on unit tests. It seems to help. But more is not always better. Cooper points out that, depending on the subject and the age of the student, there is a law of diminishing returns. Again, he recommends the 10-minute rule.

What kinds of homework seem to be most effective?

This is where things get really interesting. Because homework should be about learning, right? To understand what kinds of homework best help kids learn, we really need to talk about memory and the brain.

Let’s start with something called the spacing effect. Say a child has to do a vocabulary worksheet. The next week, it’s a new worksheet with different words and so on. Well, research shows that the brain is better at remembering when we repeat with consistency, not when we study in long, isolated chunks of time. Do a little bit of vocabulary each night, repeating the same words night after night.

Similarly, a professor of psychology at Washington University in St. Louis, Henry “Roddy” Roediger III, recommends that teachers give students plenty of little quizzes, which he says strengthen the brain’s ability to remember. Don’t fret. They can be low-stakes or no-stakes, says Roediger: It’s the steady recall and repetition that matter. He also recommends, as homework, that students try testing themselves instead of simply re-reading the text or class notes.

There’s also something known as interleaving. This is big in the debate over math homework. Many of us — myself included — learned math by focusing on one concept at a time, doing a worksheet to practice that concept, then moving on.

Well, there’s evidence that students learn more when homework requires them to choose among multiple strategies — new and old — when solving problems. In other words, kids learn when they have to draw not just from what they learned in class that day but that week, that month, that year.

One last note: Experts agree that homework should generally be about reinforcing what students learned in class (this is especially true in math). Sometimes it can — and should — be used to introduce new material, but here’s where so many horror stories begin.

Tom Loveless, a former teacher, offers this advice: “I don’t think teachers should ever send brand-new material that puts the parent in the position of a teacher. That’s a disaster. My own personal philosophy was: Homework is best if it’s material that requires more practice but they’ve already received initial instruction.”

Or, in the words of the National PTA: “Homework that cannot be done without help is not good homework.”

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


What Kinds of Homework Seem to be Most Effective? 22 September,2015MindShift

  • James Abbott

    About Korea: While it may be true that in Korea students do less homework that in the U.S, I believe that it is also true that parents put their kids into many different educational settings outside of the regular school day. Having worked with Korean students for several years now, I see that students often go to “academies” after school and on the weekends to reinforce native languages, second languages, math, science, arts, etc. So while they may not have “homework” as much as US students do, they may be doing a lot more work in different contexts.

    • HyeYoung Jung

      I agree. I was suprised to see Korea at the bottom. I was born and raised in Korea, and I usually came back home 1 or 2 am during high school days. Weekends were not an exception. I could stand it since everyone else did it too. I don’t think I can do it again though. Now I think I had not been busy with homework. Teacher were well aware that students studied their butt off anyways. Even if teachers don’t give any homework, preview and review are a must to get a high score.

  • KryBaby

    I’m sorry, but I was distracted by the double negative of that last line, a quote from the National PTA no less. It makes their point about as clear as mud, and leaves me questioning, are they in favor of homework, and should parents be involved or not?

  • Holden B.

    Hi, I’m in the 8th grade, I believe that we are not charged with to much home work whatsoever. Right now i am doing anywhere from 2-4 hours a Home work a night, and that’s fine with me because the harder we work for the next 12-18 years at my age the more successful of a life we will have. And if america wants to get out of being the 26th smartest country in the world, I think a little more home work will help us get to a better position as a country. And if you think i am all about school you would be wrong, I play on a club basketball team and we have many commitments, like anywhere from 3-8 games a weekend usually winning most of them and a couple of practices a week. But what i am really trying to say is that kid’s my age should be doing more homework because all the smart technology is ruining some crucial qualities, one being speech. I can’t have a real conversation with most kids because there locked into their phone screen. So lets do MORE homework and grow a thriving generation that dosen’t rely on a smartphone to survive, the previous one’s did just great.

  • Deborah Dwyer

    Can anyone point me to the research on the 10-minute rule?

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