High School Homework Load

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This won’t come as any surprise to many teenagers but here goes: A new study finds that a heavy homework load negatively impacts the lives of high school students in upper middle-class communities, resulting in excess stress, physical problems and little or no time for leisure.

What’s too much homework? According to the study, published in the Journal of Experimental Education, 4,317 students in  10 high-performing California high schools — six private and four public — had an average of 3.1 hours of homework a night. (I know high school kids who do close to twice that amount.)

Homework is one of those perennial topics about which there are many “expert” opinions on its benefits and drawbacks but no conclusive body of research proving either side. What research there is casts big doubt on the notion that a lot of homework is a good thing — and indicates that any homework other than reading in elementary school has benefit. Harris Cooper, a well-known homework researcher, who is a professor of education and psychology at Duke University, says that no more than two hours of homework a night should be assigned to students in high school. Author Alfie Kohn argues that there is no research to show that homework in elementary and middle school has any benefit and that the correlation between homework and academic achievement in high school is at best weak. So this is the context in which this latest study was conducted.

The researchers  set out to look at the relationship between homework load and student well-being in the upper middle class advantaged communities (where median household income is more than $90,000, and 93 percent of students go to college) because it is there that homework is largely accepted as having value. The study notes that there are limitations to the sample of students used in the study — with all of them attending privileged, high-performing schools — but they said they felt it was worthwhile to investigate the stresses of homework on this population of students.

The co-authors of the study are Mollie Galloway of Lewis and Clark College, an assistant professor who is the director of research and assessment for the graduate school of education; Denise Pope, a senior lecturer at the Stanford Graduate School of Education;  and Jerusha Conner, an assistant professor of education at Villanova University. Their report says:

“Our findings on the effects of homework challenge the traditional assumption that homework is “inherently good” (Gill & Schlossman, 2001, p. 27), and instead suggest that researchers, practitioners, students, and parents unpack why the default practice of assigning heavy homework loads  exists, in the face of evidence of its negative effects.”

To conduct the study they used data from surveys as well as the answers to open-ended questions to explore student well-being, attitudes about homework and engagement in school.  The mean age of the participants was 15.7 years, with ninth graders representing the largest sample, 28.1 percent. Tenth graders were 22.8 percent; eleventh graders, 23.6 percent; and seniors 19.4 percent; while 6.2 percent did not report their grade level. About 85 percent self-reported their ethnicity: 48 percent were European American; 38 percent Asian or Asian American; 4 percent Hispanic; 2 percent African American, and 0.5 percent Native American. Ten and a half percent of students checked multiple categories or “other,” and 4 percent did not mark anything in this category.

Also, no relationship was found between the time spent on homework and how much the student enjoyed it. The research quoted students as saying they often do homework they see as “pointless” or “mindless” in order to keep their grades up.

Their study found that most students said their homework is only “somewhat useful” in helping them learn the material and prepare for tests. But it leads to a host of problems, the study says:

* Stress.
–Less than 1 percent said homework was not a stressor, and 56 percent indicated homework is a primary cause of stress.
–Forty three percent listed tests as a primary stressor
–About 33 percent listed grades and/or getting good grades as a primary stressor.
–More than 15 percent reported parental expectations and the college application process as stresses.

* Health Issues Consequences
–Many students wrote that homework causes them to sleep less than they should and leads to “headaches, exhaustion, sleep deprivation, weight loss and stomach problems” as well as a lack of balance in their lives.

Most experienced distress and/or lacked time to engage in important life tasks outside of school. The majority (72%) reported being often or always stressed over schoolwork …and many reported that they experienced physical symptoms due to stress (82% reported experiencing at least one physical symptom in the past month, with 44% of the sample experiencing three or more symptoms). Overall, students reported getting less sleep than the National Sleep Foundation’s (2000) recommended 8.5 to 9.25 hours per night for healthy adolescent development. On average, students in our sample reported 6.80 hours of sleep on school nights … and 68% stated that schoolwork often or always kept them from getting enough sleep each night. Many (63%) reported that the amount of work they received often or always made it challenging to spend time with family and friends, and a similar percent (61%) indicated that they had been forced to drop an activity they enjoyed because of their school workload.

* Engagement
— Time spent on homework
— There was no relationship between “homework hours and students’ enjoyment of schoolwork, and open-ended responses revealed students will often do work they see as ‘pointless,’ ‘useless’ and ‘mindless’ because their grades will be affected if they do not.”

Students who spent more hours on homework tended to be more behaviorally engaged in school, but were simultaneously more stressed about their school work and tended to report more physical symptoms due to stress, fewer hours of sleep on school nights, less ability to get enough sleep, and less ability to make time for friends and family.

From the report:

Part of the study says:

No time for anything but school. The voices of these students reflect a primary challenge faced by many in our study:  if students have several hours of homework per night, how can they find time for other endeavors in their lives (including extracurricular activities, leisure, and social time)?  Some expressed that they “never seem to have enough time.”  One adolescent stated:

Now I understand the expression “not enough hours in a day.”  In a day, I want to be able to do homework/study, have time with friends and family, and do activities that are important to me.  I don’t always feel I have enough time for this, and I feel pressured.

Because of homework load, tests, and quizzes, students reported, for example:

  • I have no life other than school; that is my life.
  • Homework…is all I have time for; there’s never a time where you’re not thinking about [it].
  • There is hardly any time for me to enjoy being a kid when I have to go to school all day and then go home and do homework all night.

Students recognized that spending so much time on homework meant that they were not meeting their developmental needs or cultivating other critical life skills.  One questioned, “Most people have no social life because of all the homework they do; how is that helping them in the real world?”  Another explained, “I’m struggling between trying to maintain [my grades, but] more to maintain my identity, soul, and sanity!  Teachers don’t seem to teach students that there’s more to life than…hours of homework a night.”

The inability to balance or juggle the overload of homework, along with the number of other out-of-school activities or interests was the single most-often provided response by students when describing homework as a stressor (30% mentioned this lack of balance due to homework).  One student described her homework load as “plenty manageable… If I never try to do anything else!”

Studies of typical homework loads vary: In one, a Stanford researcher found that more than two hours of homework a night may be counterproductive. The research, conducted among students from 10 high-performing high schools in upper-middle-class California communities, found that too much homework resulted in stress, physical health problems and a general lack of balance.

This conclusion aligns with the National PTA and National Education Association recommendations  of 10 minutes of homework per grade level per night, maxing out at 120 minutes for high school seniors. And the 2014 Brown Center Report on American Education, found that with the exception of nine-year-olds, the amount of homework schools assign has remained relatively unchanged since 1984.

But student experiences don’t always match these results. On our own Student Life in America survey, over 50% of students reported feeling stressed, 25% reported that homework was their biggest source of stress, and on average teens are spending one-third of their study time feeling stressed, anxious, or stuck.

The disparity can be explained in one of the conclusions regarding the Brown Report:

Of the three age groups, 17-year-olds have the most bifurcated distribution of the homework burden.  They have the largest percentage of kids with no homework (especially when the homework shirkers are added in) and the largest percentage with more than two hours.

So what does that mean for parents who still endure the homework wars at home?

It means that sometimes kids who are on a rigorous college-prep track, probably are receiving more homework, but the statistics are melding it with the kids who are receiving no homework.  And on our survey, 64% of students reported that their parents couldn’t help them with their work. This is where the real homework wars lie—not just the amount, but the ability to successfully complete assignments and feel success.

Parents want to figure out how to help their children manage their homework stress and learn the material.

Our Top 4 Tips for Ending Homework Wars

  • 1. Have a routine.

    Every parenting advice article you will ever read emphasizes the importance of a routine. There’s a reason for that: it works. A routine helps put order into an often disorderly world. It removes the thinking and arguing and “when should I start?” because that decision has already been made. While routines must be flexible to accommodate soccer practice on Tuesday and volunteer work on Thursday, knowing in general when and where you, or your child, will do homework literally removes half the battle.

  • 2. Have a battle plan.

    Overwhelmed students look at a mountain of homework and think “insurmountable.” But parents can look at it with an outsider’s perspective and help them plan. Put in an extra hour Monday when you don’t have soccer. Prepare for the AP Chem test on Friday a little at a time each evening so Thursday doesn’t loom as a scary study night (consistency and repetition will also help lock the information in your brain). Start reading the book for your English report so that it’s underway. Go ahead and write a few sentences, so you don’t have a blank page staring at you. Knowing what the week will look like helps you keep calm and carry on.

  • 3. Don’t be afraid to call in reserves.

    You can’t outsource the “battle” but you can outsource the help! We find that kids just do better having someone other than their parents help them—and sometimes even parents with the best of intentions aren’t equipped to wrestle with complicated physics problem. At The Princeton Review, we specialize in making homework time less stressful. Our tutors are available 24/7 to work one-to-one in an online classroom with a chat feature, interactive whiteboard, and the file sharing tool, where students can share their most challenging assignments.

  • 4. Celebrate victories—and know when to surrender.

    Students and parents can review completed assignments together at the end of the night -- acknowledging even small wins helps build a sense of accomplishment. If you’ve been through a particularly tough battle, you’ll also want to reach reach a cease-fire before hitting your bunk. A war ends when one person disengages. At some point, after parents have provided a listening ear, planning, and support, they have to let natural consequences take their course. And taking a step back--and removing any pressure a parent may be inadvertently creating--can be just what’s needed.


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The Staff of The Princeton Review

For more than 35 years, students and families have trusted The Princeton Review to help them get into their dream schools. We help students succeed in high school and beyond by giving them resources for better grades, better test scores, and stronger college applications. Follow us on Twitter: @ThePrincetonRev.

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