The usefulness and effectiveness of homework is a question that comes around at the start of every school year. Some Québec school boards have gone so far as to abolish it, a move viewed with regret by Thierry Karsenti, professor of education sciences at the Université de Montréal. Dr. Karsenti, holder of the Canada Research Chair in technologies in education, reviewed 300 studies on the question. He chose just over 200 for his book entitled Homework: What the research says (Original title in French: Les devoirs : ce que dit la recherche les stratégies gagnantes, l’impact des technologies), which aims at providing a better understanding of the issue in order to help teachers, parents and students make homework “a positive, beneficial experience,” the author told University Affairs.
University Affairs: Why did you take an interest in the homework question?
Thierry Karsenti: It’s currently a hot topic. Students don’t like homework, and parents see it as a source of conflict at home. Teachers don’t quite know where to stand – we often forget, but homework can saddle teachers with an excessive workload.
Several school boards in Québec have come out against homework, claiming that it doesn’t help students to succeed. But is it possible that more work is not good for success? We asked ourselves the question, and we wanted to get to the bottom of the matter, to find out whether or not homework has an impact on success. We also wanted to understand all the nuances surrounding the question of school homework.
What conclusions did you come to? Is homework beneficial?
T.K.: Overall, homework does have a positive impact on success. When we separate primary from secondary school, homework becomes one of the factors that has the greatest impact on kids’ success. In one of the larger meta-analyses on the subject, the author, John Hattie, talks of a 0.64 fact impact in high school. To simplify, homework explains about 46 percent of academic success in high school; that’s a lot. In primary school, the connection is much weaker, but it’s still positive. Some media have misinterpreted this finding: Hattie did not say that the impact of homework in primary school was negative, or zero; he said that the impact was “around zero.” But “around zero” does not mean “negative ”! And to be able to do homework in high school, students have to have had some practice, and that’s why it’s important to start homework in primary school.
This is why we wanted to undertake this research. It must be remembered that the guidelines we provide are not to be taken as absolute rules. Teachers’ discernment must come into play. Nevertheless, these studies are important because they provide what we call conclusive data. But both teachers and parents need to understand that “conclusive data” is not always synonymous with irrefutable proof – particularly in human sciences. So we have to find a balance between the data and teachers’ practical knowledge.
Most people ask, “Is homework good, or isn’t it?” We say: that’s not the right question to ask! Homework is good, but it depends on the type, how it is given, and how long it takes.
How can homework be beneficial?
T.K: We isolated a dozen factors that are especially important if students are to get the full benefit from their homework. For example, homework must not take too much time, and it must be neither too easy nor too difficult. In addition, social differences must not be highlighted: if we set work that is too difficult, only the most advantaged children, those who have the greatest resources at home, will be able to do it. We have to give homework where children, and not parents, are really in charge of the work (which is not the case when the exercise is too complex). Homework has to motivate children, by giving them choices, by making them feel more competent, which ultimately favours success.
There are also other positive elements to homework. Homework allows teachers to create links with parents, to establish a connection between school and home, and it helps students become more organized. Some improve by collaborating with other students – an important skill to develop, and one which will be useful in secondary school, at CÉGEP and at university.
How do you explain that a country like Finland, where children do practically no homework, can have such a high success rate?
T.K: Let’s be clear, Finland has never abolished homework. In addition, students in difficulty must participate in remediation, which can be seen as a form of homework.
In your view, what would be the “ideal” quantity or type of homework?
T.K: This is something that is very complex to determine, but we have designed a table giving time guidelines. Incidentally, a lot of the guidelines were inspired by Finland! These are not rules or laws, but guidelines: the art of teaching, of setting homework, cannot be ruled by research. Research must serve as a reference point to inform practice. So our table is designed to counter the fact that some teachers give much too much (or too little) homework: in grade 5, some students have two hours of homework to do in the evening! This is far too much: research shows that homework that is too time-consuming has a demotivating effect that will transfer onto everything connected with school. In our table, for example, we recommend 30 minutes of homework in grade 6, and not necessarily every evening.
What do you say to critics who assert that it would be better to replace homework with a short period of study or reading?
T.K: The term “homework” covers a number of things: homework, lessons – they’re the same thing. A short reading period at home is homework! There are a great many studies to show that in primary school, academic success is closely tied to reading. French is the exam with the lowest success rate in Québec; in math, 30 to 35 percent of the mark can be explained by comprehension of the wording. Not enough reading is done at school, so we must read at home. In short, homework is school work that we do at home.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.