Does Homework Help Students Learn Better Outside Classroom

"Learning doesn't have to be just academic."

Trevor Nelson-- a 5th grade teacher at Spanger Elementary in Roseville-- has a 'no homework' policy. He said he prefers his students to go home and learn from activities like cooking, reading and music instead of doing stacks of assignments.

Nelson isn't alone in applying a homework-free practice to his classroom curriculum. A Texas teacher recently sent a letter home with her students, letting parents know that there would be no homework assignments for the school year. A parent posted the note on Facebook on Aug. 16 and it quickly went viral, with parents sharing their opinions on the policy. The Texas teacher, like Nelson, instead encouraged alternative activities for children to do at home.

Does homework help or hurt children?

The debate is ongoing – without a solid black or white conclusion. At the beginning of his teaching career,

Nelson said he would get calls from parents saying they were up late hours of the night doing homework with their kids. That's when he decided to a little of his own homework.

"I started to do more research. I started to read articles saying elementary school homework doesn't do anything for [the students]." Nelson said.

A Review of Educational Research published in 2006 found homework does have a positive effect on student achievement but the correlation depends on the student's age. Homework has a more positive effect on secondary students from grades 7 through 12, according to the study's lead writer, Harris Cooper – who is a professor of psychology and director of Duke's Program in Education – as well as one of the nation's lead homework researchers. The study found younger children have less effective study habits and 'burn out' easier, so a heavy load of homework is not as beneficial.

Younger children should be given shorter homework assignments and participate in out-of-school activities such as sports or reading of their interest, according to Cooper's study.

Nelson agrees.

"Students can learn outside the classroom," Nelson said. "It's called continued learning."

Children should learn about responsibility, such as caring for a pet, according to Nelson. At-home or outside activities can help teach responsibility, similar to a chore. Nelson believes learning responsibility helps prepare younger students for homework in higher grades.

For as much praise a "no homework" policy receives, the idea is slammed by others. Many parents are stuck in their old ways, and are used to seeing a lot of homework, according to Nelson.

Although a 'no homework' policy carries varying perspectives, there is a common practice standard upheld in American schools.

The National PTA and National Education Association homework guidelines fall in line with Cooper's study.

Research finds 10 to 20 minutes of homework per night in the first grade is appropriate, with an additional 10 minutes per grade level thereafter. High school students should typically receive a little more, according to Cooper. The study found that beyond the maximum of about two hours, students don't absorb much information. Too much homework can in fact be harmful, according to Cooper.

The ASCD (formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) supports the Educational Research study which states that when used appropriately, homework benefits student achievements, depending on age and quality of homework. Homework should have purpose and be designed to maximize success rate, according to the ASCD.

When younger students aren't given homework and are encouraged to engage in other extra-curricular activities, it brings up other questions and issues.

The National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP) states, there are more than 72 million children under 18 years old in the U.S. About 45 percent – 32.4 million – live in low-income families while 22 percent – 16.1 million – live in poor families.

A 'no homework' policy may pose a limitation to alternative homework activities in the case a child doesn't have parent guidance at home, or the financial means to engage in some of the activities recommended by the research study.

There's little research on whether a student's race, socioeconomic status or ability level affects the importance of homework in his or her achievement, according to Cooper.

As the great homework debate continues, many teachers, like Nelson, are standing their ground.

"I don't want [students] to have homework," Nelson said. "What's important is to go home and read nightly."

Copyright 2016 KXTV

Being a student myself for most of the 70s and 80s and a mother of a recent high-school graduate, I empathize with the argument that homework assignments are often random and can take unrealistic amounts of time to complete. With that in mind, I frequently consider the homework I assign to my own first graders. As each new school year approaches I weigh the purpose of the assignments and consider if they are making a positive impact not only in my students learning, but also in my students home school connection with their parents.

To be a successful teacher, I endeavor to empower my students with the confidence and knowledge to succeed in their academic and personal lives. I teach at a Title I school, where 93 percent of our students are profiled as economically disadvantaged and 66 percent of our students labeled at-risk. Many of the students I have worked with throughout my 10 years at Metz live in single parent homes with multiple siblings. Some students had one or both parents incarcerated, live in shelters because of homelessness or were removed from their home situation.

Even with these deficits, our school still manages to attain recognized and commended performance levels on Texas state tests. Our staff and students work very hard for their successes. To further contribute to these successes, I continually seek innovative ways to bring quality learning to my students in and outside of the classroom.  Luckily, I have always had the autonomy to choose what homework I assign to my students and I strive to create interesting and meaningful projects throughout the year that will help extend the home school connection.

The Home School Connection

One of the main goals of my homework assignments is to create opportunities for my students to interact with their parents and take time to learn about what makes themselves and their families special. At the beginning of the year, in lieu of traditional homework assignments, I focus on the student and their family. Two of the first special at home activities I assign include the Family Page Project to display during Back-to-School Night and the Baby Name Project.

The Family Page Project is a wonderful way to learn about your student's families. Parents are sent the Family Page Project letter, with instructions about how to work with their child to decorate a large piece of paper with interesting facts about their family. I find that sending an oversized piece of white construction paper works better than a large poster board, which can be overwhelming to fill. The instruction letter is filled with ideas that families can use to decorate their page, but they are encouraged to complete it any way they like. It is amazing how creative my families have been with these projects. In my third year of teaching, one of my students, Julissa, glued magazine pictures of people, but added her own families heads. It was hilarious looking, and showed that her family had a great sense of humor. This year, my student Alex and his family worked together to create an amazing family book. Another one of my students, Nathan, drew houses for all of his extended family members and glued in the faces of their dozen of cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents.

I always give the students time to present their family page in class. The things they share can be quite insightful, touching and funny. One student talked about his uncle who had died in a gang dispute. He had a lot to share about the things he used to do with his uncle and it was obvious that he missed him very much. A former student, Lily, attached pictures from a trip to Bolivia to visit her father's family and this led to an impromptu lesson on South America. This year when Kerina showed the picture of her mother that she drew she shared that her mother was going to have a baby "but she isn't ready to take it out yet!"

I always display these projects in the school hallway so everyone who attends Back-to-School Night can enjoy them. Over the years it has grown in success and families who are not even in my class come by to see the display. Two of my colleagues have begun to do this project as well, with the same enjoyment and success.

One of my other favorite family assignments is the Baby Name Project. I send home the Baby Name Project letter describing how family members can help. This project gives parents the opportunity to share with their child the origin of their name and information about the day they were born. I have to credit my own mom with inspiring this project. On every birthday when I was younger, she would tell me the story of my birth and I loved hearing every little detail. I kept the tradition up with my own son, Ian and I love setting up the opportunity for my student's parents to do the same.

You would be surprised at how many children have no idea how their name was chosen or what happened on the day they were born. I love hearing students tell their stories and I use their parents written account to help them share more details with the class. The accompanying baby photos are always a huge hit! Of course, I always bring a photo of myself as a baby and as a first grader so my students can hear my story and see what I looked like when I was their age.

What About Traditional Daily Assignments?

Research has consistently shown that parental involvement in a child's learning is a key factor in that child's achievement in school. With the reality of the test driven world of education, many parents expect what they were given in school for homework, familiar daily or weekly assignments. I do agree with the rationale behind these daily assignments: 

  • Homework reinforces skills, concepts and information learned in class.
  • Homework prepares students for upcoming class topics.
  • Homework teaches students to work independently and develop self-discipline.
  • Homework encourages students to take initiative and responsibility for completing a task.
  • Homework allows parents to have an active role in their child's education and helps them to evaluate their child's progress.
  • Homework activities relate what is learned in school to children's lives outside of school and helps to connect school learning to the real world.

But I believe these daily homework assignments should be varied and meaningful, not always rote practice work.

To encourage authentic writing for homework assignments; I use a class mascot, his sleepover bag and a journal for students to write about the mascot's visit to their home. I send home the classroom digital camera so students can photograph their home, family, special events and vacations. We print their photos on the class computer and use them to support their writing. Students interview family members for information to share with the class. We also write poetry, lists, headlines, photo captions, book reviews and more.

To reinforce practice with their word wall words, students learn how to rainbow write, triangle write, happy face write, staircase write, box it write and sort their word wall words by number of letters, syllables, and vowels. I have included a Spelling Ideas printable with examples of all of these ideas and more so you can use it with your students.

To practice math skills and problem solving I send home math games with my students to play with parents or siblings. I assign homework that can easily be modified depending on the students' level of understanding. I also have Family Game Night. Students are allowed to borrow a board game from my classroom collection to take home for the weekend. These games include a memory game from the National Museum of Art, Boggle, Clue for Kids, Scrabble for Kids and more. Students never realize that they are learning about art, counting, problem solving, reading and following directions while they're having fun.

Most importantly I want my first grade students to be reading every single night to improve their word recognition, comprehension, fluency and word attack skills. I am thankful that our school has a fantastic guided reading book library that almost all teachers at Metz use on a daily basis. This allows my students to take home the same books we read in class during guided reading, and reread them dozens of times over several weeks, improving their language arts skills. Students read the same books during independent reading time in class, so they receive further literacy support with these same books just in case an adult is unable to support their reading at home.

Even if your school doesn't have a literacy library of leveled books, you can use reading textbooks the same way, search the Internet for web sites that carry professionally developed leveled readers that you can download and print for student use such as Learning A-Z, or purchase one of the exceptional guided reading programs from Scholastic. If you are short on funding to purchase a program check out local teacher grants in your area or sign up on Donors Choose or Adopt a Classroom. 

Homework is an important time to make connections and reflect; on self, family, friends, new or familiar information, and the world beyond. What you present to your students will determine the heights they will climb to continue to maintain their academic success.  "What is more important, quantity or quality?" is a question you could ask yourself when revaluating the homework you assign to your students. Homework should be fun and full of discovery, not only your students, but for you as well!

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