Consider a classic scene, repeated countless times every night: A student has lugged home a backpack loaded with five or six heavy textbooks. She opens one up - her assignment is to read fifteen pages and answer a set of questions at the end of the chapter. Maybe she skims through the pages, or perhaps she turns directly to the questions. She reads the first one, turns back to the chapter to find the answer, and dutifully writes it down. She repeats this for the rest of the questions, closes the book with relief, and turns to the next subject’s homework. Tomorrow she will turn the homework in, the teacher will acknowledge that she did it - possibly by rewarding her with some points - the class will go over the answers together, and tomorrow night she will repeat the process.
Perhaps this student learned something in the process, but that wasn’t really the point for her. Completing the homework is an essential part of earning good grades. She is successfully doing school. Unfortunately, what she has completed is a simulation of learning - it only looks like the real thing.
This discouraging and highly ineffective process is a mainstay in the lives of many students. And those are the successful ones. As every teacher knows, the unsuccessful students often lack the motivation to do even that much work. For many teachers, the fact that a student completes all her homework is evidence that she is learning the material, and of course, that does sometimes happen. But when homework is experienced as busywork - an extremely common experience for many students - learning is a fringe benefit. Doing hours of homework every night does not ensure that any significant learning has taken place.
When students perceive homework as meaningful and useful, it becomes a powerful tool in the learning process. Being much more effective, even small doses have a large impact on mastery. It’s worth noting that in Finland - whose educational system is consistently ranked the most successful- students average less than a half hour of homework per night.
The good news is that rethinking the purpose of homework and grounding it in a culture of learning, can transform it into the powerful tool it should be. For more on how this can be done, see “Reframing Student Work”.