Fully 83.8 per cent of the pupils participating in a homework-free school pilot project reported that they got bored with school because of the homework. More than half of the parents preferred an arrangement with an extended school day and no homework. Photo: Idun Haugan/NTNU

How useful or necessary is homework?

This topic is one of several addressed in an updated Norwegian Education Act that is currently out for comments. Several researchers are sceptical about the benefits of homework.

We are used to homework being part of a school’s learning programme, but homework is not mandated by the state and is only one of several options that schools have.

The Education Act currently includes no clear authorization that provides for assigning homework. It is therefore up to individual municipalities, schools and teachers whether they want to use homework as part of the educational scheme.

The Norwegian Ministry of Education believes that the new Education Act should specify that an individual school can require students to do assignments and homework outside of school hours.

University and college sector researchers and teachers in the field of pedagogy met to discuss and submit their comment response to the proposed new Education Act.

They stated, “We wonder what knowledge basis the Ministry is referring to with this statement. A decision authorizing homework would be a serious setback for the development of homework-free/homework-aware schools and especially for researching the topic.”

More about their input is included later in this article.

Changed opinion about homework usefulness

Opinions about homework in school vary widely, and more study is needed on the effect that homework has on learning. A research project at NTNU on homework-free schools has captured interesting results.

Photo of Per Egil Mjaavatn

Photo: Elin Iversen/ NTNU

Per Egil Mjaavatn (pictured) is a researcher and associate professor affiliated with NTNU. He previously supported homework as a positive tool for the learning outcomes of children and youth. During the course of the research project, he changed his mind.

Mjaavatn wrote the final report as part of the group at NTNU that evaluated a homework-free project in Trondheim.

Need more knowledge

The city council in Trondheim wanted to try out a homework-free project in some of the city’s elementary schools in order to gain experience with a different way of working in schools. NTNU’s Department of Education and Lifelong Learning was asked to evaluate the experiment.

The purpose of the project was to improve the knowledge base about attitudes towards and experiences with homework in primary school – and about the effects of homework.

Although the homework-free project had to be scaled back and eventually discontinued due to the COVID pandemic, the researchers made several interesting discoveries.

In the 2019/2020 school year, Flatåsen and Stabbursmoen schools were homework-free with two extra school hours a week, while Byåsen and Romulslia schools were homework-free with no change in the timetable. All four schools were in Trondheim municipality. Four control schools that gave traditional homework assignments as well as homework help at school were also involved in the trial project. Pupils in 5th through 7th grade participated.

Homework-free option reduced family conflicts

Ninety per cent of the children in the schools with no homework experienced having more time to spend with family and friends. They also found that the level of conflict at home was less, as did more than half of the parents.

“Fewer conflicts around homework, no need to fuss and follow up on whether homework was done. Better atmosphere in the home” (parent of child in homework-free school with an extended school day).

“Good for the family, but little control over my child’s development” (parent of child in a homework-free school with an extended school day).

“There was less arguing about homework and when it had to be done. But I also think that the school hours should be extended if the no-homework policy continues next year” (parent of child in a homework-free school).

Does homework promote or inhibit motivation?

Photo shows excerpt from homework notebook.

Excerpt from homework notebook. Photo: Idun Haugan/NTNU

A lot of students are tired of homework. A whopping 83.8 per cent of the pupils who took part in the trial project responded that they get bored with school because of the homework.

Fewer than half the teachers believed that homework helps make pupils more interested in their schoolwork. The majority of parents (79 per cent) and teachers (89 per cent) believed that giving pupils homework is primarily dictated by tradition in Norwegian schools.

Some parents reported in their comments that pupils became more motivated about school and performed better during the homework-free period. Other parents said the opposite: the lack of homework made pupil motivation and performance worse.

Parents with an immigrant background were more positive about homework than the parent average.

Girls missed homework

Only 28 per cent of the pupils in the homework-free schools believed that homework is necessary for them to learn everything that is expected of them. Twenty per cent responded that they missed homework, and especially the girls at the homework-free schools missed having homework.

In the control schools with traditional homework, 70 per cent of the pupils would prefer not to have homework, yet 74.5 per cent of these pupils agreed with the statement that homework is necessary for learning.

Mathematics seems to be in a special position: a clear majority in all three informant groups believed that mathematics homework is necessary to get enough problem-solving practice.

Parents and teachers prefer different solutions

More than half of the parents would like to have an arrangement with an extended school day and no homework. Such a solution would satisfy both their desire for no homework and less homework stress at home.

A clear majority of the teachers preferred an ordinary school day with homework.

“Homework-free was great. I’d rather be at school longer than have problems with homework at home” (pupil at a homework-free school with an extended school day).

Does homework contribute to increased inequality?

One task of schools is to reduce social differences in society. A clear majority of parents (75 per cent) believed that homework leads to greater differences between children of parents with different educational backgrounds.

The teachers disagreed with the parents in this regard. Only 39 per cent of the teachers believed that homework contributes to increased differences between children with different socio-economic backgrounds.

Homework should be a repetition of familiar material. Nevertheless, 95 per cent of the pupils answered that they got help at home to do their homework in Norwegian and mathematics.

“In other words, students aren’t able to do a lot of the homework that’s being assigned on their own, which seems demotivating. The pupils who had homework were less interested in these subjects than the pupils who didn’t have homework,” says Mjaavatn.

Seventy-five per cent of parents said they had to help their children with homework.

“Parents have different levels of preparation for helping their children with homework, and this can result in different learning conditions for children,” says Mjaavatn.

A majority of parents believed that homework also leads to greater differences between students’ academic levels.

Here too, the parent responses differed from those of the teachers. Only a third of the teachers shared the parents’ opinion.

How much time should children spend on homework?

Parents expect more homework with increasing age. The parents’ responses differed significantly here, with fathers wanting more time per week for homework than mothers.

Teachers’ homework expectations were slightly higher than those of parents in terms of what they perceive to be an appropriate amount of time spent on homework in a normal school week. On average, the teachers suggested 3.27 hours per week for 5th graders and 3.55 hours for 7th graders.

Responses scattered

The researchers write in their report that they do not have impact measures that can show whether the homework-free project had an effect on the pupils’ effort and learning.

“But we’ve gained an understanding of the opinions held by pupils, parents and teachers on this issue. The answers vary widely, and we’ve concluded that the question of whether homework promotes learning and motivation depends on whom you ask.”

The research group consisted of Professor Per Frostad, Associate Professor Jan Arvid Haugan, Professor Vegard Johansen and Associate Professor Per Egil Mjaavatn

The full evaluative report is available in Norwegian: Report no. 3 Final report 10.03.21

Wrong kind of homework causes problems

“The main problem with homework is that far too little thought is given to what the homework should be and what its purpose is. Pupils are often assigned homework that they don’t have the prerequisite skills for, and then the payoff tends to be meagre. That’s often the cause of problems at home,” according to Thomas Dahl, a professor in NTNU’s Programme for Teacher Education, in a previous Gemini article.

“Homework is not an important topic in most teacher education programmes, either. Education students receive little instruction in how to use homework in an effective way,” says Dahl.

New Education Act

Now, back to the new Norwegian Education Act, which is out for consultation. Just over 30 pedagogical researchers and teachers in the university and college sector have gathered to craft a response relating to homework in particular.

Elisabeth Rønningen, a senior lecturer in pedagogy at NTNU and Kjersti Lien Holte, an associate professor in pedagogy at Østfold University College, were responsible for writing the text.Photo of Elisabeth Rønningen.

“The answer to the question of whether homework is useful and necessary depends on who is to do it and for what purpose. Whose perspectives are taken into account when issues relating to homework are formulated? Homework is a complex phenomenon that involves a lot of different actors,” says Elisabeth Rønningen (pictured) at NTNU.

Here are excerpts from the researchers’ and teachers’ consultation response:

How teachers justify their views on homework

A qualitative study that examined how and why teachers give homework in elementary school showed that teachers justify homework by saying that:

  • homework provides more learning.
  • pupils should make the learning their own.
  • homework helps students develop good work habits.
  • homework is a good way to collaborate with children’s homes.
  • schools depend on parent participation to meet all the competency targets.
  • homework gives students time and peace to reflect on, repeat and automate their basic skills.

Thin knowledge base

The problem is that the knowledge base for these justifications is very thin, write the researchers in their consultation response. For example, research shows no clear connection between homework and learning.

Australian school researcher John Hattie refers to 161 studies which conclude that homework has little or no effect on learning, least of all in primary school.

The literature review on homework research from the Norwegian Directorate of Education and Training (UDIR, 2021) includes no reference to studies that can document a strong connection between homework and pupils’ learning. The review states that Norway showed no significant correlation between the time pupils spend on homework and their results in mathematics, according to the PISA survey.

Homework can lead to poor work habits

Nor does the research show any clear connection between homework and the development of good work habits in pupils. Harris Cooper et al. shows in his research summary that homework can lead to developing bad work habits just as well as good ones in pupils.

Homework can lead to rushing assignments, doing tasks with little commitment and care, copying from the internet or getting others to do the tasks for them.

Reference: Cooper, H., Robinson, J., & Patall, E. (2006). Does Homework Improve Academic Achievement? A Synthesis of Research, 1987–2003. Review of Educational Research.

Stress and conflict-filled family relationships

In the comment response from the pedagogical researchers and teachers, a knowledge base is therefore called for that clearly shows a connection between homework and the development of good work habits if it is to be used as an argument for the Education Act to authorize schools to be able to require pupils to do school work after school hours.

The practice of giving homework assignments can be counterproductive. Holte’s research from 2016 showed that homework can contribute to destroying positive and close relationships between parents and children, because homework can lead to increased stress levels and conflict-filled relationships at home.

Reference: Homework in Primary school: Could it be made more child-friendly?

In their comment response, the researchers and teachers propose that the wording of the new law be changed to:

The school cannot require pupils to do assignments outside of school hours (homework).

A formulation like this sets a clear boundary against a teaching practice for which no good knowledge base exists and which can have very negative consequences both at an individual and societal level. This formulation is most in line with the knowledge base we have today, the researchers write.

Read the full consultation response by pedagogical researchers and teachers (in Norwegian).

Should all learning happen at school or is homework important, too? Photo: Elin Iversen/NTNU