Another study suggests excessive homework increases stress

A recent study has added to the research challenging the widely accepted use of homework as an education tool, this time specifically focusing on the effects of large amounts of homework on the well-being of affluent students.

The article, entitled “Nonacademic Effects of Homework in Privileged, High-Performing High Schools” was published online in the Journal of Experimental Education in July 2013 and is available here.

The study was conducted by Mollie Galloway of Lewis & Clark College, Jerusha Conner of Villanova University and Denise Pope of Stanford University.

Using regression analysis of survey data, Galloway, Conner and Pope found positive associations between the amount of time students reported they spent doing homework and the amount of stress students experienced – including exhaustion, drastic changes in weight, and headaches. Increasing time on homework also predicted increased sleep deprivation, and reduction of time spent with family, friends and doing hobbies.

The study found that more than 80 percent of students at elite schools in the survey reported experiencing at least one symptom of stress, while more than 60 percent reported homework interfering with family time or sleep.

Students reported spending a median of slightly more than three hours a week night on homework with a range between one and five hours a night.

The analysis controlled for the students’ grade level, gender, race, grade-point average and school.

The authors chose to focus on affluent students for the study because they noted that most research on the topic of homework described upper-middle class and wealthy parents as particularly enthusiastic about homework as a tool to maintain their children’s edge in academic preparation, and in the social hierarchy. The idea that homework is a tool for learning falls by the wayside under these circumstances.

In their work, Galloway, Conner and Pope also described previous research that argues homework increases disparities between rich and poor families – noting that students from wealthy families often have access to more resources, like well-educated parents, private tutors and stable family arrangements, that allow them to complete their homework more easily than their financially disadvantaged counterparts (see, for example here).

With this skeptical background on the value of homework in mind, the authors investigated to see if homework had debilitating effects on affluent students.

The study was based on surveying a sample of 4,713 students at 10 high schools in the San Francisco Bay area.  The high schools, which were a mix of public and private institutions, were in the top 20 percent performers of California schools, with more than 90 percent of students going on to attend a two- or four-year college in a state where an average of 50 percent of high school seniors do so. Household income of the median family at each school exceeded $90,000, roughly double the national median household income. The school populations were also contained considerably more whites and students of Asian descent than the average California school.

The paper did not discuss how the students were sampled within each high school, other than noting that parental consent was obtained.

Students filled out either paper or computer based questionnaires to provide data for the study. Each medium used the same questions. They described their stress levels by responding to questions asking them to describe how much sleep they got, and whether homework was interfering with time with family and friends or other activities. They also reported whether or not they had experienced any one of seven types of stress-related symptoms in the prior month, as well as their age, school, gender, race and GPA.

Galloway, Conner and Pope defended their use of student self-reports for data arguing that although students may well misreport some data systemically, it is important to take student perceptions seriously as they are the ones being most affected by homework.

In any case, the authors note that more research is needed, incorporating analysis from teachers and administrators as well as parents to gain a more complete picture of the effects of homework on all students.

“More discussion and empirical data are needed before we can end the homework debates. More important, such dialogue and research will help schools create homework that supports students and—ideally, that students support,” they wrote.

In an interview with CNN outside of the scope of this particular paper, Pope has suggested that limiting homework to two hours a night in high school, 90 minutes in middle school and none in elementary school – stating that research has demonstrated no benefits for younger children.

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