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We talk a lot about work-life integration as employees, but looking back, I realize my journey with work-life integration actually started before I had any professional experience — it began in high school when countless hours of homework and extracurricular activities frequently led to sleepless nights.
For some students, homework is a necessary task to get done in the evenings. For others, it can become all-consuming, stretching into the early hours of the morning and leading to sleep deprivation, greater stress, and less time to dedicate to family, friends, and other activities. Research by Stanford University researchers also found that students who struggled to balance their homework with extracurricular activities and social time experienced health reductions such as headaches, exhaustion, weight loss, and stomach problems.
Debates surrounding homework and its intended purposes and real-life outcomes have circulated academia, school hallways, and dinner tables for quite some time. A team of Duke University researchers analyzed homework studies from 1987-2003 and found that manipulated homework study designs “revealed a positive relationship between homework and achievement” and “[w]ith only rare exceptions, the relationship between the amount of homework students do and their achievement outcomes was found to be positive and statistically significant. Therefore, [we think] it would not be imprudent, based on the evidence in hand, to conclude that doing homework causes improved academic achievement.” On the other hand, research syntheses cast doubt that homework is an effective instructional tool and instead argue that it “contributes to a corporate-style, competitive U.S. culture that overvalues work to the detriment of personal and familial well-being.”
This discussion recently resurfaced in a Washington Post opinion piece questioning if parents should be able to excuse their young children from homework assignments. Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews argues that elementary school homework should be limited to free reading time — based on research that shows homework’s impact on elementary schoolers’ academic achievement is trivial.
Homework is still often regarded as a rite of passage. You’d be hard pressed to identify a teacher that doesn’t assign homework, largely because it can be beneficial if it is given in the right amount and has a particular purpose. Denise Pope, a senior lecturer at Stanford Graduate School of Education and a co-leader of the Stanford homework study, says homework that qualifies as busy work — an assignment given merely as routine practice or policy — discourages learning and can cause students to feel as though their efforts are pointless. “Any homework assigned should have a purpose and benefit, and it should be designed to cultivate learning and development,” Pope told Stanford News.
Furthermore, Kirsten Weir of The American Psychological Association says homework can produce academic benefits, such as increased understanding and retention of materials, as well as nonacademic advantages including the development of personal responsibility, good study habits, and time-management skills — if the time it takes to complete homework assignments isn’t terribly overwhelming. Harris Cooper, Ph.D., a social psychologist and leading homework researcher, also notes that there is a limit to how much benefit students can reap from take-home assignments. Cooper recommends the 10-minute rule, in which students should complete 10 minutes of homework per night for each grade level, beginning in the first grade. So, first graders should have roughly 10 minutes of homework each night, sixth graders should have an hour, and high school seniors should have about two hours.
Such a rule might seem unrealistic for older students who are enrolled in particularly competitive schools or AP or honors-level classes, or even college courses. Some students also struggle with attention deficit and hyperactivity disorders, which can make homework completion more challenging. If you feel as though the amount of homework your child receives is not appropriate for his or her age, grade level, or learning style, speak to your child’s teacher or academic adviser. The U.S. Department of Education recommends approaching teachers with a cooperative spirit, and working together to strategize a plan to lessen the problem at hand, whether it be working out a tailored schedule for your child or securing extra help from the teacher or an after school program. If you are in college yourself, and still struggling with this problem, talk to professors on your own, and often they can help you find a tutor.
It’s important for both parents and students to recognize that stressful challenges with homework are not unusual and are fixable. Though finding a balance between school work, extracurriculars, and a social life can be difficult, it can also help later on in life by enforcing a familiarity and fluency with work-life integration.
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