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What the research says about kids and homework

A report this year by the Canadian Council on Learning concluded that homework is effective - but only if it's assigned properly. More isn't necessarily better, and children in elementary school don't benefit from after-school assignments the same way that high-school students do.

The council, a non-profit corporation funded by the federal government, conducted a review of 18 studies on homework effectiveness conducted between 1987 and 2003 in the United States and Germany. Their findings offer a compelling argument for why homework matters.

When is homework effective?

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When it engages students and requires them to use skills they learned in class to complete an assignment, according to Paul Cappon, president and CEO of the learning council. Instead of unfocused, open-ended or make-work projects, homework should have a particular objective that reinforces classroom learning. "The child will invest a mental effort because they know that it's useful," Dr. Cappon said.

When it can be done by the student, without help from parents. Although parents may spend time with their kids while they do homework, effective assignments are those the students can complete on their own so they reinforce what they've already learned. A parent's role is to provide time and space to do homework that is free of distraction, Dr. Cappon said.

When it has a purpose. Assignments should help anchor a new concept or skill in a child's mind and not be pointless busywork. For instance, reading assignments should stretch children's vocabulary so they can answer questions about what they've read, Dr. Cappon said. And more isn't always better. Students, particularly in younger grades, seem to benefit more when assignments don't take an excessive amount of time; assignments that take too long can diminish their effectiveness.

What's the bottom line?

There's little evidence to show that homework is effective among primary-school-aged children - except for those who are performing below their peers.

Many homework experts live by the "10-minute rule": Kids shouldn't do more than 10 minutes of homework for each grade they're in. That means a student in Grade 1 would do no more than 10 minutes, while a student in Grade 4 would do no more than 40 minutes. High-school students could do up to two hours a night. Spending more than two hours is not associated with higher academic achievement, concluded a 2006 Duke University study led by Harris Cooper, a homework expert and professor in the department of psychology and neuroscience.

Homework should reinforce what a child has already learned, be presented in a clear, manageable way and be engaging.

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About the Author

Carly Weeks has been a journalist with The Globe and Mail since 2007.  She has reported on everything from federal politics to the high levels of sodium in the Canadian diet. More

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