Homework or Busywork? Attitudes Soften, but Quality Still Questioned


Educators might be striking a happy balance between homework that's assigned to promote learning and homework that's perceived by students and parents as "busywork." As recently as 2002, a vast 74 percent of secondary students described their homework as busywork. Now, however, that's down significantly, with just 30 percent holding that attitude, according to a new survey conducted by Harris Interactive, the "MetLife Survey of the American Teacher: The Homework Experience." But it also showed a "disconnect" between teachers and parents on the quality of assignments.

Student Attitudes, Technology Use, Hindrances
While far fewer students now seem to consider homework busywork, they are not exactly excited by what they're being assigned either. More than half (55 percent) think their homework is not interesting (62 percent in secondary, 44 percent in elementary). When asked which subject had the "most interesting" homework, 14 percent of students said "none." Of those who would name a subject, the plurality gave it to science, at 23 percent. Math came in second at 21 percent. Social studies/history received 15 percent of the vote; and English/reading received 14 percent.

Forty-five percent of students said they spend an hour or more per school day on homework, with 17 percent saying the spend two hours or more. Fifty-five percent spend 45 minutes or less on homework, with 6 percent responding that they spend no time at all. Twenty-two percent said they spend an hour or more on homework per weekend day. Seventy-seven percent said they almost always complete their homework.

The survey found, though, that students have a number of hindrances and distractions when doing homework--including a lack of time, shortage of sleep, and various entertainments. Forty-seven percent of students (57 percent of secondary students) said they do not get enough sleep, with 7 percent actually "frequently" falling asleep in class. In telling contrast, on average, teacher said that about 28 percent of their students do not get enough sleep.

Sixty-nine percent of elementary students and 89 percent of secondary students reported doing something else while doing homework, including:

  • Listening to music (70 percent);
  • Watching television (51 percent);
  • Talking on the phone 20 percent);
  • E-mailing or instant messaging (20 percent); and
  • Text messaging (17 percent).

However, the Internet, while it can be a distraction, is also used by a portion of students to assist with their homework assignments. Overall, 12 percent of students use a non-school Web site to assist with homework, and 4 percent use their school's site. The percentage of students who use non-school Web sites is higher among secondary students (16 percent secondary, 7 percent elementary) and among students who receive mostly As or mostly As and Bs (14 percent and 13 percent, respectively).

The primary source of help with homework is parents, at 67 percent overall (88 percent among elementary students). Fifty-five percent overall ask teachers for help, and 54 percent ask friends for help. Among students who receive mostly As on their work, teachers come in third (56 percent) behind parents (66 percent) and friends (60 percent). Students are more likely to go to their parents for help if their parents have a college-level education (74 percent) than if they have a high school education or lower (59 percent).

Only 1 percent refer to their notes or to the textbook for help with homework. Among students who receive mostly Cs or lower on their work, the number is higher: 3 percent.

Four percent overall "never need help" with their homework.

Parent Attitudes
Parents, more than students, consider a substantial amount of assigned homework to be busywork. Forty percent of those parents surveyed (compared with 26 percent of students overall) said that "a great deal or some homework assigned is busywork." And one-third (33 percent) said the quality of homework is poor or merely fair. That's a fairly significant percentage, considering that a vast majority of parents surveyed (81 percent) said they believe that homework is important or very important.

Teacher Attitudes
And what of teachers? On average, you're spending 8.5 hours per week on work related to students' homework. And what are your reasons for assigning homework?

  1. To prepare students for tests or practice skills: 86 percent;
  2. To develop good work habits: 80 percent;
  3. To help students develop critical thinking skills: 67 percent;
  4. To motivate students to learn: 65 percent;
  5. To assess students' skills and knowledge: 63 percent;
  6. To develop students' interests: 51 percent; and
  7. To make up for a lack of time in class to cover a subject: 17 percent.

Seventy-two percent of teachers said they think very little or none of the homework assigned by their school is merely "busywork." (Four percent said "a great deal" of it is, and 19 percent said some of it is.) Again, 40 percent of those parents surveyed said that "a great deal or some homework assigned is busywork." And one-third (33 percent) said the quality of homework is poor or merely fair.

Eighty-one percent of teachers said they think parents are happy with the volume of homework assigned to students. According to the survey, 25 percent of parents think too little homework is assigned, and 15 percent said too much is assigned.

A solid majority of teachers (70 percent) said they believe strongly that their students have enough time to complete all of their homework. Only 37 percent of students strongly believe that.

The "MetLife Survey of the American Teacher: The Homework Experience" was conducted online by research firm Harris Interactive between March 28 and June 14, 2007. It included 1,000 K-12 public school teachers, 501 parents of K-12 students, and 2,101 students in grades 3 through 12. The report was completed in November 2007 but was not released until last week. The complete report can be found here. (You'll have to click through a few links to get to the PDF.)

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About the author: David Nagel is the executive editor for 1105 Media's online education technology publications, including THE Journal and Campus Technology. He can be reached at [email protected].

Proposals for articles and tips for news stories, as well as questions and comments about this publication, should be submitted to David Nagel, executive editor, at [email protected].