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THEORY INTO PRACTICE / Summer 2004

Homework

Pamela M. Coutts

Meanings of Homework and


Implications for Practice

Many of the discussions in both the popular and


academic press assume that the key participants
and stakeholders have the same understandings
about homework and its meanings. However, this
is not necessarily the case. For example, in the
widely reported tension and conflict in families
about homework completion, one contributing factor may be the meanings students, parents, and
educators ascribe to homework and the purposes
it fulfills. This article examines how research has
considered these varying meanings and perceptions
and how they may impact student attitudes and
behaviors toward homework. The article argues
that the positive outcomes of homework frequently
cited by parents (such as motivational, academic,
and life skills benefits) are less recognized by children, especially elementary students. In most cases,
the mismatch is likely to be between the student focus on proximal costs of homework and the adult
focus on long-term benefits. The implications of these
understanding for practitioners is then discussed.

I get nothing out of homework. I know everything


thats in it and its boring and a waste of time. It
Pamela M. Coutts is an associate professor and Head
of the School of Education, Australian Centre for Educational Studies, Macquarie University, Sydney.

would be better if you actually learned something


from homework. You only learn things at school so
whats the point of doing it again at night? Youve
had six hours at school. It means I cant ride my
bike and play outside with my friends. (Mike, Grade 5)
The benefits are when he goes to high school, hes
already used to doing it. Its time management. He
knows he has to do it and he has to take the consequences if he doesnt. Hes not too young to have
that responsibility. Its a life lesson that there are
things you have to do on a daily basis whether you
really want to do them or not. It also reinforces what
theyve learned during the day. (Mikes mother)

Indeed,
some parents report their preschooler requests homework, either real or pretend, in an effort to emulate their older siblings. They see it as
work and as signifying a more grown-up status.
Why then does homework frequently become a
chore and a source of dispute by the time children
are in middle school? One contributing factor is
that parents and children often hold very different
views about the topic. As a consequence, the opportunities for conflict and resistance arise when
opinions expressed about homeworks purpose and
benefits are as discrepant as those held by Mike
and his mother.
Homework itself, as other articles in this issue illustrate, is a complex issue. There is tremendous variety in its practices, in the type and amount
of work assigned, where and when it is completed

THEORY INTO PRACTICE, Volume 43, Number 3, Summer 2004


182
Copyright 2004 College of Education, The Ohio State University

OT ALL CHILDREN RESENT HOMEWORK .

Coutts
Meanings of Homework

(with or without parental involvement), and whether


or not it is graded by teachers. All of these factors
may be linked to the young students attitudes to
homework. Within this article, however, I am focusing on one particular aspect: views about the
purpose of homework and the likelihood of parentchild agreement about those views. Throughout, as
above, I will illustrate the theoretical issues with
quotations from a study in progress of interviews
with Australian parents and their children about
the purpose, costs, and benefits of homework.

The Adult Viewpoint: Its Life


We Have to Do Things
Homework is to teach the child later in life they
have responsibility and they have to be disciplined
to get things done. Its lifewe have to do things. It
teaches the child to think for themselves. Its a stepping stone to future education and how the system
works. To get good marks and get into University
they have to put the work in. (Father of Jane, Grade
4)

The research literature (Epstein, 1988) recognizes a number of established reasons why teachers assign homework. These can be grouped as (a)
academic functions (e.g., to complete unfinished
work, revise, drill, consolidate, prepare, expand on
concepts introduced in the classroom); (b) more
general socialization purposes (e.g., to encourage
responsibility, study skills, or time management)
what Epstein and Van Voorhis (2001) call personal development; (c) home/school/community
communication; and (d) school and system requirements (e.g., to ease time constraints in a crowded
curriculum). Obviously, not all reasons apply in
any one situation and those designated functions
are not equally applicable across stages of schooling. In general, however, parents see homeworks
potential benefit largely as achievement-related; it
leads to increased success on classwork and fosters attitudes and habits that lead to successful future learning. These beliefs, of course, are
supported by research that has consistently shown
a positive correlation between time spent on homework and achievement for high school students
(Cooper & Valentine, 2001).
Parents are often future-oriented when thinking about the potential benefits of homework, as
illustrated in the quotation from Janes father. Other

more abstract benefits are also strong in parental


viewpoints: the emphasis on the development of
qualities such as responsibility, self-regulation, and
time management emerge in reports from parents
of young elementary children (Warton, 1998; Xu
& Corno, 1998). One difficulty for children is that
these future benefits may have limited immediate
relevance. Little research, however, has investigated whether individual parents views about the
purpose of homework are tailored to the understandings and needs of their children. It is tempting to propose that the more direct educational
objective of completing homework to improve academic achievement will become more salient to
parents as the child progresses through the educational system and encounters an increasing emphasis on formal assessment procedures and feedback.
Not all parents are entirely positive about the
purposes of homework, regardless of whether there
are disputes within the family about its completion. Indeed, previous research (Warton, 1998) has
illustrated that in one sample approximately one
fourth of elementary students mothers did not completely accept the official educational rhetoric about
homework benefits for young students. Some were
ambivalent, others considered reasons for assigning homework had more to do with routinely implementing school policy or completing a crowded
curriculum than with student benefits. When the
perceived purposes accrue no personal benefit to
the child, it is difficult for the parent to remain
positive and, presumably, to convey positive messages to the child about homeworks importance.
The purpose of homework is to consolidate, but I
firmly believe its also to get through the curriculum
because it cannot fit into the school day. (Mother of
Jakob, Grade 2)

Occasionally a more vehement view is expressed,


as in the following comment from a parent who
was also a first grade teacher:
I hate homework. I hate giving homework, I hate
marking homework, I hate supervising homework.
But parents who are not teachers put a lot of importance on homework, and they judge teachers on how
much homework they give.

This quotation illustrates another argument, namely, that many teachers assign homework because
the school community will judge them harshly if

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Homework

they do not. In the main, however, most parents


acknowledge potential benefits of homework in
both academic and life-skill spheres. The negative
aspects of homework that the parent/teacher quoted above are more consistent with the views of
many students, not parents.

The Student Viewpoint


Id much prefer school to be 2 hours longer instead
of coming home and having to do homework. (Matt,
Grade 7)

As the group intimately involved in completing homework, children necessarily hold somewhat
different ideas of the task than adults. Nevertheless, if the long-term benefits of homework as described by adults are to be achieved, homework
must eventually be completed by the learner, willingly and in good spirit. Consequently, a motivational framework is useful for examining the
childrens views regarding homework. Many of the
reasons for completing homework are extrinsic, but
if students are to develop attributes such as responsibility through completing homework there must also
be an intrinsic component. As a result, the students
subjective or perceived task value is critical. As
Eccles (1983) argues, both positive and negative factors influence perceived task value, and for children the negative factors regarding homework are
often substantial. The factors commonly regarded
as relevant to the task value of homework as an
achievement-related activity are its importance or
utility, its intrinsic value, and the perceived costs.
These clearly vary with the age of the students and
their understandings about homework, but little research has examined developmental changes in
childrens ideas about homework except by inference from cross-sectional studies. The following
section outlines the principal findings.
Importance and utility of homework
If homework plays a part in establishing and
consolidating child beliefs and study patterns regarding academic work, it can be argued that the
elementary years are especially critical. However,
what is remarkable in young students accounts
and ideas about homework is the almost complete
absence of reference to the benefits that parents
list. When asked about homework, young children

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reply simplistically in terms of homeworks purpose being to learn or revise (Warton, 1997; Xu &
Corno, 1998). For adults, it may appear obvious
that there is a link between learning and achievement, but for young children this may not be the
case. Part of what children acquire through the formal school system is an understanding of the connection between certain learning activities and
formal learning outcomes as well as the language
to describe cognition. As Kreutzer, Leonard, and
Flavells (1975) pioneering work on the development of metamemory clearly demonstrated, young
children have limited knowledge about many aspects of their cognition, from matters as basic as
the items they need to review in order to improve
recall. It is not surprising, therefore, that when
faced with a question about the purpose of homework, they reply in a general sense without any
detailed understanding of what it means to learn
or to revise. In contrast, research (Warton, 1998)
indicates that parents describe the academic goal
of homework in the first years of schooling as to
practice and consolidate important, basic literacy
and numeracy skills but also describe as equally, if
not more important, the goals of developing various
life skills such as maintaining routines and being responsible. There is almost no current research that
suggests young children perceive time management
or study skills as outcomes of homework or perceive these parental beliefs about homework.
Furthermore, there is a sense, both from their
own accounts and that of parents, that many young
children complete homework to avoid getting into
trouble (either at school or at home) or to please their
teacher or parent (Corno, 2000; Warton, 2001).
If you dont do your homework, Miss gets really,
really angry. . . . Well not really angry but really,
really sad about it. (Eve, Grade 1)

This lack of focus on self-benefits and emphasis


on completion of homework for reasons of compliance may be seen as valid aspects of homeworks
utility for children, but they are not what adults
usually mean by the term. Young children may
infer the importance of homework from the adults
around themfrom the efforts many parents put
in place to ensure homework is completed, or from
the reactions their efforts to avoid or delay homework might provoke in parents and teachers. But it

Coutts
Meanings of Homework

is clearly not for some years that they come to


understand some of the broader advantages of doing homework (see Warton, 1997 for a discussion
of the development of understanding about responsibility in this context).
When some longer term perspective emerges
in student ideas, it is usually in terms of homework in elementary school providing a preparation
for homework in later years of schooling.

as homework outcomes suggests that such skills


are assumed to be in place. It also suggests that
parents and educators of this age group no longer
view homework as a means of encouraging more
general socialization benefits. It is another warning to researchers to be cautious of generalizations
about homework meanings that do not take possible developmental differences into account.

Im going to have to do it in high school so its good


that I learn how now. (Jenny, Grade 5)

Intrinsic value of homework


While there is some developmental progression in understanding the importance or utility of
homework, and some convergence with the adult
viewpoint, there appears to be an absence of a similar pattern regarding the intrinsic value of homework. When children enter school, they may appear
excited by the idea of homework, but it takes a
remarkably short period of time before many are
disillusioned. In one study, a significant proportion of students in the early years of school (grades
1 to 3) agreed that homework was dull and boring
(Bryan, Nelson, & Mathur, 1995). By the middle
years of elementary school it is the most common
description of regular homework. From the student perspective, homework can be boring either
because it is routine and more of the same, or it is
just too easy. In each case, the teacher has usually
assigned homework for a particular purpose (e.g.,
for consolidation of learning, or to instill regular
revision and study habits) that is either not recognized or not acknowledged by the students. If we
want students to be intrinsically motivated to learn
and to complete homework, it would be of benefit
if the task itself was valued and viewed as interesting and engaging, regardless of any links between the task and other outcomes.

The implication of such a comment is that homework facilitates learning to work independently. References to responsibility for homework also begin to
emerge in students responses by the end of elementary school (Warton, 1997). As has been previously
acknowledged (Hoover-Dempsey & Sandler, 1997),
direct parental involvement in homework declines
over time, and parents frequently nominate the end
of elementary school as a turning point in the type
and level of involvement in their childrens homework. Agreement between some children and their
parents about the usefulness of homework as a
means of learning responsibility and as preparation for future study indicates that some of the
parental ideas about homework are being both recognized and assimilated.
By high school, student responses about the
purposes of homework focus strongly on consolidation and revision, with the acknowledgement that
there is not always sufficient time within classes
for the teacher to do anything other than introduce
material. As a consequence, some students are positive about the chance to actually learn it ourselves so we can refer and reflect on the lesson
afterwards (Marcus, Grade 10). By high school
also, the pattern where academically able students
both receive more homework and spend more time
on it than other students is well established. Moreover, an increasing proportion of secondary students complete no assigned homework (Campbell,
Hombo, & Mazzeo, 2000). When asked about
homework, however, students make no reference
to the personal development benefits of homework
such as taking responsibility for learning and time
management. While it is clear by their actions that
academically focused adolescents have developed
these skills, their lack of explicit reference to them

Perceived homework costs


All tasks have costs associated with them.
From a parents point of view, the costs of homework are most explicitly stated in terms of time
taken to supervise children and the conflict or disputes within the family over homework and its completion. In contrast, many children and adolescents
feel negatively about the homework activity itself,
as well as the interactions surrounding it. Overall,
the level of dissatisfaction with homework appears
higher for those most closely involved, namely the

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THEORY INTO PRACTICE / Summer 2004

Homework

students, than for either parents or teachers (Cooper,


Lindsay, Nye, & Greathouse, 1998).
When so many students describe homework
as boring and lacking intrinsic interest, it is not
surprising that the activity is not liked. However,
the attitude about homework for many goes beyond a neutral opinion to an active dislike. In Chen
and Stevensons (1989) study, for example, more
than 60% of fifth grade students in their U.S. sample felt negative about homework, while Leone and
Richards (1989) found adolescents rated homework
as a more negative experience than class work.
Significantly, this latter study gives us a clue about
one of the contributing factors to this negative attitude: the typically solitary nature of the homework task and the separation of homework from
the social aspects of learning. In their study, adolescents reported higher levels of interest and positive affect when completing homework with
friends rather than with family members or by
themselves (Leone & Richards, 1989).
Homework activities frequently not only require students to work independently but have additional costs in terms of time taken away from
friends. The social group for students in middle
childhood and early adolescence is especially important; for many the social goals of schooling are
more important than academic goals (Wentzel,
1989). As Urdan and Maehr (1995) argue, the relationship between social goals and achievement
behavior is complex. Although academic and social goals are not necessarily in conflict, many students are explicit that homework is an activity that
prevents or disrupts other more desirable leisure
activities, such as sports or just spending time with
friends. If homework is seen as a barrier to successful group involvement, there is no guarantee
that it will be chosen over social, peer-oriented
activities, despite parental and teacher pressure.
Comparison of adult and student viewpoints
There is little doubt that parents and elementary students interpret the purposes of homework
somewhat differently. One of the complicating features of the acquisition of values and beliefs about
homework is that typically, as the vignette from
Mike and his mother illustrates, parents talk mostly in terms of long-term socialization goals, while

186

children focus on the immediate negative consequences. A superficial response to this discrepancy between the general, overarching, socialization
goals of parents and the relatively short-term, instrumental goals held by students would be to suggest that if children in the early years of schooling
were to understand the longer term goals espoused
by their parents, there would be less likelihood of
conflict. This, however, underestimates the complexity of the issue and the developmental patterns
in understanding and priorities.
There is a convergence of viewpoints of parents, educators, and students in middle and high
school years in that homework is seen by all participants as a vehicle for academic progress. Consequently, there is a disjunction between the more
sophisticated and abstract socialization goals for
homework in elementary school and the relatively
direct, achievement-related goals for older students.
Because proximal goals and timely feedback are
key aspects to improving self-efficacy (Pajares,
2002), it is ironic that these are more readily provided to older students in the context of the more
explicit academic outcomes than with elementary
students and outcomes such as the development of
responsibility. The issue with secondary school students is not a lack of understanding about the academic benefits homework may provide, but the
perception that the immediate, associated costs may
be greater than the potential benefits. As a result,
adolescents may reject those academic goals. This
situation is exacerbated by the tendency of homework policies and practices to encourage extrinsic
rather than intrinsic motivation through the types
of activities required.

Implications for Practice


Before suggesting some implications for practice from the differing viewpoints of parents and children, a word of caution is in order. This article has
focused on the adult perspective from a parents views
rather than a teachers views. While these are very
similar, especially with regard to the socialization
goals of homework, research indicates some differences in viewpointsspecifically in expectations
about the quality of completed homework and the
time required to be spent on it. Bryan, Burstein,
and Bryan (2001) review such issues in regard to

Coutts
Meanings of Homework

students with learning disabilities. The importance


of these differences cannot be understated since
the likelihood of contention within the family is
great when the messages from home and school
are not completely in synch. Consequently, clear
communication between student, parent, and teacher is essential about meanings and intended benefits of homework. School homework policies
developed in partnership with the community would
seem to offer a good starting point, especially if
these policies provide a framework explaining the
philosophy behind the setting of homework, the
support parents can provide, and the mechanics of
homework practices.
The second point is the need for consistency
between the planned purposes of homework and
the type of task assigned. For example, if the intention is to foster good work habits in the early
years of school, this may be better met by assigning very small but regular amounts of homework
in order to establish a routine. Surprisingly, many
Australian schools in the first years of school provide a weekly sheet to be signed by the parents
and returned at weeks end. Such a process essentially places the responsibility for remembering and
time management on the parent instead of on the
student. A limited amount of homework assigned
each day will place fewer memory demands on the
young child and is likely to help in the early establishment of a regular routine. Additionally, in such
a procedure it is important for the child to be cognizant that one of the important reasons they are
given daily homework is to help them learn to remember without reminders. It is then a small step
to discuss issues of responsibility.
Perhaps the most important issue to consider
is the type of homework activity assigned. It appears that McBeaths (1996) argument of a hiatus
between class work and homework, where class
work is seen as far more varied, stimulating, and
interesting than typical homework, has not been
heeded sufficiently. School systems have accountability here as well, given the frequency of complaints about overcrowded curriculums. But
however tempting it may be for teachers to make
completion of sets of work begun in the classroom
as part of homework, it will be viewed as a penalty for lack of performance by less able students.

More importantly, in such circumstances the students are required to complete the work without
both the academic and social support found in a
classroom. Nevertheless, this is an area where there
have been recent promising advances: innovative
approaches to homework that encourage true homeschool partnerships (e.g., TIPS, Epstein & Van
Voorhis, 2001) or initiatives in Strathclyde, Scotland for supported study centers open after school
hours to support the learning of disadvantaged students (McBeath, 1996). What these have in common is a view that the social context, as well as
the physical environment, is important for learning. They address the social isolation that many
middle and high school students find so alienating
about homework.
The challenge for teachers who do not have
access to one of these programs is to assign homework that strengthens the targeted skills and knowledge but in a way that is relevant and interesting
to students who all too often see homeworks costs.
As a consequence, the levels of dispute within a
family may diminish as students begin to focus on
future homework benefits.

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