How Important Is Homework for Student Achievement?

Published August 5, 2015

Once a child is enrolled in school, the time for homework starts.

Sending children home from school with homework is a long tradition that has come under criticism by some psychologists and writers as being a form of punishment. 

However, a recent review of research published in 1987–2003 conducted by a team of researchers from Duke University found “all studies, regardless of type, had design flaws, but there was generally consistent evidence for a positive influence of homework on achievement.” The strongest effect of homework on achievement occurred for students in grades 7–12.

Students who learn to delay gratification while young are most likely to focus while they complete challenging homework assignments. All children and adolescents, however, can benefit from parent involvement in their homework. In a review of more than a dozen studies, such involvement resulted in higher rates of homework completion, fewer problems with assignments, and higher levels of achievement. 

Parents who thoughtfully encourage their children during homework reinforce the learners’ persistence and nurture their evolving self-control. Such remarks might include, “You can do it – it just takes hard work,” or “Do not give up, you’re almost finished.” 

Academic homework can be assigned by parents as well as by teachers. The Swann children—all 10 of them—became renowned in the 1990s for graduating high school by the ages most students begin. The oldest child in the family, Alexandra, emphasized she and her siblings were not geniuses. They just worked hard, on a constant schedule. The family did not take summer vacation from school, and their mother required them to understand all the material at hand before moving on. Alexandra and her sister Victoria earned bachelor’s degrees at age 15 and master’s degrees at age 16.

Though the Swanns’ experiences are unusual, with access to new digital learning opportunities and greater flexibility of work hours and telecommuting, similar stories are becoming more common. Hard-working students may be ready to leave high school for college well before turning 17 or 18 and would gain little benefit from additional “seat time.”

Doing homework is often a child’s first encounter with having to focus on and practice doing something that doesn’t come from parents or isn’t entertaining. It is an opportunity to measure progress and reward success while instilling good habits and teaching study skills.

Making sure homework is completed on time and helping their children remain constructively engaged in school connects parents to schools and to educators who are entering the child’s life for the first time. Parents well-connected with parents in other families are likely to be more helpful to their children and others’ children.

Herbert J. Walberg ([email protected]) and Joseph L. Bast ([email protected]) are chairman and president, respectively, of The Heartland Institute and authors of Rewards: How to use rewards to help children learn—and why teachers don’t use them well. This article is excerpted from Chapter 5, “Rewards at Home.”