Trouble with homework

by Marilyn Achiron
Editor, Directorate for Education and Skills

It’s sometimes hard to tell who has more trouble with homework: students or their parents. PISA results show that homework, itself, may inadvertently perpetuate a problem that goes far beyond spoiling a student’s evening or a parent’s self-esteem. As this month’s PISA in Focus explains, homework may widen the performance gap between students from different socio-economic backgrounds.

Students everywhere are assigned homework by their teachers, and across OECD countries in 2012, 15-year-old students reported that they spend almost five hours per week doing homework. (If you think that’s a lot, it’s actually one hour less per week than the average reported in 2003 – and 9 hours less per week than students in Shanghai-China reported in 2012.)

The problem lies not so much in the amount of time spent doing homework, but in differences in the amount of time spent doing homework that are related to students’ socio-economic status. In every country and economy that participated in PISA 2012, advantaged students spend more time doing homework than disadvantaged students. In OECD countries, for example, advantaged students spend 5.7 hours per week doing homework, on average, while disadvantaged students spend an average of 4.1 hours per week. PISA also finds that students who attend schools whose student body is predominantly composed of advantaged students, and students who attend schools located in urban areas, reported spending more time doing homework than students who attend schools with a more disadvantaged student body and schools located in rural areas.

What accounts for these differences? PISA cannot establish cause-and-effect links, but results from previous PISA studies suggest that advantaged students are more likely than their disadvantaged peers to have a quiet place to study at home and parents who convey positive messages about schooling. The connection between the socio-economic profile of a school’s student population and the amount of time students spend on homework might reflect differences in teachers’ expectations for their students and teachers’ perceptions of their students’ capacity to study independently.

All of this has an impact on student performance. Students who spend more time doing homework tend to score higher in the PISA mathematics test. And if you compare students from similar socio-economic backgrounds who attend similarly resourced schools, those who attend schools where students, in general, spend more time doing homework perform better in mathematics than those who attend schools whose students devote less time to homework. In fact, PISA results show that the net payoff in mathematics performance from attending a school where more homework is assigned, in general, is particularly large – 17 score points (the equivalent of nearly 6 months of schooling) or more per extra hour of homework – in Hong Kong-China, Japan, Macao-China and Singapore.

One good way to make sure that homework does not perpetuate differences in performance that are related to students’ socio-economic status is for schools and teachers to encourage struggling and disadvantaged students to complete their homework. This could involve providing facilities at school so that disadvantaged students have a quiet, comfortable place to work, and/or offering to help parents motivate their children to finish their homework before going out with friends or surfing the web. The homework still has to get done; but maybe students and their parents will find it a little less troublesome.

PISA 2012 Findings
Does homework perpetuate inequities in education?
PISA in Focus No.46 (French version)
Photo credit: Student connection / @Shutterstock

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