If you made it past the headline, you're likely a student, concerned parent, teacher or, like me, a nerd nostalgist who enjoys basking in the distant glow of Homework Triumphs Past (second-grade report on Custer's Last Stand, nailed it!).
Whoever you are, you're surely hoping for some clarity in the loud, perennial debate over whether U.S. students are justifiably exhausted and nervous from too much homework — even though some international comparisons suggest they're sitting comfortably at the average.
Well, here goes. I've mapped out six, research-based polestars that should help guide you to some reasonable conclusions about homework.
How much homework do U.S. students get?
The best answer comes from something called the National Assessment of Educational Progress or NAEP. In 2012, students in three different age groups — 9, 13 and 17 — were asked, "How much time did you spend on homework yesterday?" The vast majority of 9-year-olds (79 percent) and 13-year-olds (65 percent) and still a majority of 17-year-olds (53 percent) all reported doing an hour or less of homework the day before.
Another study from the National Center for Education Statistics found that high school students who reported doing homework outside of school did, on average, about seven hours a week.
If you're hungry for more data on this — and some perspective — check out this exhaustive report put together last year by researcher Tom Loveless at the Brookings Institution.
An hour or less a day? But we hear so many horror stories! Why?
The fact is, some students do have a ton of homework. In high school we see a kind of student divergence — between those who choose or find themselves tracked into less-rigorous coursework and those who enroll in honors classes or multiple Advanced Placement courses. And the latter students are getting a lot of homework. In that 2012 NAEP survey, 13 percent of 17-year-olds reported doing more than two hours of homework the previous night. That's not a lot of students, but they're clearly doing a lot of work.
That also tracks with a famous survey from 2007 — from MetLife — that asked parents what they think of their kids' homework load. Sixty percent said it was just right. Twenty-five percent said their kids are getting too little. Just 15 percent of parents said their kids have too much homework.
Research also suggests that the students doing the most work have something else in common: income. "I think that the debate over homework in some ways is a social class issue," says Janine Bempechat, professor of human development at Wheelock College. "There's no question that in affluent communities, children are really over-taxed, over-burdened with homework."
But the vast majority of students do not seem to have inordinate workloads. And the ones who do are generally volunteering for the tough stuff. That doesn't make it easier, but it does make it a choice.
Do we know how much homework students in other countries are doing?
Sort of. Caveats abound here. Education systems and perceptions of what is and isn't homework can vary remarkably overseas. So any comparison is, to a degree, apples-to-oranges (or, at least, apples-to-pears). A 2012 report from the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development pegged the U.S. homework load for 15-year-olds at around six hours per week. That's just above the study's average. It found that students in Hong Kong are also doing about six hours a week. Much of Europe checks in between four and five hours a week. In Japan, it's four hours. And Korea's near the bottom, at three hours.
How much homework is too much?
Better yet, how much is just right? Harris Cooper at Duke University has done some of the best work on homework. He and his team reviewed dozens of studies, from 1987 to 2003, looking for consensus on what works and what doesn't. A common rule of thumb, he says, is what's called the 10-minute rule. Take the child's grade and multiply by 10. So first-graders should have roughly 10 minutes of homework a night, 40 minutes for fourth-graders, on up to two hours for seniors in high school. A lot of of schools use this. Even the National PTA officially endorses it.
Homework clearly improves student performance, right?
Not necessarily. It depends on the age of the child. Looking over the research, there's little to no evidence that homework improves student achievement in elementary school. Then again, the many experts I spoke with all said the same thing: The point of homework in those primary grades isn't entirely academic. It's about teaching things like time-management and self-direction.
But, by high school the evidence shifts. Harris Cooper's massive review found, in middle and high school, a positive correlation between homework and student achievement on unit tests. It seems to help. But more is not always better. Cooper points out that, depending on the subject and the age of the student, there is a law of diminishing returns. Again, he recommends the 10-minute rule.
What kinds of homework seem to be most effective?
This is where things get really interesting. Because homework should be about learning, right? To understand what kinds of homework best help kids learn, we really need to talk about memory and the brain.
Let's start with something called the spacing effect. Say a child has to do a vocabulary worksheet. The next week, it's a new worksheet with different words and so on. Well, research shows that the brain is better at remembering when we repeat with consistency, not when we study in long, isolated chunks of time. Do a little bit of vocabulary each night, repeating the same words night after night.
Similarly, a professor of psychology at Washington University in St. Louis, Henry "Roddy" Roediger III, recommends that teachers give students plenty of little quizzes, which he says strengthen the brain's ability to remember. Don't fret. They can be low-stakes or no-stakes, says Roediger: It's the steady recall and repetition that matter. He also recommends, as homework, that students try testing themselves instead of simply re-reading the text or class notes.
There's also something known as interleaving. This is big in the debate over math homework. Many of us — myself included — learned math by focusing on one concept at a time, doing a worksheet to practice that concept, then moving on.
Well, there's evidence that students learn more when homework requires them to choose among multiple strategies — new and old — when solving problems. In other words, kids learn when they have to draw not just from what they learned in class that day but that week, that month, that year.
One last note: Experts agree that homework should generally be about reinforcing what students learned in class (this is especially true in math). Sometimes it can — and should — be used to introduce new material, but here's where so many horror stories begin.
Tom Loveless, a former teacher, offers this advice: "I don't think teachers should ever send brand-new material that puts the parent in the position of a teacher. That's a disaster. My own personal philosophy was: Homework is best if it's material that requires more practice but they've already received initial instruction."
Or, in the words of the National PTA: "Homework that cannot be done without help is not good homework."
Luckily, music can help put us back on a more productive track.
Studies out of the University of Birmingham, England, show that music is effective in raising efficiency in repetitive work — so if you're mindlessly checking email or filling out a spreadsheet, adding some tunes will make your task go by that much faster.
But when it comes to tasks that require more brainpower, finding that perfect playlist is not so easy.
Luckily, we have science at our disposal to help.
Based on some of what we know about how music affects productivity, you should try funneling this kind of music through your headphones the next time you're feeling unproductive:
Songs that include sounds of nature.
Researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute recently discovered that adding a natural element could boost moods and focus.
Sounds of nature can mask intelligible speech just as well as white noise while also enhancing cognitive functioning, optimizing the ability to concentrate, and increasing overall worker satisfaction, the researchers found. The mountain stream sound researchers used in their study also possessed enough randomness that it didn't distract test subjects.
You could try simply listeining to recordings of nature sounds, or check out this tranquil background music that incorporates sounds of water:
Songs you enjoy.
Listening to music you like can make you feel better.
Teresa Lesiuk, an assistant professor in the music therapy program at the University of Miami, found that personal choice in music is important, especially in those who are moderately skilled at their jobs. Generally participants in her studies who listened to music they enjoyed completed their tasks more quickly and came up with better ideas than those who didn't because the music improved their mood.
"When you're stressed, you might make a decision more hastily; you have a very narrow focus of attention," she told the New York Times. "When you're in a positive mood, you're able to take in more options."
Songs you don't really care about.
Different research suggests, however, that music you're ambivalent about could be best.
Researchers from Fu Jen Catholic University in Xinzhuang City, Taiwan, studied how listener's fondness for music affected their concentration. They found when workers strongly liked or disliked the music they heard in the background they became more distracted by it.
Songs without lyrics.
Words are distracting.
According to research from Cambridge Sound Management, noise in general isn't to blame when it comes to lost productivity — it's how intelligible the words are that forces us to shift focus from our work to figuring out what someone is saying. Speech distracts about 48% of office workers according to Cambridge's 2008 study.
When masking your neighbor's conversation with music, it follows then that you not do so with music that has lyrics — your focus would simply shift from the conversation to the words in a song.
This playlist of lyric-less music may provide the productivity boost you need:
Songs with a specific tempo.
Music tempo can have varying affects on your arousal.
One study by Canadian researchers found subjects performed better on IQ tests while listening to up-tempo music. If your work requires you to be more upbeat, you could try listening to music that matches this tempo. Baroque music, for example, is a popular choice for many needing to get work done.
In fact in a small study by researchers at the University of Maryland in Baltimore, Harbor Hospital in Baltimore, and the University of Pennsylvania Health System in Philadelphia, the radiologists they studied reported an improvement in their work and mood when they listened to baroque music. This playlist offers a nice sampling:
Another study by researchers from BMS College of Engineering in Bangalore, Malaysia, saw subjects report a dramatic reduction in feelings of stress and an increased sense of physical relaxation when they listened to music that played around 60 beats per minute. In classical music terms, you would refer this as "larghetto," which translates to not very fast or somewhat slowly.
If you prefer to feel more relaxed while you work, you could try one of Focus @ Will's playlists dedicated to concentration:
Songs played at medium volume.
Noise level matters.
Researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, and the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, found that moderate noise levels are just right for creative thinking.
While both high and moderate noise levels have been found to open people's minds to more abstract thinking, high noise levels decrease the brain's ability to process information.