Too Much Homework

Maybe students are right to complain about too much homework. A Stanford researcher has found that students in high-achieving communities who spend too much time on homework experience more stress, physical health problems, a lack of balance, and alienation from society.

How much is too much homework? According to the study, more than two hours of homework a night may be counterproductive.

Denise Pope, a senior lecturer at the Stanford University School of Education and a co-author of a study published in the Journal of Experimental Education, has found that too much homework has negative effects on well-being and behavior. What's more, the negative effects can extend to students' lives outside of school, including family, friends, and other activities. 

"Our findings on the effects of homework challenge the traditional assumption that homework is inherently good," says Pope.

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More Homework Can Cause Physical Problems

The researchers studied 4,317 students from 10 high-performing high schools in upper-middle-class California communities (median household income exceeded $90,000 in these communities, and 93 percent of the students went on to college). Along with the survey data, Pope and her colleagues interviewed the students about their views on homework.

Students in these schools complete an average about 3.1 hours of homework each night. Students who did more hours of homework experienced greater behavioral engagement in school, but they also experienced also more academic stress, physical health problems, and lack of balance in their lives.

"The findings address how current homework practices in privileged, high-performing schools sustain students' advantage in competitive climates yet hinder learning, full engagement and well-being," Pope wrote.

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Pope and her colleagues found that excess homework can diminish its effectiveness and even be counterproductive. The researchers cite prior research indicating that homework benefits plateau at about two hours per night, and that 90 minutes to two and a half hours is optimal for high school.

When it comes to stress, 56 percent of the students considered homework a primary source. Forty-three percent viewed tests as a primary stressor, while 33 percent put the pressure to get good grades in that category. Less than 1 percent of the students said homework was not a stressor.

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'Pointless' Homework 

Many students said their homework burden led to sleep deprivation and other health problems. The researchers asked students whether they experienced headaches, exhaustion, sleep deprivation, weight loss, and stomach problems.

The researchers also found that spending too much time on homework meant that students were not meeting their developmental needs or cultivating other critical life skills. Students were more likely to forgo activities, stop seeing friends or family, and not participate in hobbies. What’s more, many students felt forced or obligated to choose homework over developing other talents or skills.

Many students said that they often do homework they see as "pointless" or "mindless" in order to keep their grades up. To this, Pope argues that homework assignments should have a purpose and benefit, and it should be designed to cultivate learning and development.

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Sleep Is Important, Too

In a separate study, which appeared in Child Development, lead researcher Cari Gillen-O’Neel and colleagues looked at how nightly variations in adolescents’ study and sleep times were associated with academic problems on the following day. Over five hundred students in the 9th, 10th, and 12th grades completed daily diaries every day for 14 days.

According to the researchers, regardless of how much a student generally studies each day, if that student sacrifices sleep time to study more than usual, he or she will have more trouble understanding material taught in class and be more likely to struggle on an assignment or test the following day.

Because students are increasingly likely to sacrifice sleep time for studying in the latter years of high school, this negative dynamic becomes increasingly prevalent over time.