I often ask school-age children: “If you could change one thing about school — anything — what would it be?”

Almost always, the answer is the same: “Homework.”

To which I am apt to reply: “You’d better get used to it; as you get older, there’s going to be a whole lot more.” What follows is usually a big sigh and the look that suggests they’ve already heard that before!

How much homework is enough, and how much is too much? That’s a question that teachers, parents, and students have been struggling with for a long time. The human race is getting smarter at a dizzying pace. The amount of information that children are expected to learn — and hopefully retain — rises every year. New discoveries and insights bring new knowledge that cannot be ignored and must be taught. Still, there are only 24 hours in a day for students to learn and play, to eat and sleep, and to do anything else they choose or are expected to do. That won’t change.

Robert Preidt spoke to the co-author of a new study from Spain that suggests that more than 70 minutes of homework per day adds very little value when measuring standardized test scores:

“The conclusion is that when it comes to homework, how is more important than how much,” wrote study co-author Javier Suarez-Alvarez, from the University of Oviedo. “Once individual effort and autonomous working is considered, the time spent becomes irrelevant.”


The issue, then, is about organization and learning efficiency — so called “executive functions.” Almost always, what separates an excellent student from the rest is his or her ability to stay focused and organized, so they can easily absorb what is taught at school and, then, get their homework done independently, without prompting or pleading from parents. In fact, how much help your child needs from you when doing homework can give you a good idea about their learning efficiencies.

Some parents expend a lot of effort just to get their children to sit down and get started with homework. (And very often, parents aren’t home when their children return from school, so any help with getting started, organization, or reteaching has to wait.) Not every home is conducive to an ideal study environment — a well-lit work space with a desk or table, free from audible and visual distractions — especially when there are other siblings, with other activities and needs, sharing the same space.

There are children who sit down readily to do homework but need reprompting, refocusing, and sometimes a little bit of reteaching to get homework completed. In this case, an hour of homework might take two (or longer!), quickly frustrating both students and parents. Helping these kids should be an ongoing task, requiring creative and repetitive strategies to improve organizational skills.

Children who need a lot of reteaching of subject matter are the students I worry about the most because they might have an obstacle in their learning processes, like a specific learning disability. These students initially don’t have a lack of desire to learn, and many don’t have a problem with sitting still to learn. What they do lack are the  executive function skills (the skills to learn and remember efficiently) required to complete school assignments and homework in the way we expect of most students. Trying to teach these children is difficult, especially if the school’s and parent’s attitudes are old-fashioned or misguided — like trying to pound a square peg into a round hole. While school itself might not be torture for children with these learning obstacles (especially if other talents, like art, music, sports, or hobbies are present), homework is. For them, limiting homework to 70 minutes or less every day might not be such a bad idea, especially if they can spend the extra time learning about and practicing the things they have an ability and passion for. (Of course, very few schools allow such individualized routes to academic success. Demonstrations of proficiencies in reading, math, and science — not art, music, athletics, or other talents — continue to be required in order to graduate from high school. Such emphasis is unlikely to change any time soon, leaving smart children who struggle to learn frustrated, if not defeated.)

Time spent doing homework and performance on standardized tests aside, today’s students and parents need to understand that once the curriculum changes from “learning to read” to “reading to learn” in the upper elementary grades, homework becomes more than just reinforcing and practicing what’s learned in the classroom. Self-discipline and time-management skills are developed through homework, as are good study habits and organizational strategies. All these traits are critical as students move on to college, where every hour of class time requires 2-3 hours of self-directed study time done independently outside the classroom. Even by high school, most good students have figured out that their teachers only give them the basic information they need to learn and succeed in each class. Much of their success comes from self-study and homework. The earlier students buy in to that fact, the sooner they’ll stop complaining about all the homework they’re getting!

The AAP offers help for parents in developing good homework habits here.