Too Much Homework? Some parents complain that their children don't have enough homework. Others say there is too much. Homework expert Harris Cooper, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, discusses the issue with Madeleine Brand, as part of a series of reports on education. We hear from listeners, too.
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Too Much Homework?

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Too Much Homework?

Too Much Homework?

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is Day to Day. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

I'm Alex Chadwick. It's the start of the school year. Put down the videogames, kids, time for studies again. Day to Day is looking at issues in education this fall. We've asked for your emails, your comments, your letters. Homework is at the top of your list. Too much homework.

BRAND: And so, we called Duke University's Harris Cooper. He's the author of the book, "The Battle over Homework: Common Ground for Administrators, Teachers, and Parents." And here he is now to tell just how much homework is enough.

Dr. HARRIS COOPER (Social Psychology, Duke University): Essentially, what the guideline boils down to is what I refer to as the 10-minute rule, which means 10 minutes per night per grade - first graders 10 minutes, second graders 20 minutes, third graders 30 minutes, and so on. We do have research that says when middle-school kids are doing between 60 to 90 minutes of homework a night, they're doing as well as kids who claim to be doing more. And in high school, when you get up much past two to two and a half hours, kids who say they're spending more time on homework than that are going to be doing just as well, if not - no better than kids who are doing that amount.

BRAND: Now, the negative aspects we all know about, people complain about, that there's too much, that it's boring, that in fact in early grades, from - in grade school, from kindergarten through six, it doesn't seem to do much in terms of achievement.

Dr. COOPER: Yeah, that's part of it. It does have some specific impacts at those earlier grades. Other negative things that people will say, the opponents of homework will say, is that it crowds out opportunities for other activities, like taking part in soccer, in the scouts or church activities that will lead kids to become well-rounded individuals.

Sometimes parents create great pressure on their children to do well, perhaps too well. Perhaps their expectations for their children are a little bit too high. And sometimes the instructional techniques that they'll use will be different from the ones that are being used in class, and that can lead to something that we refer to as instructional confusion, meaning Mom and Dad teach me how to do it one way, and the teacher teaches me how to do it another way, and the kid doesn't learn anything. If anything, they never learn how to do it, traumatized for life.

BRAND: Professor Cooper, what tips do you have for parents who may feel that they are overwhelmed, that they are not able to abide by the 10-minute rule, that their seven year olds are, in fact, taking home one hour's worth of homework or more every night? What do you say to them? What can they do? What are some coping strategies?

Dr. COOPER: Now, the first thing to do is to really check and make sure that that one hour is really an hour-long assignment, and not a 15- or 20- or half-an-hour-long assignment that's taking your kid an hour and a half to do. They might not recognize that there's also text messaging, Simpson's (ph) on the Internet, a phone call, a little bit of magazine reading that's gone in there as well, so that it wasn't a concentrated effort.

If they then still feel as if this homework assignment is too much, then they really ought to go and talk with the teacher. But they shouldn't do so in a confrontational or combative way. They should say, I've looked at this in my house and it's too much for my kid. We've looked at how they study, we've made arrangements that they do their work in an efficient fashion, and we need your help in making this most effective. Communicate to them, as they will to you, that really what you are is a team, and you both have the best interests of your child in mind. And most educators will respond positively to those kinds of appeals.

BRAND: You are a teacher. You have students, I guess, at Duke University.

Dr. COOPER: I have students.

BRAND: And how much homework do you give?

Prof. COOPER: Tons and tons and tons of homework.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRAND: Hours upon hours.

Dr. COOPER: Thousands. Hours upon hours. College is a little bit different, and actually, proponents of homework will tell you that getting ready for college is a real good reason for why kids should be doing homework. In college, really, the relationship between how much time you spend in school, in class, and how much time you're expected to spend studying outside of class almost reverses itself. The kids are expected to spend more time studying on their own in college than they are to be spending the hours that they spend in class.

And one of the concerns that people have about doing away with homework is that we would be left with, perhaps, a generation of kids who just don't know how to study on their own. If we use that 10-minute rule to develop those kinds of study habits and time-management skills, then perhaps when they go off on their own, they'll do better in college, and they'll be lifelong learners.

It's the case that you take homework home and I take homework home, and I've learned how to do homework in lots of different environments, my homework in lots of different environments, and if I wasn't able to do that, if I was only able to do work when I was sitting in my office, I probably wouldn't be a very successful professor. And for most adults, they are learning on the job and off the job, new skills, and homework is one way to help people generalize their learning environment from outside of the classroom.

BRAND: Harris Cooper is a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University. He's the author of the book, "The Battle over Homework: Common Ground for Administrators, Teachers, and Parents," and he gives a lot of homework. Professor Cooper, thank you very much.

Dr. COOPER: Thanks for inviting me.

BRAND: OK, Alex, too much homework not so good for little kids, but beneficial for high-school students, and expect lots of it in college.

CHADWICK: Well, we gave you, our listeners, a take-home assignment. This was last week, recall, to write about education concerns, what are you worried about in school. So, you wrote about school budget cuts in this lackluster economy, and whether kids are being challenged enough in schools, and what kind of computer skills they're learning beyond Facebook.

BRAND: Facebook's a valuable learning tool. Homework is a big concern, as we mentioned. Another is testing. There's too much of it, says this mom.

Ms. KATE BEEM (Listener): Hi, this is Kate Beem from Independence, Missouri. Testing has sucked the joy out of learning. My kids are great readers who've been exposed to great literature since before birth. We receive two daily newspapers and scads of magazines, and our bookshelves are overflowing, but they see no value in reading a book that they won't be tested on.

CHADWICK: Thank you for that, Ms. Beem. And now, you listeners at home, maybe you haven't gotten your homework completed yet on this assignment? Remember, we're just looking for your concerns about education. What do you think about it? Here is where to go, npr.org/daytoday. There you can click on the Contact Us link - it's on the right-hand side - and put "education" in the subject line.

BRAND: And you can also leave a comment on our blog. We have some tips there today on handling homework, what the right amount should be, what kind of homework should be out there. It's npr.org/daydreaming.

(Soundbite of song "I Can't Do My Homework Anymore")

Mr. OTIS RUSH: (Singing) Can't do my homework anymore. I can't do my homework anymore.

BRAND: Stay with us. NPR's Day to Day continues.

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