Every evening, after a full day of classes, usually followed by a two-hour basketball practice, my son, Nathaniel, climbs the stairs to his room lugging a heavy backpack and disappears into a black hole. As a 10th-grader in an academically rigorous Los Angeles high school, this is his nightly homework routine: three to four hours of English, history, Spanish, science and math.
Besides a short break for family dinner—a nightly ritual that my husband and I insist on, lest we risk never seeing him during the week—Nathaniel pretty much keeps his head down until at least 11 pm, when he and I start to tussle over bedtime.
Given this relentless reality, it is not surprising that a recent study about homework from Stanford University caught my eye. The researchers sampled 4,317 students from 10 high performing high schools—both private and public—in upper-middle-class California communities and found that they averaged more than three hours of homework each night, just like my boy.
They also found that students with such heavy homework loads experienced high stress; health issues like stomach aches, exhaustion, headaches, weight loss, weight gain and sleep deprivation; and less time for friends, family and extracurricular activities. (Full disclosure: Nathaniel, who certainly feels the stress, attends one of the schools that participated in the study.)
Depending on his basketball schedule, Nathaniel typically leaves the house at 7:30 a.m. and gets home 10 hours later, sometime around 6 p.m. With a little downtime “to chill,” a quick shower and dinner, he often doesn’t even start his homework until 8 p.m.
“Some kids are putting in adult loads, and they’re not adults,” says Denise Pope, a senior lecturer at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education, who led the research. “It’s exhausting to be in school for eight hours—always being on, listening, being engaged and then coming home to face hours of homework.”
To be sure, not all kids struggle to keep up with this nightly crush. In fact, most don’t. A new report from the Brookings Institution points out that, overall, homework loads haven’t changed much in three decades, with the majority of high school students doing just an hour per night. Citing a 2007 MetLife survey, the Brookings scholars noted that there are more U.S. parents who think their kids have too little homework rather than too much—25% compared with 15%.
All of which got me thinking: What is that Goldilocks-like sweet spot when it comes to how much homework a kid should have? And what is homework really meant to accomplish in the first place?
For some answers, I turned to Pope, who is the co-founder of Challenge Success, a nonprofit out of Stanford that works with schools and families to create a more balanced and academically fulfilling life for kids. Here are some principles she suggests for creating an ideal homework environment:
1. Give high school students two hours of homework a night. Like most experts, Pope believes that this is just the right amount. After that, the link between homework and achievement drops, stress increases and learning declines.
2. Just because a lot of homework is assigned doesn’t necessarily mean it is intellectually demanding. “There is a lot of confusion between rigor and load on the part of teachers, administrators and parents,” Pope says.
With this in mind, she advises teachers to always ask themselves a list of questions before assigning homework: What is the purpose of the assignment? How long will it take an average student to do it? Is it clear? Is the homework valuable and meaningful to students? What is the quality of the homework being assigned? In other words, does it serve to engage students more deeply with the material—or is it just busy work?
3. Homework should be tailored to each individual’s needs, whenever possible. Although this can be challenging, especially for public school teachers with large classes, Pope says customization is essential for maximizing learning. For example, rather than give an entire class 25 math problems to complete, students with a good grasp of the concepts might get fewer but more challenging problems; kids who are struggling could be assigned problems specifically designed to help them master the basics.
4. In preparing kids for what will happen in class, homework should concentrate on tasks that can’t be done effectively during the school day. This includes things like reading chapters from a book, collecting specimens in the backyard for a science experiment or interviewing someone from the community for an oral history project.
5. Rethink giving points for homework. Assigning points for completed homework may give kids a chance to improve their overall grade in a particular class—showing their organizational skills, ability to follow directions and work ethic—but Pope says it does little to demonstrate their actual command of a subject.
6. Parents shouldn’t help with homework or be the homework police. They can advocate for smart homework policies at their children’s school. But “let teachers intervene if the student isn’t doing homework correctly or regularly,” Pope says.
Parents can help, she adds, by respecting their children’s working style—some need a quiet space, others like to listen to music while doing calculus. They can also make sure their kids aren’t overscheduled and that they get enough sleep; research indicates that teenagers need more than nine hours of sleep each night, but that most get about seven.
Hmm. It looks like Nathaniel’s light is still on as I type this. Time for him to trade the books for bed.