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Purpose of Homework
by Ron Kurtus (revised 8 July 2012)
Teachers often give assignments consisting of reading, problem solving, or writing that the students must do after class—usually at home.
Ideally, the purpose of homework is to help reinforce what was taught in class. Sometimes its purpose is to gather extra information beyond what was taught in class.
Unfortunately, there are some teachers who just don't understand the meaning of homework and give it as something to keep the students busy.
Questions you may have include:
- How does homework reinforce knowledge?
- What homework goes beyond what was taught in class?
- What is meaningless homework?
This lesson will answer those questions.
Although your teacher can provide information and explain the subject in class, you typically will only remember about 50% of the information you get by seeing and hearing the explanations.
Problem solving assignments
Although, you can ask your teacher questions if you do not completely understand the principles or facts involved, you still need to apply the information to learn the subject and turn it into knowledge. That is a major reason for homework assignments.
In class, Megan's teacher explained how to solve a certain type of math problem. But after Megan went home, she didn't bother doing her math homework or try to solve any math problems herself.
By the next day, she had already forgotten what had been taught the previous day.
Likewise, your teacher may explain the reasons for the action of people in an historical event. When you later read about the event, you can understand what really happened and why.
Going beyond what is taught in class
Sometimes teachers will only give an overview of material and then assign reading for the students to get the major part of the information. Then the next day, the teacher will answer any questions students may have or perhaps verbally quiz them on the material.
History, English Literature and Sociology are examples of classes that require extensive reading outside of class.
Jerry was glad he was able to speed-read, because he had so many reading assignments in his History class. Some of the slow readers were just left behind in the class.
Besides assigning reading, the students may be required to write an essay or answer questions in the book on what was read. This homework will be graded to verify that the student did the assignment and understood the material.
The advantage of outside reading is that much more material can be covered than what could be covered in class. The disadvantages to you are that questions you have may not be answered and there is no reinforcement to enhance understanding what was read.
The worst type of homework is the type that is meaningless or just "busy-work".
One example of this type of homework is having to do repetitive problems or solving puzzles that really don't add to your knowledge. Unfortunately, you may have to do this sort of nonsense to get a good grade in the class.
Making it meaningless
It is popular for teachers to assign students to look up some subject on the Internet and put together an essay on it. Many students will find a number of resources and copy and paste the material without really reading or understanding it.
All this amounts to is an exercise in using Google to find things, as opposed to actually learning something. It is also plagiarism, if the material is not written in your own words.
The purpose of homework is to help you learn what was taught in class or to gain information by reading and answering questions.
One type of homework reinforces what was taught in class. Another type consists of studying beyond what was explained in class. A third type of homework is simply meant to keep the students busy.
In any case, it is necessary to do your homework—and do it well—in order to get a good grade in the class.
You learn by doing
Resources and references
Ron Kurtus' Credentials
Homework Helper - Lists of homework webistes for all levels from CollegeScholarships.org
Good Grades Resources
Top-rated books on Studying
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Like all teachers, I’ve spent many hours correcting homework. Yet there’s a debate over whether we should be setting it at all.
I teach both primary and secondary, and regularly find myself drawn into the argument on the reasoning behind it – parents, and sometimes colleagues, question its validity. Parent-teacher interviews can become consumed by how much trouble students have completing assignments. All of which has led me to question the neuroscience behind setting homework. Is it worth it?
'My son works until midnight': parents around the world on homework
Increasingly, there’s a divide between those who support the need for homework and those who suggest the time would be better spent with family and developing relationships. The anxiety related to homework is frequently reviewed.
A survey of high-performing high schools by the Stanford Graduate School of Education, for example, found that 56% of students considered homework a primary source of stress. These same students reported that the demands of homework caused sleep deprivation and other health problems, as well as less time for friends, family and extracurricular pursuits.
When students learn in the classroom, they are using their short-term or working memory. This information is continually updated during the class. On leaving the classroom, the information in the working memory is replaced by the topic in the next class.
Adults experience a similar reaction when they walk into a new room and forget why they are there. The new set of sensory information – lighting, odours, temperature – enters their working memory and any pre-existing information is displaced. It’s only when the person returns to the same environment that they remember the key information.
But education is about more than memorising facts. Students need to access the information in ways that are relevant to their world, and to transfer knowledge to new situations.
Many of us will have struggled to remember someone’s name when we meet them in an unexpected environment (a workmate at the gym, maybe), and we are more likely to remember them again once we’ve seen them multiple times in different places. Similarly, students must practise their skills in different environments.
Revising the key skills learned in the classroom during homework increases the likelihood of a student remembering and being able to use those skills in a variety of situations in the future, contributing to their overall education.
The link between homework and educational achievement is supported by research: a meta-analysis of studies between 1987 and 2003 found that: “With only rare exceptions, the relationship between the amount of homework students do and their achievement outcomes was found to be positive and statistically significant.”
The right type of work
The homework debate is often split along the lines of primary school compared with secondary school. Education researcher Professor John Hattie, who has ranked various influences on student learning and achievement, found that homework in primary schools has a negligible effect (most homework set has little to no impact on a student’s overall learning). However, it makes a bigger difference in secondary schools.
His explanation is that students in secondary schools are often given tasks that reinforce key skills learned in the classroom that day, whereas primary students may be asked to complete separate assignments. “The worst thing you can do with homework is give kids projects; the best thing you can do is reinforce something you’ve already learned,” he told the BBC in 2014.
The science of homework: tips to engage students' brains
So homework can be effective when it’s the right type of homework. In my own practice, the primary students I teach will often be asked to find real-life examples of the concept taught instead of traditional homework tasks, while homework for secondary students consolidates the key concepts covered in the classroom. For secondary in particular, I find a general set of rules useful:
- Set work that’s relevant. This includes elaborating on information addressed in the class or opportunities for students to explore the key concept in areas of their own interest.
- Make sure students can complete the homework. Pitch it to a student’s age and skills – anxiety will only limit their cognitive abilities in that topic. A high chance of success will increase the reward stimulation in the brain.
- Get parents involved, without the homework being a point of conflict with students. Make it a sharing of information, rather than a battle.
- Check the homework with the students afterwards. This offers a chance to review the key concepts and allow the working memory to become part of the long-term memory.
While there is no data on the effectiveness of homework in different subjects, these general rules could be applied equally to languages, mathematics or humanities. And by setting the right type of homework, you’ll help to reinforce key concepts in a new environment, allowing the information you teach to be used in a variety of contexts in the future.
Helen Silvester is a writer for npj Science of Learning Community
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