Homework, with its benefits and drawbacks, is a conundrum I have worried at since the day I started teaching. I became a teacher in 1999, and watched the millennium turn with a self-contained class of fifth grade students in a small, rural school. Now, after nearly 20 years in the classroom, I think back fondly on those students and shudder at the myriad mistakes I made. I was an intern with no credential and only a handful of teaching courses to my name. Since then, I have become much more confident and at ease as an educator. I am comfortable not having all the answers, secure in my ability to work with peers, parents, and students. I have embraced change and a growth mindset, always ready to try new strategies and refine old ones. As such, I often wish that I could go back and reteach that first class, give them the benefits of my own years of learning. I am certain I could do a better job now than I did then. I’m certain about many things—but not about homework. Homework remains a conundrum.
I think that most teachers would agree that homework is one of the three most frustrating aspects of teaching, right up there with paperwork and behavior management. It seems as if, no matter what you do, no matter what you try, no one is ever satisfied. Parents either want more homework, less homework, or none at all. Students, especially struggling learners, are usually unhappy with their homework. They want it to be challenging, but not hard. They want it to be easy, but also interesting. They want to have choices, but they usually default to doing to same things again and again. Many are overwhelmed by even the simplest assignments. They avoid, deflect, dodge, dump, complain, groan, cry, or suffer in silence. Sometimes the parents do these things, too. Still, no matter how frustrating it becomes, we can’t get away from homework. As the researchers Bempechat, Li, Neier, Gillis, and Holloway (2011) said, homework remains an “…enduring aspect of students’ educational experience” (p. 250).
Definition of Key Terms
Anxiety. “In context of schoolwork, anxiety is the feeling of helplessness, tension and/or psychological distress that occurs when a student finds it difficult to cope with the said schoolwork” (Cheema & Sheridan, 2015, p. 247).
Conflict. “Mental struggle resulting from incompatible or opposing needs, drives, wishes, or external or internal demands” (Conflict in Merriam-Webster.com).
Homework. Assigned work that is intended to be completed outside of school during non-curricular hours without the supervision of the teacher (Cooper, Robinson & Patall, 2006).
Resources. For the purposes of this study, resources is taken to mean tools and services required for the successful completion of homework, such as textbooks, writing materials, project materials, calculators, computer access, and internet access.
Stress. “…a particular relationship between the person and the environment that is assessed by the person to be taxing, dangerous to his or her well-being, or exceeding his or her resources” (Crystal, Chen, Fuligni & Stevenson, 1994, p. 750).
Homework-Related Stress and Mental Health in Adolescents
It often appears as if the debate surrounding homework will never end but merely rise and fall with the passage of time (Cooper, 2001; Corno and Xu, 2004; Frey & Fisher, 2011, Watkins & Stevens, 2013; Murillo & Martinez-Garrido, 2014). Harris Cooper, an educator known for his research on homework, even went so far as to claim that the homework controversy runs on a 30-year cycle with the call for more or less homework occurring every 15 years (Cooper, 2001). Perhaps it is the unusual nature of homework that engenders the controversy. Cooper et al. (2006) described homework as assigned work that is intended to be completed outside of school during non-curricular hours and without the supervision of the teacher. In this regard, homework is unique in the experience of teachers and students (Bryan, T., Burstein & Bryan, J., 2001). It is generally accepted among educators that homework has some academic benefits (Cooper et al., 2006; Hattie, 2012), so why does it remain controversial? According to Bennett and Kalish (2006), Galloway and Pope (2007), Pope (2010), and Kouzma and Kennedy (2004), the answer may be as simple, and as complex, as stress. The purpose of this review of literature is to examine how homework-related stress impacts students’ mental health.
In order to understand the impact that homework has on the mental health of adolescents, it is first important to understand, in a general way, the purpose behind homework, the context in which it is assigned, and the problems that affect its planning, preparation, and completion.
Studies have, for the most part, born out a strong positive association between homework and academic achievement at the high school level (Cooper, 2001; Cooper & Valentine, 2001; Cooper et al., 2006; Houser, Maheady, Pomerantz & Jabot, 2015). There is also a lesser, but still positive, association between homework and academic achievement at the middle school level (Cooper et al., 2006; Cooper, 2001; Cooper & Valentine, 2001; Murillo & Martinez-Garrido, 2014), though researchers found a negligible or non-existent association between homework and academic achievement at the elementary school level (Cooper et al., 2006; Cooper, 2001; Cooper & Valentine, 2001; Murillo & Martinez-Garrido, 2014). Interestingly, Spanish researchers Núñez, Suárez, Rosário, Vallejo, Valle, et al. (2015) noted a significant correlation between homework completion and academic achievement for all three school levels, though they did note that the level of significance decreased from high school to elementary school.
Homework also has clear benefits when examined by subject matter. Researchers Mau and Lynn (2000) found a significant positive correlation between homework and academic achievement in the subjects of math, reading, and science, noting that the correlation was even more significant for girls than for boys. In more recent studies, researchers Murillo and Martinez-Garrido (2014), in their work with an international, Latin American population of nearly 200,000 students, and researchers Cheema and Sheridan (2015) found a significant positive association between homework and math achievement. Ultimately, Cooper, Robinson and Patall (2006) describe the association between homework and academic achievement as a relationship that is positive and “robust” (p. 47), if not conclusive.
While data to support the academic benefits of homework in the lower elementary grades are scarce, there are other benefits to homework, even in elementary school, that should be taken into consideration. Homework and careers have many similar characteristics. As a result, some educators suggest that doing homework gives students the opportunity to develop career-related skills and attributes such as self-direction, self-discipline, organization, and problem solving (Cooper, 2001). Researchers Corno and Xu, who proclaimed homework the “quintessential job of childhood” (2004, p. 227), noted that homework acts as career preparation by teaching students responsibility, follow-through, self-control, self-motivation, task management, calendar use, and delay of gratification. To this list, Bempechat et al. (2011) added the ability to endure boredom; which some might consider a commentary in and of itself on the basic nature of homework. Based on the findings of Xu (2005), despite the boring characteristics of most homework, a majority of students agree with the idea that homework has value, believing it teaches them discipline and work habits that they will one day need for a career. Based on these findings, it seems that most educators—and even students—see meaning in at least some aspects of homework. Nevertheless, homework remains controversial (Van Voorhis, 2011; Bennett & Kalish, 2006; Kohn, 2006).
Reasons for controversy
One reason that homework continues to generate resistance among educators and parents may be the discrepant nature of the findings of homework studies conducted over the last few decades. Many studies on the value and effectiveness of homework contradict each other (Cooper & Valentine, 2001; Galloway & Pope, 2007; Cheema & Sheridan, 2015). This can raise doubts among stakeholders in the homework process. However, even when all stakeholders view homework as valuable, they may find it difficult to know what form of homework is most likely to benefit students as it can vary widely based on the subject of study or the student’s grade level, ability level, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or gender (Cooper et al., 2006; Corno & Xu, 2004; Hong, Wan & Peng, 2011). Though Hattie (2012), Cooper and Valentine (2001), and Cooper et al. (2006) demonstrated that it is possible to examine many seemingly contradictory research studies in a systematic manner and identify common patterns and general “truths,” such meta-analysis is time-consuming and unlikely to be undertaken by classroom teachers, the educators most in need of the information.
Also, while homework can provide distinct academic benefits in middle school and high school—which one might assume would make homework of value to teachers—some researchers claim that teachers don’t value homework at all (Chen & Stevenson, 1989) while other researchers assert that teachers do value the results of homework but do not value the time-consuming homework process (Corno & Xu, 2004). According to researchers Núñez, Suárez, Rosário, Vallejo, Cerezo, et al. (2015) and Cooper et al. (2006), the most beneficial forms of homework, as perceived by teachers, appear to be the most time consuming to plan and prepare. According to Cooper et al. (2006), teachers complain that they simply are not given enough time to plan and prepare effective homework.
Yet, teachers are not the only frustrated participants in the homework process. As evidenced by the popularity of books such as The Case Against Homework: How Homework is Hurting Children and What Parents Can Do About It (2007), The Battle Over Homework: Common Ground for Administrators, Teachers, and Parents (2007), and The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing (2006), some parents are opposed to homework either as it currently exists or to any homework at all. Bryan et al. (2001) noted that some mothers have reported no longer providing homework assistance to their children in order to avoid conflict at home. Sheridan (2009) stressed that homework has the ability to “wreak havoc in the lives of many children and families who fail to master behavioral and environmental routines that create conditions and patterns conducive for optimal performance” (p. 334).
Conflict is not the only reason that some parents object to homework, however. Even when little conflict exists, homework can be exceptionally time-consuming for students and their parents. Researchers Axelrod, Zhe, Haugen, and Klein (2009) demonstrated just how time-consuming homework can be by conducting an entire study on a homework self-monitoring system for students that requires lengthy participation from parents to function successfully; and researcher Van Voorhis (2011) also reported, in her longitudinal study, on a homework intervention system that requires lengthy time commitments from parents and teachers. Though it should be noted that Van Voorhis found the TIPS intervention to have significant positive benefits for parents, and students.
Most importantly, parents resist homework because it can place a considerable strain on the mental health of students (Galloway & Pope, 2007, Conner, Pope & Galloway, 2009-2010; Corno & Xu, 2004) as many innate characteristics of homework engender daily stress for U.S. students.
Why Homework Related Stress Matters
There is a popular myth that students from traditionally high-achieving Asian countries pay for their academic success with the coin of their mental health, yet a study by Crystal et al. (1994) found that, when it comes to stress, students in the U.S. far outrank their Japanese and Chinese counterparts. The findings of Crystal et al.’s (1994) study were shared more than 20 years ago, but little appears to have changed since then. Homework-related stress is a sufficiently widespread problem that Corno and Xu (2004) and Australian researchers Kouzma and Kennedy (2004) suggested that teachers should be instructing students in coping mechanisms and stress management while Conner et al. (2009-2010) referred to stress as an epidemic in U.S. schools. Conner et al. (2009-2010) added that students identify schoolwork as a dominant source of stress in their lives, and the researchers noted that students more frequently cite schoolwork and homework as a major source of stress than family problems such as divorce or conflict with their parents and siblings. In fact, the majority of students identify homework as one of the top three sources of stress in their lives (Pope, 2010; Corno & Xu, 2004).
In a study by Conner et al. (2009-2010), high-achieving, middle-class students self-reported stress as taking a serious toll on their mental health, physical health, and their ability to learn. The researchers noted that the students described themselves as “stressed out, overworked, and sleep deprived” (Conner at al., 2009-2010, p. 54), all of which negatively impact a student’s mental health. This is in keeping with the Crystal et al. (1994) study in which researchers found that the high level of stress reported by students was the result of “cognitive appraisals that the demands of their environment exceed their abilities to cope with these demands” (p. 750). Researchers Corno and Xu (2004) and Pope and Simon (2005) identified similar concerns for high-achieving students as those found by Conner et al. (2009-2010); additionally, Corno and Xu (2004) noted that low-achieving students who practice task avoidance in order to avoid looking incapable are also likely to experience high levels of anxiety and report mental health problems.
The strain that homework puts on students’ mental health takes a physical toll as well. In Conner et al.’s (2009-2010) study, students reported both persistent exhaustion and getting far less than the recommended amount of sleep due primarily to a high volume of homework. More than 44 percent of high-achieving high school students who reported feelings of homework-related stress also reported physical symptoms (headaches and stomach problems) which they attributed to stress, 25 percent reported feelings of depression within the last month, and 7 percent reported engaging in self-harm (Conner at al., 2009-2010). This is in keeping with the findings of researchers Corno and Xu (2004) who noted that the more time students spend on homework, the more likely they are to report stress-related physical symptoms.
In a study conducted at Stanford, high-achieving high school students reported using illegal stimulants to keep up with their homework loads (Pope, 2010). In referring to the same Stanford study, Conner et al. (2009-2010) noted that 24 percent of students reported using legal stimulants such as caffeine while 8 percent of students reported using illegal stimulants as well as drinking alcohol to relieve stress, chronic insomnia, and anxiety. Similar students in a smaller study (Pope & Simon, 2005) reported loss of sleep, lack of exercise, and unhealthy diets due to schoolwork overload. Once again, this is in keeping with Crystal et al.’s (1994) study in which researchers found that U.S. students suffered from more somatic complaints than their Japanese contemporaries.
Sources of Homework-Related Stress for Students
After a review of related homework literature, it is possible to boil down the sources of homework-related stress and anxiety to quantity of homework, quality of homework, schedule conflicts, inequality of resources, home support, and home conflict. Each of these potential sources of stress bear consideration as they present students with challenges of which educators need to be aware.
Quantity of homework
How much homework is too much? Though more concerned with the quality of homework that is being assigned, Frey and Fisher (2011) noted that “Great debates can be had about the amount of homework that is appropriate for the age of the learner” (p. 56), and Pressman et al. (2015) reported that the research on the appropriate quantity of homework for students is decidedly equivocal. Studies disagree on the issues of both frequency of homework and length of homework. Researchers Zhu and Leung (2012) and Murillo and Martinez-Garrido (2014) found that there was no significant correlation between the frequency of homework academic achievement. Other researchers, such as Mau and Lynn (2000) and Cheema and Sheridan (2015) have found that homework frequency does have a positive association with academic achievement. Some researchers claim that infrequent, longer homework assignments have positive correlations with academic achievement (Zhu & Leung, 2012). However, research has more commonly pointed to prolonged time spent on homework as having a non-significant—or even negative—association with academic achievement (Kitsantas, Cheema, et al., 2011; Murillo & Martinez-Garrido, 2014; Cooper, 2001; Bryan et al. 2001; Trautwein, 2007; Eldrige, 2009). Given the conflicting results of varied studies, determining how frequently homework should be given and how long that homework should take can be a challenging task for teachers.
Equally challenging is the attempt to ascertain how much homework students are actually being assigned as there is much disagreement in the literature and even within individual studies. One possible explanation for this is that parents’ perceptions of the amount of homework assigned to students varies based on factors such as grade level, parent education level, and family ethnicity (Pressman et al., 2015). When examined by education level, Pressman et al. reported that in primary school, parents of all education levels perceive an equal amount of homework, at the middle and high school levels, college-educated parents perceived a great increase in homework load while parents with a high school diploma, GED, or less than a high school diploma perceived the amount of homework as dropping significantly. When examined by ethnicity, Pressman et al. (2011) reported that Hispanic parents perceive their children’s homework loads as higher in elementary school while non-Hispanic parents perceive the homework load as higher in middle school and high school. This list of factors impacting the varied perceptions of homework load doesn’t even account for the varying views of parents based on student ability level. Bryan et al. (2007) noted that the parents of students with learning disabilities view homework as an “added burden” (p. 170) for those already struggling with school.
Still, some researchers have attempted to determine how much time students are devoting to homework (Conner et al., 2009-2010; Pressman et al., 2015; Murillo & Martinez-Garrido, 2014; Corno & Xu, 2004). When studies examine the number of hours students spend doing homework, the answer is generally that students do more as they advance in grade level (Pressman et al., 2015; Murillo & Martinez-Garrido, 2014). Beyond that, there are—once again—contradictory findings, sometimes within the same study. Pressman et al. (2015) reported that “…the actual homework load increased as students progress from kindergarten (K) until 12th grade, with a significant spike in the 6th and 7th grades and the largest average amount of time in the 10th grade at 53.9 minutes per night” (p. 303). Pressman et al. (2015) noted, as a point of interest, that high school students had only about an hour of homework a day at all grade levels, far less than the recommended 90-120 minutes.
However, Pressman et al.’s (2015) findings were divergent from those of both Corno and Xu (2004) and Conner at al. (2009-2010) who found that high-achieving high school students reported spending 3 hours or more a day on homework. According to Australian researchers Kouzma and Kennedy (2002), high school seniors self-reported spending 39 hours per week (for girls) and 32 hours per week (for boys) on homework. The researchers doubted these seemingly extreme figures, but, when questioned, the students’ teachers confirmed that they should be spending anywhere from 21-32 hours per week on homework. Though lower than the students’ self-reported estimates, the teachers’ estimates are in keeping with the findings of Corno and Xu (2004) and Conner et al. (2009-2010). Additionally, Kouzma and Kennedy (2002) found a significant positive correlation between the number of hours that students self-reported spending on homework and their self-reported levels of stress.
If these figures are accurate, then high school students may regularly face a work load that would daunt and stress many adults. “When students spend 6 or 7 hours in school and another 3 or more hours on homework, they face a longer workday than most adults” (Corno and Xu, 2004). A high homework load combined with daily homework spanning most students’ lives from age 5 to age 18 lead researcher Bruce Jackson (2007) to hypothesize that educators are, in essence, inoculating students against homework. Jackson argued that “…for a substantial portion of our students, the experience of constantly facing routine homework assignments in the name of developing ‘good homework habits’ during the early elementary years has a perverse effect on later attitudes toward truly important work” (p. 56). This supposition is supported by Cooper (2001), who found that one negative effect of homework was the loss of interest in schoolwork due to homework satiation, and Corno and Xu (2004), who noted that homework can be stressful for children and that repeated negative homework experiences can cause children to dislike academic work in general. Even Murillo and Martinez-Garrido (2014), who found a significant positive correlation between homework and math achievement, noted that work overload may diminish students’ academic achievement.
Further examination of the literature demonstrates that the quantity of assigned homework is not the only factor adding stress to students’ lives. Jackson (2007) argued that, even with the best of intentions, many teachers inevitably make the wrong decisions about how much and what kinds of homework to assign because what they think works most effectively is often counterintuitive to what research supports as effective. The result is often low-quality homework, the importance of which is diminished by teachers, parents, and students alike.
Quality of homework
Conner, Pope and Galloway (2009-2010) reported that 95 percent of 11th and 12th grade students in their study complained of being “frustrated by tedious assignments that hold little meaning” (p. 55), frustration which ultimately contributes to academic stress. According to researchers Frey and Fisher (2011), there are four basic types of “quality” homework: fluency practice, application, spiral review, and extension. Each of these types of homework has academic meaning, which students need, but even with meaningful homework, there are still potential concerns. Regarding fluency practice homework, a study by Malaysian researchers Sidhu et al. (2010) recommended caution, noting that students expressed frustration with repetitive homework practice that only engages lower order thinking skills (p. 213). Regarding application, though not speaking specifically of homework, Frey, Schmitt and Allen (2012) asserted that application is one of the most authentic forms of student assessment; however, Zhu and Leung (2012) reported that the small amount of application-based homework being reported by teachers is a “worrying sign” (p. 921). Meanwhile, Jackson (2007) noted spiral review homework is frequently ignored by low-achieving students who suffer few serious consequences for not completing it. Regardless of the form, usefulness is the key to making homework meaningful and high quality for students. Researchers Corno and Xu (2004) reported that students who can readily perceive the usefulness of their homework are less likely to experience mental health problems such as stress and anxiety as well as the somatic systems that often accompany these mental health concerns.
Quality homework has meaning and utility for students and teachers. Poor quality homework, the product of too little planning time or too low expectations, generally has neither meaning nor utility (Jackson, 2007; Corno & Xu, 2004). Researchers have shown that poorly designed and implemented homework is counterproductive in regard to academic achievement (Bennett & Kalish, 2006; Kohn, 2006). According to Bae, Holloway, Li, and Bempechat (2008), work that demonstrates low teacher expectations strongly and negatively impacts students’ self-concept. This is further demonstrated by researchers Núñez, Suárez, Rosário, Vallejo, Cerezo, et al. (2015) who found that students’ perceptions of teacher feedback on homework had a significant correlation with both homework effort and completion rates. Students respond strongly to the messages teachers give them—whether explicit or implicit—so when teachers don’t value homework, students don’t value homework (Cooper et al., 2006). By contrast, when students perceive that teachers have high expectations, both academic achievement and student motivation experience a substantial boost (Watkins & Stevens, 2013).
All too often, however, homework isn’t designed at all. Rather, it is a stopgap solution to the problem of too much curriculum and too little time (Frey & Fisher, 2011; Corno & Xu, 2004; Pressman et al., 2015). According to Frey and Fisher (2011), homework should never be new concepts; “Homework should come after teachers have modeled the thinking and procedures required for the task or skill” (p. 56). Unfortunately, homework often consists of relatively new or entirely new concepts because teachers ran out of time to finish instructional materials in class and assign it as homework in order to meet academic requirements or keep up with pacing guides (Frey & Fisher, 2011; Pressman et al., 2015).
Frey and Fisher (2011, p. 56-57) reported that students’ responses to new concept homework can be broken into four types and that the student population of every classroom is a mix of those four types: completer, neglecter, cheater, and error-maker. The completer will finish new concept homework and get help to do so if necessary. They have the resources they need and the motivation to see homework through regardless of its quantity or quality (Frey & Fisher, 2011).
The neglecter will leave homework partially or wholly unfinished regardless of the consequences (Frey & Fisher, 2011; Jackson, 2007). The student’s intention is seldom to be defiant but is merely a response to a situation the student doesn’t know how to handle. When faced with an overwhelming homework load or work that they simply don’t understand, many students choose to simply ignore the work or complete the bare minimum needed to pass (Pope, 2010). Teachers often respond to the presence of neglecters in their classes by attempting interventions that don’t work or can’t be maintained (Reinhardt et al., 2009; Jackson, 2007), and finally by cutting back on the amount of homework they assign (Watkins & Stevens, 2013). As frustrating as the behavior of neglecters is for teachers, it is equally as puzzling and stressful for the neglecters themselves. According to Jackson (2007), many students don’t understand why they avoid tackling homework. Speaking of his own time as a teacher, Jackson said, “Countless frustrating conversations convinced me that most students in this situation can’t tell you the real reasons for their behavior, because they themselves don’t know” (p. 56).
Where the cheater is concerned, the findings of Frey and Fisher (2011) are in keeping with the previous findings of Cooper (2001) and Pope (2010), who noted that one common negative effect of homework is the creation among students of a disposition to cheat. The cheater will copy another student’s homework or get someone else to do it for them (Frey & Fisher, 2011). Ironically, it is the very fact that many students turn to cheating to keep up with their homework that may encourage teachers to assign little importance to homework (Jackson, 2007).
Finally, the error-maker will attempt to complete homework but will do so largely incorrectly. New concept homework is a source of stress for all four types of students, and it is especially egregious in the case of the error-maker because “Unfortunately, practice does not make perfect—it makes permanent” (Frey & Fisher, 2011, p. 56).
Schedule conflicts are another major source of homework-related stress for students and their families. According to Pressman et al. (2015), parents want more quality time for their children outside of school and are tired of trying to “…balance extra-curricular activities with homework requirements” (p. 298). The combined load of homework and extra-curricular activities can be especially overwhelming as reported by Pope and Simon (2005) and Conner et al. (2009-2010), the latter of whom noted that high-achieving high school students reported spending three hours a night on homework and an additional two hours a night on extracurricular activities. This is time that parents may not have to spare or may not wish to devote to homework. According to Pressman et al. (2015), “Homework may supplant more enjoyable family leisure pursuits,” which is particularly alarming because “When homework routines conflict with family leisure time and other family routines, homework has been found to be associated with lower measures of emotional well-being among children and parents across several studies” (p. 298).
Pressman et al.’s (2015) findings are in agreement with the previous findings of Cooper, Jackson and Nye (2001) who noted that the parent’s attitude toward homework correlates with the student’s attitude toward homework. As such, positive parent attitude and involvement in homework is a strong predictor of academic success for students (Cooper et al., 2001), but when students pick up on a negative parent attitude toward homework and perceive the experience as negative, stress levels rise.
Perhaps more important from the adolescent’s perspective is the fact that homework interferes with leisure activities that are often students’ main priority. Conner et al. (2009-2010) noted that more than 60 percent of high-achieving students reported being unable to spend time with family and friends and having to drop an extracurricular activity they greatly enjoyed due to homework. This bolsters the findings of Cooper (2001), Corno and Xu (2004), and Núñez, Suárez, Rosário, Vallejo, Cerezo, et al. (2015), all of whom reported that students complain of being denied access to leisure pursuits, hobbies, and community activities because of homework. High-achieving U.S. students may suffer even more stress than their low-achieving counterparts because they are more likely to try and do it all (Crystal et al., 1994). Meanwhile, Jackson (2007) argued that spending time on homework has a social stigma for low-achieving students—and even for some high-achieving students who will go to great lengths to hide the fact that they are actually doing their homework—because it reduces the amount of time that adolescents can spend on those things which earn them respect from their peers such as social media, movies, music, and video games. Whether or not homework causes them problems with extracurricular activities, students face difficulties completing homework successfully when there resources aren’t up to the task.
Inequality of resources
Like a job, homework requires the appropriate use of resources to be successful (Corno & Xu, 2004), but when students lack those resources, homework becomes a stressful exercise in inequality (Kitsantas, Cheema & Ware, 2011). In addition, Kitsantas and his colleagues suggested that knowledge of their students’ lack of physical resources may cause teachers to assign homework which is below their students’ academic potential. Being given work below their ability level may contribute to a negative self-concept for students and thereby adversely impact their mental health (Bae et al., 2008, Bempechat et al., 2011).
Cognitive and academic ability—their own form of resources—are other factors which make homework an uneven playing field for students because all students and families are different. As noted in the section on the quality of homework, students with learning disabilities are at an especial disadvantage when dealing with homework (Bryan et al., 2001; Axelrod et al., 2009; Sheridan, 2009). There are a number of potential factors working against these students when it comes to completing homework. According to Bryan et al. (2001), learning disabled students may struggle with organization, off-task behaviors, and language deficits while Sheridan (2009) and Axelrod et al. (2009) suggested that these same students may also struggle with attention, persistence, and emotional and behavioral regulation. As a result, for the more than 2.5 million students struggling with learning disabilities, homework can be overwhelming, take hours to complete (even when the assignments are meant to be short), and require constant monitoring by parents (Bryan et al., 2001). Despite learning disabled students’ increased need for monitoring and support, Bryan et al. (2001) claimed that the parents of special education students report being less involved in their children’s homework than the parents of general education students.
Teachers sometimes try to address this inequality of ability by differentiating homework assignments, but this can create problems of its own. Bryan et al. (2001) reported that parents want individualized assignments. Teachers may try to differentiate in order to engender feelings of self-efficacy in students working at different ability levels (Kitsantas et al., 2011); however, students do not appear to want differentiated work. For students who base their self-concept on their perceptions of teacher expectations, being given work of lesser difficulty may cause them to view themselves as “not so good students” (Bae et al., 2008, p. 211). Bryan et al. (2001) contended that visibly differentiated homework may even result in a stigma for some students which can only add to the stress these students already feel. Unfortunately, physical resources and cognitive ability are not the only areas in which students are unequal.
All students need some form of home support, but they may not have it (Corno & Xu, 2004). Corno and Xu noted that high-achievers may not appear to need support but still desire it. By contrast, low-achievers may not admit they want support, but they definitely need it. Contemporary researchers (Shumow et al., 2008; Bempechat et al., 2011) have reported that homework is a startlingly solitary activity for the majority of students. Though students don’t like to be alone when doing homework, Bempechat at al. (2011) claimed that they usually are and that this is known to have negative associations with mental health. This is in keeping with the findings of Shumow et al. (2008), who reported that students were alone approximately half the time when working on homework and that this negatively impacted their affect. Shumow et al. (2008) did point out; however, that being alone did not necessarily mean that homework time was unproductive. Productive or not, most students prefer to spend their homework time working with peers and especially with friends (Bempechat et al., 2011). Parental support, however, may be the most meaningful in the long term. Swedish researchers Westerlund, Rajaleid, Virtanen, Gustafsson, Nummi, and Hammarstrom (2015) reported that parental support during homework time, as part of a larger involvement in children’s education, can have a significant impact on the mental health of adolescents and actually lessen the likelihood that they will suffer from mental health issues later in life.
The manner of support parents provide directly impacts both students’ stress levels and academic achievement (Corno & Xu, 2004). Parental provision of a structured homework environment, defined by O’Sullivan, Chen, and Fish (2014) as “a set of circumstances conducive to homework completion” (p. 179), is the most common type of math homework support provided by low-socioeconomic (low-SES) parents (O’Sullivan et al., 2014). Parental provision of a structured homework environment increased academic achievement (Cooper et al., 2001; Corno & Xu, 2004; O’Sullivan et al., 2014); however, this may be an especially difficult form of homework support for low-SES parents to provide due to a smaller living space, the need to work multiple jobs, or other similar economic factors (Cooper, 2001). This finding is supported by Pressman et al. (2015) who found that Latino families, many of which are low-SES, are less likely to provide the structured environment students need to be successful. Additionally, provision of structure appears to decrease from most parents as students progress through the grades regardless of SES, ethnicity, and ability due to parent resistance to providing a time-consuming structure for older adolescents (Axelrod et al., 2009).
Similar to the case with provision of structure, the amount of direct academic support that students receive from their parents varies widely, but it generally decreases as students progress through the grade levels (Axelrod et al., 2009). Researchers Pressman et al. (2015) found this troubling because there are distinct negative academic outcomes when students think they can’t go to their parents for help, a situation which may be exacerbated for Latino students who believe that education or language barriers may prevent their parents from helping them (find reference). Research has shown that the type of homework support provided by parents varies in part based on parents’ perception of their own self-efficacy. On the positive side, O’Sullivan et al. (2014) reported that parents with high feelings of self-efficacy are more likely to provide the structured homework environment that students need to be successful. On the negative side, Pressman et al. (2015) reported that as parents’ feelings of self-efficacy decrease, family stress rises accordingly.
Bryan et al. (2001) suggested that feelings of self-efficacy may be lower for parents—mothers in particular—when students are already struggling. These parents feel more “…fatigue from efforts to help their children than other mothers. Low-achieving students may need help, but giving them help may increase their parent’s feelings of frustration and helplessness” (p. 172). That feeling of helplessness and frustration is likely worsened by the fact that, according to Pressman et al. (2015), the parents of students who are struggling academically are more inclined to feel pressure to assist their children with their homework.
The frustration of needing to do something to help their child, but not feeling confident about how to help, can lead parents to provide the wrong kind of support, thereby increasing the stress level of both parents and their children. Unfortunately, parents often respond to this pressure by being overly authoritative which, as reported by researchers Núñez, Suárez, Rosário, Vallejo, Valle, et al. (2015), has the effect of lowering academic achievement, especially in junior high and high school. Pressman et al. (2015) argued that the results may be even worse when the student is low-achieving or learning disabled, noting that “Children are particularly vulnerable to negative parental involvement with homework when they are struggling academically” (p. 299), further increasing the likelihood of negative academic outcomes such as stress and anxiety.
According to Pressman et al. (2015), homework is a major source of conflict between students and their parents, an assertion supported by Bryan et al. (2001) who noted that “…if helping with homework raises tension between parents and children and causes frustration and disappointment, it may be counter-productive to the child’s functioning in school, and their general well-being” (p. 172). Bryan and his colleagues added that parents’ negative attitudes toward homework, feelings of lack of self-efficacy, low expectations, and frustration can “…diminish the likelihood that homework contributes in positive ways to family life” (2001, p. 172). At least one parent put it far more simply when describing the discord and tension around homework: “Homework has dominated and ruined our lives for the past eight years” (Baumgartner, Bryan, Donahue & Nelson, 1993, as cited by Bryan et al., 2001, p. 172). A variety of factors, such as confusing assignments, overly long assignments, lack of needed skills, and controlling or frustrated parents, can cause homework to become “…an emotionally charged event in families” (Corno & Xu, 2004).
Over the years of controversy, some teachers have attempted to combat the problems presented by homework—especially those of inequality of resources and home support—by giving students time to work on homework in class. Researchers such as Shumow et al. (2008) and Zhu and Leung (2012) are troubling by this solution. Shumow et al. (2008) argued that in-class homework time takes away from precious instructional time, and Zhu and Leung (2012) contended that there is strong evidence to support the claim that students who spend in-class time working on homework are more likely to score lower on math assessments than students who do not work on homework in class. In summary, a variety of factors, such as confusing assignments, overly long assignments, lack of needed skills, and controlling or frustrated parents, can cause homework to become “…an emotionally charged event in families” (Corno & Xu, 2004). So, what is to be done about homework and adolescents’ mental health?
The problem of homework-related stress is not unique to the United States but appears to be a significant issue for U.S. students. The impact that stress takes on adolescents’ immediate mental health is very real, but there are also ongoing consequences to consider. Among the long-term dangers of homework-related stress and its impact on adolescents’ mental health is how it may alter their view of school and learning, potentially creating a perpetual distaste for both as argued in Jackson’s inoculation hypothesis (2007). Are educators, as proposed by Pope (2010) and Pope and Simon (2005), churning out a generation of zombies who only regurgitate information in response to an overwhelming homework load that allows them no time for independent, critical thought? Too much homework, poor quality homework, a lack of homework resources, difficulties with homework support, and the challenge to family life that these factors present may be taking a toll on their mental health that adolescents cannot afford to pay.
More worrying than how homework-related stress may impact students’ view of school, is how it may impact their burgeoning self-concept, their long-term view of themselves, and their overall mental health. In their 2008 study on the perceptions of Mexican-American students, Bae et al. found that low-achieving students—unlike their high-achieving peers—view success and failure as absolutes. In order to be a “good” student, these adolescents believe that you must turn in all your work, every time, on time, with no exceptions (pp. 217-219). If you slip up even once, you are a “not so good” student, basically, a failure. These findings were supported by those of Bempechat et al. (2011) and also strongly resemble Dweck’s description of the fixed mindset (2016, updated ed.).
In reviewing the results of a study she conducted with college students, Dweck reported that students with “the fixed mindset had higher levels of depressions…they ruminated over their problems and setbacks, essentially tormenting themselves with the idea that the setback meant they were incompetent or unworthy” (2016, updated ed., p.38). When students think in absolutes, as reported by both Dweck (2016, updated ed.) and Bae et al. (2008), even a small number of failures can permanently alter their self-concept. For those students who routinely struggle with homework, the fixed mindset combined with homework-related stress or anxiety could create a vicious cycle from which adolescents will find it difficult to escape (Dweck, 2016, updated ed.; Bae et al., 2008, Galloway & Pope, 2007).
Still, it’s hard for educators to write homework off as long as the possibility exists that homework will boost achievement. Just as homework can cause mental health concerns such as stress and anxiety, anxiety and stress are associated with – and may even cause—a lowering of academic achievement (Hattie, 2012; Cheema & Sheridan, 2015). In Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning (2012), researcher John Hattie shared the updated results of his ground-breaking meta-analysis of more than 900 educational studies in which he determined the effect sizes (ES) that various factors have on learning. Reducing anxiety was rated with an ES of .40, placing it exactly at the hinge-point of learning whereas homework only has an ES of .29 on learning. Could this mean that homework is doing more harm than good in education? While that is not a question that can be answered unequivocally by current research, it is a question that bears further exploration.[MB1]
Recommendations for Further Research
It is critical that research continue into the impact that homework has on the mental health of adolescents, how it varies based on students’ demographic identifiers, and what educators and parents can do to lessen the toll that homework is currently taking on students without sacrificing the academic benefits that may be gained from its successful application. With this is mind, the following studies are recommended.
- More extensive research looking specifically at the impact of homework on the mental health of U.S. middle school students, middle school here taken to mean the range of grade levels from 5th to 8th.
- Studies looking specifically at conflict between parents and students over homework and attempting to answer questions regarding the frequency of conflict and its impact on academic achievement as well as adolescent mental health would be of use to educators.
- Of benefit to educational research would be a study examining conflict between parents and teachers over homework—touched on in Bryan et al. (2001)—and looking specifically at the frequency of conflict, its impact on academic achievement, its impact on grading, and its impact on adolescent mental health.
- An interesting aspect of homework to explore, and of critical importance for special education educators and parents, would be a look at the ways in which the student homework experience varies between general education and special education students. Such research has been advocated for by Bryan et al. (2001) and Sheridan (2009).
- A study looking at the academic benefit of completing homework at school, but outside of instructional class time, compared to completing homework actually at home, could provide useful information for future homework interventions.
Limitations of Research
There are a number of limitations to this review of literature regarding homework-related stress and adolescents’ mental health. First, this is by no means an exhaustive review. In total, 53 sources were examined by the author, but that is only a small percentage of the material available on the dual topics of homework and adolescent mental health. Additionally, this review did not consider any of the interventions, systems, trainings, or programs which could be used to ameliorate the factors which make homework a source of stress and anxiety for students. To look closely at interventions which might be used to address even one source of homework-related stress would be a study in and of itself.
With these limitations understood, it is still possible to draw certain general conclusions regarding homework and adolescent mental health based on this review of the literature. Homework is not universally good. Nor is homework universally bad. It is a mixed lot with many potential impacts on the lives of students. As such, school administrators should regularly monitor both the quantity and quality of the homework being assigned to students (Corno & Xu, 2004), teachers should carefully consider the repercussions of the homework they plan, prepare, and assign (Corno & Xu, 2004; Frey & Fisher, 2011; Jackson, 2007; Galloway & Pope, 2007), and parents should continue to make an effort to be involved in their children’s homework process—via provision of structure—even if they do not feel themselves capable of providing direct assistance (O’Sullivan et al., 2014; Pressman et al., 2015). Ultimately, all stakeholders in the homework process need to keep an open mind when examining homework and the impact it has on the mental health of adolescents. As Jackson (2007) argued “One might hope for less heat and more light from the experts–perhaps even a nuanced understanding of homework that recognizes its complexity, variability, and potential for both positive and negative effects” (p. 55-56).
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