Homework – of all the study techniques, there are few that divide opinion quite as much. From staunch advocates who’d like their children to have more, to those who’d prefer not to have any, school homework causes controversy year in and out.

The good news is that teachers are not flying blind. When it comes to developing important study skills, there is clear evidence about homework’s role.

In this article, I’ll guide you through some research findings and provide tips to help your child study smarter.

Who invented school homework?

Many a student has wondered about the culprit behind the homework phenomenon. An online search will lead you to Roberto Nevilis, an Italian teacher who reputedly “invented” homework in 1905 to punish his students.

The reality, however, is that homework extends way further into history. It’s impossible to know exactly when it started, but the idea of studying after hours probably dates to feudal times, when education was reserved for the wealthy. Private tutors probably assigned reading tasks to their pupils.

Homework as we know it today developed alongside public education, which began in Europe following the Reformation.

Ever since, opinion about school homework has ridden waves of opposition and approval, influenced by cultural and political agendas and popular thinkers.

The idea that homework was invented as a punishment might appeal to some students, but it’s more likely that it formed part of a study plan intended to practise and consolidate learning.

Why teachers give students homework

You might be wondering why homework is important, when your children already spend several hours each day at school.

It’s a question with many answers. Some reasons teachers give homework include:

  • providing an opportunity for students to practise and refine their study skills;
  • consolidating what students have learned during the day;
  • encouraging students to take responsibility for their learning; and
  • helping students create and follow a study plan.

While these might all be fair reasons, at Australian Christian College, the answer comes from the evidence. Australian researcher John Hattie – a professor of education at the University of Melbourne – has compiled the world’s largest body of homework research to date.

He found that homework has a more positive effect on achievement for students in Middle (Years 7 to 10) and Senior (Years 11 and 12) schools. For students in Primary, however, there was minimal correlation between homework and achievement.

Furthermore, his research indicated that, for all year levels, the benefits of homework were inversely related to the amount of time spent on it. In other words, the longer students spent doing homework, the less benefit there was.

Results from this research indicate that homework should be short in duration, linked to the lesson, and monitored by the teacher.

The pros and cons of student homework

Hattie’s isn’t the only research. A study published in 2006 reviewed homework research conducted between 1987 and 2003. The researchers found generally consistent evidence for a positive influence of homework on achievement. They also confirmed Hattie’s findings of a stronger correlation for students in Middle and Senior school than those in Primary.

More recently, a meta-analysis explored evidence for independent reading, with overwhelmingly positive results. They found that the amount of time a child spends reading independently is positively linked to literacy skills (such as fluency, vocabulary and comprehension) and long-term academic success. 

Homework can also be a positive link between home and school and give parents an opportunity to be involved in their children’s learning – a factor with a strong positive influence on achievement. In a Christian context, homework can provide training in important qualities like diligence and self-discipline.

However, research has also highlighted some potential downsides of school homework. A 2013 study, for example, published in The Journal of Experimental Education, looked at the study habits of 4,317 students from 10 high-performing high schools in California. The researchers found that these students averaged over three hours of homework per night. While they displayed greater engagement in school, they also experienced more physical health problems, academic stress, and lack of balance in their lives.

More than 70 percent of them reported they were “often or always stressed over schoolwork,” with 56 percent citing homework as a primary stressor. More than 80 per cent said they had at least one stress-related physical symptom in the past month.

The researchers, from Stanford University’s School of Education, also found that excessive homework prevented students from developing other crucial life skills. They were more likely to stop seeing friends or family, skip activities, and not participate in hobbies. The authors suggested that anything more than two hours of homework per night is counterproductive.

In a Christian school, teachers might give homework to help students develop their God-given talents. Some teachers might like to give homework to enhance the spiritual formation of students, such as memorising Bible verses or reading Bible passages.

Christian schools should also provide homework that encourages interaction with others, because God made us for relationships, not for isolation. Students, for example, might be asked to work collaboratively on a task, or interview their parents about a topic.

How to study smart and boost learning potential

Following are some study tips to help your child establish positive homework habits.

Pick a place and time to study

Whether it’s in the bedroom or at the dining table, everyone has a favourite place to study. Ideally, your child’s study space should be quiet, comfortable and free from distractions such as television or computer games.

It’s also a great idea to study when you’re most alert. For some, this will be early mornings. Others will do better at night, but pushing it past bedtime will lead to fatigue and reduced concentration the next day.

Establish a study routine

Like any habit, developing good study skills takes practise. If possible, encourage your child to study a little bit every day. Regularly reviewing material aids learning and helps minimise the need for stressful last-minute cramming.

Take regular breaks

Rest breaks are vital, especially for older students who study longer. Spending too long on something can cause frustration and reduce performance. Encourage your child to get away from their desk and do something else that boosts learning, such as exercise.

Keep healthy

Your child will be able to concentrate better if they are well-hydrated and fuelled. Try to avoid sugary after-school treats that can lead to energy slumps. Instead, offer healthy snacks such as fruit, nuts, yoghurt, crackers and cheese or healthy home-baked goods. Keep a bottle of water at their desk for sipping.

Getting adequate sleep is also crucial for optimal learning and concentration.

Use their preferred learning style

Most of us learn best in a particular way. Auditory learners prefer to learn by listening (such as to a teacher or video), visual learners by seeing (such as watching something get done), and kinaesthetic learners by doing (such as making a project).

Help your child get to know their learning style and incorporate it into homework activities. For example, a kinaesthetic learner might bounce on a mini-tramp while learning their times tables.

Don’t get too locked in on these styles, though. It’s also important for your child to learn in different ways.

Encourage them to ask for help

While you want your child to become an independent learner, it’s important for them to know that help is available. Helping your child with homework is one way to boost your engagement with their learning, which research has proven to be beneficial for students of all ages.

If you’re unable to help, encourage them to talk to their teacher or, if available, an online tutor.

Remember revision

Regular revision is a great way to embed material and therefore recall it when needed (like in an exam). Some study ideas for revision include creating flash cards, practising past exam questions and doing quizzes.

7 strategies to motivate your child to study more

You’ve got some study tips, but what happens when enthusiasm is flagging? Let’s consider some ideas for boosting study motivation.

1. Have a study plan

It’s almost impossible to be motivated when you don’t know what needs to get done. You could help your child break down their homework into manageable chunks. If they’re overwhelmed by multiple assignments and exam prep, perhaps help them map out a plan for achieving what’s necessary within their timeframe (it always helps to start early in the term before things pile up!).

2. Just do 15 minutes

If they have trouble getting started, have them set a timer for 15 minutes and explain they can stop then if they need to. Usually, once they get going, doing homework isn’t that bad.

3. Create a positive study atmosphere

Your student could personalise their study space to make it more inviting, by decorating it with photos of family and friends, for example. If they have a career aspiration, images that remind them of their goals are an excellent idea. They might also like sticky notes or cards with their favourite Bible verses.

4. Encourage effort, not perfection

If your child is struggling to understand the material, they might fall victim to negative self-talk such as, “I can’t do this”. Remind your child that nobody is perfect. Putting in their best effort is all you expect.

5. Allow for some fun

The after-school hours shouldn’t be all work. Incorporate some fun activities into the routine. Examples include TV/device time, a bike/scooter/skateboard ride, trip to the park or chatting with friends. Study breaks are a good time for fun, but beware of letting them go too long.

6. Remind your child why they’re doing it

It can help to set goals with your child and remind them of the bigger picture, such as getting good grades for university or working towards a rewarding career or honouring God with their mind. The opportunity to get a good education is a privilege not available to everyone. Encourage your child that they are blessed to have the chance to develop their God-given gifts and use them to serve others.

7. Avoid nagging

Nobody likes being nagged, and it doesn’t work anyway, especially when it comes to study motivation. Instead, acknowledge that your child might be frustrated by homework. Support them with some of the other motivation strategies listed here instead.

Listening to music while studying - does it improve or impede cognitive ability?

A common question is whether listening to music is helpful – or detrimental – to performing cognitive tasks like homework.

There’s no definitive answer. Baroque music has been linked with positive cognitive effects. In a 2007 study, published in the journal Neuron, researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to analyse the brains of people listening to 18th century symphonies. The Stanford University team found that music engages the brain areas involved with paying attention, making predictions and updating events in memory. One of the researchers suggested that “listening to music could be a way that the brain sharpens its ability to anticipate events and sustain attention.”

In a similar study published in 2009, a researcher used fMRI to record the brain activity of people listening to excerpts from 30 different tunes. He found that the brain region where memories of our past are stored and retrieved also works as a hub linking familiar music with memories and emotion.

Music has also been touted to ease student stress, reduce exam nerves and boost performance. However, there is also evidence to suggest that listening to music can impair test performance. If you child seems distracted by the music they’re listening to, it’s probably not helping. If they are focused, that’s a positive sign. Some everyday wisdom needs to be applied here.

Student study planner and productivity apps

Study apps are another way to help your child master homework.

Here’s some worth looking into:

  • Forest – this app, available for Apple and Android, is designed for maintaining focus. Whenever you need to stay on task, you plant a tree in your forest. The longer the app stays open, the bigger the tree grows. But if you leave the app (to check social media, for example), the tree dies.
  • Quizlet – this app helps students practice and master whatever they’re learning. They claim that 90 per cent of students using it report higher grades. You can search millions of study sets or create your own, plus games, flashcards, and more. Available on Apple and Android.
  • Egenda – also available on Apple and Android, Egenda allows you to manage school work – including homework, assignments and assessments – from one place. You can add notes and receive reminders about what’s due by date or class.
  • Todait – derived from “Today do it”, this time management app claims to help you “achieve both short-term and long-term goals for your life.” You can create to-do lists, receive reminders, work out how much study to do each day and get feedback on your study habits. Available on Apple and Android.
  • Tinycards – this app by Duolingo claims you can learn anything with their fun flashcards. You can choose from their existing collection or create your own decks. Available on Apple and Android.

Remember, if you have any questions about your child’s homework, or need more study ideas, your child’s teacher is your best source.