Homeschooling and the Optimal Amount of Homework?
The concept of “homework” might seem a little redundant if you are a home educator. After all, if you are doing school at home, then by definition all school work is “homework.”
In a homeschool setting, “homework” is independent work your student is expected to complete on his or her own time outside of your regular instructional periods. Calculating how much homework should be given to children can be daunting. On the one hand, no parent wants to crush their child beneath an unreasonable load of homework, sucking the joy out of education. On the other hand, many parents fear their student is not doing enough homework.
Suppose your son is given fifteen Algebra equations to solve for homework. He sits down at the kitchen table, opens his notebook, and less than ten minutes later says, “Done,” and saunters off to play video games. These sorts of situations may leave you wondering, “Did I assign him enough to do? Should I increase his workload?”
Or, suppose your daughter has been laboring away in her room translating Latin sentences for the last two hours. It’s past 10:00 PM and she still has her nose to the grindstone with no sign of letting up. Is this normal? All students pull a late night now and then, but how often is “now and then”?
While determining homework load is always going to have some degree of subjectivity based on your child’s study habits, cognitive development, or potential learning disabilities, there is a rule of thumb for what constitutes the optimal amount of homework (optimal denoting enough homework to deepen students’ understanding of the material but not enough to lead to mental fatigue).
The Ten Minute Rule
The rule of thumb for daily homework is ten minutes per grade level, starting at 1st grade. This number is all-inclusive, meaning for all classes, not per class. So, for example, the ideal amount of homework for a 2nd grader is 20 minutes per day, while the optimal amount for a 6th grader is 60 minutes. Using this system, daily homework allotment across grade levels would look like this:
1st Grade: 10 minutes
2nd Grade: 20 minutes
3rd Grade: 30 minutes
4th Grade: 40 minutes
5th Grade: 50 minutes
6th Grade: 60 minutes
7th Grade: 70 minutes
8th Grade: 80 minutes
9th Grade: 90 minutes
10th Grade: 100 minutes
11th Grade: 110 minutes
12th Grade: 120 minutes
This rule of thumb has been affirmed by independent studies (source), and supported both by the National Education Association and the National Parent Teachers Association (source). It is safe to say there is a broad consensus on the question across academia. However, as homeschoolers, we have to keep in mind a few caveats:
First, these numbers represent how long the teacher (or in your case, parent) expects the homework to take. In order for these numbers to be helpful, you ought to have a realistic expectation of how long an assignment will take a child. This can be difficult to gauge when viewing it through adult eyes. You may assign your child a chapter of Dante’s Inferno and expect it to take 10 minutes because you love the text and you had no trouble reading it, but your child might spend 45 minutes struggling through it. As always, use your own child’s specific situation as your baseline.
Second, these numbers represent the optimal amount of homework, not the recommended amount. What’s the difference? Saying “the optimal amount of homework for a 3rd grader is 30 minutes per day” means that, if you are going to assign homework to a 3rd grader, around 30 minutes is a solid amount. It is not a recommendation that you make sure your 3rd grader gets a half-hour of homework every day. It is not a prescription for a certain amount of homework, but merely a guideline for what amount of homework is ideal when and if you assign it.
Third, remember that these are only averages. You are not overburdening your child if you sometimes go over these numbers; you are not neglecting your child if you dip below them. These numbers represent a rule of thumb—useful for general application, but admitting of occasional exceptions. A senior preparing for a final exam is obviously going to spend more time than usual studying; a child who is a math whiz may spend less time than usual on homework. There are all sorts of variables that need to be allowed for.
The Purpose of Homework
Really, though, before you assign homework, you should stop to ask yourself why you are assigning it. “That’s a silly question,” you might think. “Homework is simply part of school.” But why? What is the benefit of giving children additional work to complete outside of regular edcuational time? There are several reasons when this is necessary:
1. When the subject requires drills or repetitions in order to master. For example, working through twenty geometry problems to master the Pythagoream Theorem, practicing a list of vocabulary words when learning French, or reading and re-reading a scene from Shakespeare to memorize for a play.
2. When additional reading is required to cover material not covered in class. For example, when working through a science chapter with your child, the explanation of a certain concept takes longer than anticipated, leading you to have to end class without finishing the chapter; you ask your child to finish reading the chapter on his own and be ready to discuss it the following day.
3. When the class structure requires regular outside reading. For example, a literature class where the class time is based around lectures delivered on texts the student is expected to read on his or her own time.
4. When preparing for a class project or presentation. For example, a history student working on a poster project for an oral presentation, or researching/writing a term paper.
You may have noticed, each of these examples reflect a scenario where homework is necessary. One reason it is not necessary is “because a class should have homework.” You should not assign homework just because you feel like a class ought to have it. Assign homework with a purpose, to reinforce a specific skill or impart specific information; do not assign it merely for the sake of “having homework.” It is perfectly acceptable for certain classes to not have regular homework if the demands of the course do not require it. If you are using an unschooling model, you may not assign any homework at all.
Assigning homework is always going to be subject to a host of variables, but hopefully this has helped take some of the guesswork out of it.