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Family Help and Homework Management in Urban and Rural Secondary Schools


by Jianzhong Xu - 2004

This article calls attention to developmental and home conditions that affect the development of good work habits through homework. The first section examines recent studies that have alluded to the possibility of developing good work habits through family involvement with secondary school homework. The second section describes two survey studies, in urban and rural secondary schools, that explicitly link homework management to family help and grade level. The data suggest that secondary students could still benefit from clear expectations from adult assistance regarding how to foster the development of homework management strategies, regardless of helper's educational background. The data also suggest, however, that such help is overshadowed by increasing internal distractions students encounter as they move from middle school into high school. The final section discusses implications for future research and practice regarding how to foster adolescents' work habits through homework, particularly for high school students.


This article calls attention to developmental and home conditions that affect the development of good work habits through homework. The first section examines recent studies that have alluded to the possibility of developing good work habits through family involvement with secondary school homework. The second section describes two survey studies, in urban and rural secondary schools, that explicitly link homework management to family help and grade level. The data suggest that secondary students could still benefit from clear expectations from adult assistance regarding how to foster the development of homework management strategies, regardless of helper’s educational background. The data also suggest, however, that such help is overshadowed by increasing internal distractions students encounter as they move from middle school into high school. The final section discusses implications for future research and practice regarding how to foster adolescents’ work habits through homework, particularly for high school students.


One school task that is closely associated with work habits is the reference task of homework (Cooper, 1989; Corno, 1994, 1996, 2000; Epstein & Van Voorhis, 2001; Warton, 2001; Xu & Corno, 1998). Indeed, doing homework is one of the few tasks in students’ lives that places high demands on their work habits. It moves life in the classroom, where the teacher actively arranges the learning environment and monitors activities, into the context of life outside of the classroom. It brings learning to students’ daily lives, where doing homework coexists with competing maintenance and leisure activities, and students are asked to assume more responsibility in arranging their learning environment and in monitoring their homework activities.


Largely because these demands afford students unique opportunities in their familiar everyday settings to learn to exercise personal discretion over when, how, and to what extent to complete assignments, doing homework is frequently viewed as one important vehicle for developing good work habits. However, few studies have actually focused on whether doing homework fosters good work habits, such as better time organization and greater self-direction (Cooper, 1989; Epstein & Pinkow, 1988). Not until very recently did research begin to tackle this issue. The emerging evidence from these studies suggests that the development of good work habits occurs only under certain variable conditions (Corno, 1996; Xu, 1994; Xu & Corno, 1998, 2003).


This article considers the developmental and home conditions affecting the development of desirable homework habits. Of particular interest is the role of parents or other family members in this process over time. It is often assumed that children learn from parents how to manage their homework during elementary school (Cooper, 1989; Cooper & Valentine, 2001; Hoover-Dempsey, Bassler, & Burow, 1995). This assumption has been analyzed and substantiated in some cases by relevant previous research (Corno, 2000; Hoover-Dempsey et al., 2001; Xu, 1994; Xu & Corno, 1998). However, far less is known about how adolescents manage homework in secondary school (Balli, Demo, & Wedman, 1998; Xu & Corno, 1998, 2003), and whether they can still benefit from parents or other family members being involved with their homework.


In this article, I first examine existing literature that alludes to the issue of developing good work habits through family involvement with secondary school homework. I then describe two survey studies in urban and rural secondary schools that explicitly link homework management to family help and grade level. Finally, I consider the implications of this line of research for parents and teachers seeking to foster adolescents’ work habits.

HOMEWORK, WORK HABITS, AND FAMILY INVOLVEMENT


Sullivan (1988) interviewed 45 ninth graders about their homework in an urban high school in upstate New York. She found that about 9 out of 10 students agreed that homework helped increase their academic achievement (87%) and responsibility (89%). Yet in actual practice fewer than half of the participants in Sullivan’s study completed homework assignments on a regular basis. As a consequence of this disparity, Sullivan raised a critical question for educators and parents: "Why is it that the students aren’t following through with what they say they believe?" (p. 96).


One explanation is that children continue to struggle with various distractions while doing homework, well into the secondary school years. Patton, Stinard, and Routh (1983) surveyed home study conditions of 387 students in Grades 5–9 at two urban elementary schools and one urban junior high school in Iowa. Students described their preferred versus actual conditions for studying at home, expressed their views of optimal study conditions, and rated effects of television and radio or stereo on studying. These students often did homework with the television on (49%) and even more frequently with a radio or stereo on (58%). In general, they felt that the radio or stereo sound enhanced their study experience. However, they admitted that television was somewhat bothersome.


Similarly, Wober (1992) reported one survey relating to students’ television experience in England. In a subsample of 551 students ages 10–15 years, more than 4 in 10 said that they did homework with a television set switched on, even though they felt that this made their studying more difficult and less effective. The data from these two studies suggest that, left on their own, secondary school students do not always make the best choices about how to deal with homework distractions.


But is television the only homework distraction? Do most—or just a few—students find homework distractions a problem and thus need assistance with homework management? In another survey study, Benson (1988) reported data from 93 students in four sixth-grade classes. Their school was located in an upper middle-class suburban community. Students were asked to list the five most prominent disturbances to studying in their homes, to explain the reasons for their choices, and to suggest ways of coping.


Every one of the 93 middle school students reported finding homework distractions a problem at one time or another. Television and telephone were the two most troublesome homework distractions, mentioned by more than half of the students. Thirty-six to 40% listed additional distractions, including parents and siblings coming into and out of the room and teasing and asking questions; noise from vacuum cleaners, washing machines, or doorbells; and disturbance from radios or stereos. They also said that feeling tired or restless was another kind of distraction. In discussions of counteractions to deal with these varied distractions, students suggested that ‘‘parents should monitor the telephone and answer the door during study time; turn off appliances and control the volume of the television, radio and stereo located near study areas; remove brothers and sisters as well as pets; [and] request that other family members keep yelling and crying to a minimum during the study period’’ (Benson, 1988, p. 371).


Other studies suggest that external distractions are not the only type that adolescents encounter during homework. Leone and Richards (1989) employed the experience sampling method (Csikszentmihalyi & Larson, 1987) to investigate students’ subjective experiences while doing homework. Participants consisted of 401 students in Grades 5–9 who were randomly selected from two communities; one was urban and working class, and the other was suburban and middle to upper middle class. They were asked to carry an electronic pager for 1 week. When signaled, every 2 hours between 7:30 a.m. and 9:30 p.m., they completed brief reports on where they were, whom they were with, what they were doing, and what they were thinking. They rated affective responses experienced at that moment (e.g., anxiety) and their motivation and attentiveness for the activity at hand. The ratings were made on 7- or 10-point scales.


The data revealed that students’ moods while doing homework were generally negative, regardless of age, sex, and academic performance. Students also rated their levels of positive affect, motivation, and attention lower than they did for similar subjective experiences during other activities (e.g., eating, doing chores, and leisure). These findings indicated that the students frequently encountered a different type of distraction, namely, internal distractions such as mood swing occurring between other activities and doing homework.


Despite the evidence that even students in secondary school experience distractions during homework, it appears that families from different backgrounds can provide useful assistance to their children by helping them learn how to manage distractions. One study (Chandler, Argyris, Barnes, Goodman, & Snow, 1986) examined parent–child interactions during a structured homework like task assigned by researchers. Participants were 32 children from Grades 2, 4, and 6 in one urban school system, all of whom were eligible for the school free-lunch program. The data showed that parents helped their children structure the work environment (e.g., turned on lights, provided seats and writing surfaces) and lowered the level of external distractions (e.g., kept visitors away and turned off nearby television sets). The data revealed that parents also provided another different type of assistance related to helping the child set the mind (Pressley, Goodchild, Fleet, Zajchowski, & Evans, 1989) so that the child could concentrate on homework and manage internal distractions. For example, parents expressed assurance that the children could do their homework and expressed approval of the way that the various parts of the assignment had already been done. The parents provided a kind of conditional praise, thus encouraging students to continue in the work.


The inference that parents can provide useful assistance, helping even older children to deal with internal distractions can also be drawn from the study reviewed previously (Leone & Richards, 1989). Students said they were most attentive to homework when completing it with a parent, rather than with a peer or on their own. Further, those students most likely to do homework with parents were those with higher grade point averages and test scores. These students spent ‘‘more time on homework as they got older despite the accompanying negative effect, while the remaining students did even less [homework] in the higher grades, perhaps to avoid the negative experience’’ (p. 544). These data suggested that parental assistance can enhance children’s attentiveness and help them better combat negative feelings encountered with doing homework.


Another study by McCaslin and Murdock (1991) implied that children could learn from parents how to manage internal distractions through monitoring their motivation and emotions, even when parents have limited formal education. The researchers interviewed two sets of parents and children from one sixth-grade class in the Midwest to examine how they interacted over homework and how this interaction influenced the children’s learning. Interviews with parents included a series of questions regarding their general expectations, their ways of reacting to their child, their perception of the child’s strengths and weaknesses as a learner, and their child’s own reactions to mistakes and frustrations at home and in school learning. Interviews with the children incorporated four vignettes intended to elicit perceptions related to a hypothetical mathematics task. To tap latent tendencies about coping with difficult tasks as well as self-appraisals, children were also asked to guess about the vignette character’s inner speech (what the character most likely said to himself or herself) during and after the math task.


This study found that doing homework was an area in which parents’ expectations and views of their children influenced the children’s perceptions, strategies, and goals. For example, the parents in one family persistently emphasized the importance of doing homework. However, the child’s homework was written in English, and the parents spoke only Spanish. Given the language limitation, parental assistance with content was largely out of the question, so the family involvement with homework focused instead on motivation and coping. The father, for example, motivated the child to do homework by using distal goals—a good job one day (high paying, with a regular, daytime schedule)—combined with an expression of regret that he himself had not used educational opportunities to advance his career potential. He also encouraged his son to control negative emotions that arose during homework (Corno, 2001; Kuhl, 2000). For example, when his son got a little upset with homework because it did not come out the right way, he would tell the boy to calm down, cool off, and relax so that he could get back on tract, focus his mind, and get to the bottom of the problem.


The son’s responses to the vignettes suggested that he had internalized some of his father’s motivation and coping strategies. He became aware of the potential consequences of frustrated coping (e.g., that refusing to ask for help could result in a poor or failing grade). Realizing the self-destructiveness of anger, the boy began to learn to control his emotions, as illustrated in his following statement: ‘‘I don’t feel like doing the work. But I keep doing it’’ (McCaslin & Murdock, 1991, p. 229).


Taken together, these studies suggest that doing homework night in and night out can provide a fertile ground for developing desirable work habits since ‘‘regardless of the homework’s intellectual content, there is a need to deal with distractions, and a role for emotional coping, task focus, and persistence’’ (Xu & Corno, 2003, pp. 505–506). The research further suggests that adolescents still can benefit from assistance from parents of all socioeconomic backgrounds to help them deal with external and internal distractions encountered while doing homework. In addition, these studies suggest that adolescents can internalize various homework management strategies modeled by their parents, related to dealing with external and internal distractions (e.g., monitoring attention, motivation, and emotion).


What we have learned from these studies is congruent with one implication drawn from a nationally representative survey of 21,814 eighth graders and their parents (National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988), in which Keith et al. (1993) call for middle schools to ‘‘help parents develop a homework routine, with a structured place and time for their child’s study’’ (p. 492). However, each of the studies often alluded to only one or two types of homework management strategies (e.g., how to deal with physical distraction or wandering attention). Moreover, the studies discussed were limited to students in the ninth grade and younger. In addition, none of these studies explicitly linked family homework help to a broad spectrum of varied homework management strategies that can be operationalized and compared across different grade levels. These are precisely the issues that are now taken up in the following section.

FAMILY HELP AND HOMEWORK MANAGEMENT REPORTED BY URBAN AND RURAL ADOLESCENTS


To examine whether parents influence their children’s development of homework management strategies through family homework help a homework questionnaire (Xu & Corno, 2003) was developed, based on previous case study observations of families doing third-grade homework (Corno, 2000; Xu, 1994; Xu & Corno, 1998). The questionnaire also used evidence from related research on favorable conditions for doing homework at the middle school level (Chandler et al., 1986; Delgado-Gaitan, 1992; Leone & Richards, 1989; McCaslin & Murdock, 1991; McDermott, Goldman, & Varenne, 1984). Of major interest in the survey was a set of questions concerning five features of homework management that students might use to aid homework completion regardless of the task’s content or difficulty (see Table 1). A 5-point scale accompanied each questionnaire item, to which students responded with (1) routinely, (2) often, (3) sometimes, (4) rarely, or (5) never.


The questionnaire was administered to 121 middle school students in a public school in a large urban setting, including 38 sixth graders, 45 seventh graders, and 38 eighth graders. The sample consisted of 43.5% Latinos, 24.3% African Americans, 20.9% multiracial students, 9.6% Caucasians, and 1.7% Asians. Among them, 81.1% received free or reduced price meals. Alpha reliability coefficients for each scale were adequate, ranging from .61 for managing time (a four-item scale) to .79 for focusing attention (a five-item scale) (see Table 1).


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An initial multivariate analysis of variance (MANOVA) was conducted to estimate the effects of student grade level and family homework help on the five features of homework management shown in Table 1, namely, setting up an appropriate environment for homework, managing the homework time spent, and control of attention, motivation, and negative emotions. Family homework help was coded at two levels, based on the answer to the following question: "Is there anyone at home help you do homework?" Level 1 students answered no, and Level 2 students answered yes. Meanwhile, student grade was coded at three levels for Grades 6–8.


A second MANOVA was conducted to estimate the effects of student grade level and helper’s educational level on the five features of homework management. Again, student grade was coded at three levels, Grades 6–8. Homework helper’s educational level was coded at two levels; Level 1 students received homework help from parents or family members without a bachelor’s degree, and Level 2 students received help from parents or family members with a bachelor’s degree or beyond.


The study found no reliable differences across grade levels on the five features of homework management. Among students who received family homework help, helper’s educational level also appeared unrelated to any of the five features. However, family involvement in homework did relate to two of the features of strategies for managing homework: arranging the environment and controlling negative emotions. Comparison of means for arranging the environment indicated that students who received homework help reported more frequently working to manage their workspace than those who received no homework help. Similarly, students who received homework help were more careful about monitoring and controlling emotions than students who received no homework help.


These findings suggest that students in Grades 6–8 still benefit from clear expectation regarding how to arrange the homework environment, as well as from adult assistance in showing them how to cope when doing homework becomes difficult and distractions are a problem. However, these findings are limited in generality by the fact that these students attended one urban middle school.


A follow-up study was conducted to examine if the findings in the first study would hold up in a different setting. Another purpose was to see whether there would be developmental trends in features of homework management, comparing middle school students with high school students.


The same homework survey was administered to 920 students in a rural school district in a southern state, including 114 fifth graders, 142 sixth graders, 131 seventh graders, 107 eighth graders, 105 ninth graders, 100 tenth graders, 123 eleventh graders, and 98 twelfth graders. This sample consisted of 89.8% Caucasians, 3.2% Latinos, 1.4% African Americans, 1.8% Asians, .8% Native Americans, and 3.0% multiracial. Overall, 30.5% of the student body received free or reduced price meals. Again, alpha reliability coefficients for each scale were adequate and quite consistent with those found in the first study, ranging from .67 for controlling emotion to .84 for monitoring motivation (see Table 1).


For the purpose of replication, the same analyses were conducted. The only difference between these two studies was how the student grade level variable was coded. Unlike the first study, where grade level was coded at three levels (Grades 6–8), in the follow-up study it was coded at two levels: Level 1 included middle school students in Grades 5–8, and Level 2 included high school students in Grades 9–12.


The follow-up study found that family homework help related to all five features of homework management. Comparison of means for arranging the environment indicated that students who received family homework help reported more frequently working to manage their workspace than those who received no homework help. Students who received homework help took more initiatives in managing time than those who received no homework help. Likewise, students who received homework help took more attempts to avoid internal distractions than those who received no homework help. Similarly, students who received homework help were more likely to use self-motivation or self-reward strategies than those who received no homework help. Finally, students who received homework help were more careful about monitoring and controlling emotions than those students who received no homework help.


On the other hand, among students who received homework help, helper educational level appeared unrelated to any of the five features. In addition, grade level related to two features of homework management, namely, focusing attention and monitoring motivation. Thus, grade level related to students’ efforts to avoid internal distractions and to engage forms of self-motivation and self-reward. Comparison of means for focusing attention indicated that high school students reported fewer efforts to avoid internal distractions than did middle school students. Similarly, high school students made fewer attempts to engage in forms of self-motivation and self-reward than did middle school students.


What can be made of these findings? The first study (Xu & Corno, 2003) showed that family involvement in homework related to two of the five features of homework management (i.e., arranging the environment and controlling negative emotions). However, the follow-up study revealed that family help related to all five features of homework management. Despite this difference, these studies converged on two key findings: family homework help related to at least some features of strategies for managing homework, and among the students who received homework help helper’s educational level appeared unrelated to any of the five features. That the two samples from these studies vary along a number of dimensions (e.g., cultural background, grade level, and geographical location, including urban and rural) further suggests that these findings might be generalized across different settings. The finding that helper’ educational level appeared unrelated to any features of homework management is consistent with relevant quantitative and qualitative findings, indicating that children from diverse backgrounds can learn useful self-regulatory strategies from their parents (Brody, Flor, & Gibson, 1999; McCaslin & Murdock, 1991).


The follow-up study showed significant differences across grade levels on two features of homework management (viz., focusing attention and monitoring motivation). On the other hand, the first study found no significant differences across grade levels in any of the five features. One possible explanation is that students in the follow-up study spanned a greater developmental range (Grades 5–12) than the students in the first study (Grades 6–8).

AN EMERGING HYPOTHESIS


One unexpected yet critical question emerges from the follow-up study: Why would high school students report fewer efforts to focus attention and monitor motivation than middle school students? One possible explanation is that high school students may have internalized various homework management strategies, thereby losing awareness of overt efforts to self-regulate during homework. They would then be less likely to report such efforts. However, further analyses, based on three additional items from the follow-up survey, call this explanation into question.


One survey item was as follows: "Among all the other things you do after school, homework is your____" Students were asked to select a response from: (1) least favorite activity, (2) less favorite activity, (3) about the same as other activities, (4) more favorite activity, or (5) most favorite activity. Eighty-eight percent of high school students reported that homework was the lesser or least favorite activity, compared with 63% of middle school students. Chi-square analysis revealed significant differences in the distribution of responses between these two groups of students.


Another item was asked: "Do you think the homework you get is____?" Students were asked to select a response from (1) very boring, (2), boring, (3) neither boring nor interesting, (4) interesting, or (5) very interesting. Fifty-five percent of high school students reported that homework was boring or very boring, compared with 46% of middle school students. Chi-square analysis showed that the difference was statistically significant.


The third item asked the following: "How often do you come to class without homework?" Students were asked to select a response from (1) usually, (2) often, (3) seldom, or (4) never. Twice as many of high school students (29%), compared with middle school students (15%), reported that they usually or often come to class without homework. Chi-square analysis again revealed a significant difference between these two groups of students.


The results from these items suggest that the experience of doing homework for both middle school and high school students does not appear intrinsically motivating, either in the task itself or in competition with other after-school activities. These findings are consistent with Leone and Richards’s study (1989), in which ‘‘students reported feeling more unhappy, lethargic, and disinterested during homework than during other activities’’ (p. 545).


These results further suggest that high school students perceive homework assignments to be less interesting, perceive doing homework to be a less favorable activity, and consequently report a greater frequency of coming to class without having completed their homework than middle school students. Thus, a more plausible explanation for less effort by high school students could be that older students experience increased challenges associated with self-responsible homework completion. In other words, their reduced effort in focusing attention on homework may result from the fact that they experience increasing distractions from other more-favorably perceived activities available in their surroundings. Likewise, their reduced effort in maintaining motivation while doing homework may result from the fact that they perceive homework assignments to be increasingly less interesting, which makes it difficult for them to become engaged in effective forms of self-reward or self-motivation.


This explanation does not rule out the other explanation entirely. It is still possible that older students might internalize various homework management strategies over time, becoming less conscious of using them and less apt to report them when asked. However, the implication here is that older students’ capacities to regulate their ongoing homework efforts seem to be outmatched by various difficulties and distractions that emerge especially at this developmental stage. This hypothesis is, to some extent, substantiated by the finding that these high school students reported a greater frequency of coming to class without their homework being completed than did the middle school students.


It might be added that the supplementary analyses were derived from the entire sample of students in the follow-up study. Quite similar patterns were found in the subsample of students who received family homework help. For example, 88% of the high school students reported that homework is a lesser or least favorite activity, compared with 61% of the middle school students. Chi-square analysis revealed significant differences between these two groups.


Likewise, twice as many of the adolescents (27%), compared with the preadolescents (13%), reported that they usually or often come to class without homework. Chi-square analysis again revealed significant differences between these two groups.


The only exception related to students’ perceptions about the nature of homework assignments. Fifty percent of the older students reported that homework was boring or very boring, compared with 44% of the younger students. Chi-square analysis revealed no statistically significant differences between these two groups who received family homework help. This finding suggests that family homework help makes homework more interesting particularly for high school students, which is consistent with the finding from MANOVA in the follow-up study that students who received homework help reported more frequently using self-motivation or self-reward than those who did not.


Other than this exception, the results from the subsample receiving homework assistance were largely consistent with the results from the full sample. That is, compared with middle school students, overall, high school students perceived homework to be a less favorable activity. They reported a greater frequency of coming to class without their homework completed, and they exerted less effort in focusing attention in doing homework. Thus, it could be argued that although family homework help provided support for effective homework management, such help was still outmatched by emerging difficulties and distractions encountered by high school students in their life contexts.

DISCUSSION


This article raised the issue of how good study habits might relate to family involvement in the homework of secondary school students. The data from these two survey studies suggest that middle and high school students still benefit from having an adult available in the home to help with homework. Our previously conducted qualitative research found positive effects on work habits when adults provided clear expectations for children about when, where, and how to complete homework, regardless of the helper’s educational background (Xu, 1994; Xu & Corno, 1998). This article explicitly linked the role of family help to a range of homework management strategies reported by secondary school students. In line with the theoretical claim (Corno, 1996) and relevant data implied from other studies (Benson, 1988; Keith et al., 1993; Leone & Richards, 1989; McCaslin & Murdock, 1991; McDermott et al., 1984), this article suggests the value of family involvement in providing mechanisms and conditions for promoting desirable study habits, extending into secondary school.


This article further suggests that, compared with middle school students, high school students exhibit more negative attitudes toward the homework task itself, as well as in relation to other daily activities. These inferences are line with findings from relevant studies showing that student attitudes toward homework become more negative as they move from the early elementary years to later elementary years (Chen & Stevenson, 1989), from elementary school to junior high school (Bryan & Nelson, 1994), and from elementary school to secondary school (Cooper, Lindsay, Nye, Greathouse, 1998). Moreover, attitudes are particularly negative among high school students, who experience more negative affect, lower arousal, and less motivation when doing homework, compared to other daily activities (Csikszentmihalyi & Larson, 1984).


Finally, this article goes one step further and sheds light on the relationship between family homework help and students’ developmental stages. One interesting yet unsettling hypothesis that emerges from this article is that although having someone available to help with homework related to various features of homework management, such help remains outmatched by increasing difficulties and distractions students encountered as they move from middle school to high school. This is an important hypothesis for future investigation.

RESEARCH IMPLICATIONS


To advance our understanding related to developmental and home conditions that promote desirable work habits through the reference task of homework, several lines of research are needed. One line of research could further study the nature and kinds of family involvement that best foster each type of homework management strategy over time and in different settings (Xu & Corno, 2003).


Another line of research should examine the nature and types of homework assignments that would be more appealing to and intrinsically motivating for high school students, in particular, so that they would be more drawn to the task at hand and thus enticed to exert self-regulatory efforts during homework activity.


The related and third line of research could well examine in-depth the nature and types of demands and distractions students encounter in their life contexts as they move from middle school to high school. For example, it would be interesting to investigate what Warton (2001) called the perceived costs associated with doing homework (e.g., restricting time available for extracurricular or leisure activities, requiring too much effort, and involving conflict with family members). A number of questions thus can be raised: What are the subjective costs of doing homework as perceived by adolescents? How do their perceptions evolve as they make the transition from middle to high school? What factors contribute to these perceptions? How do their perceptions influence the ways they manage their homework? Qualitative research based on observational data over time, combined with multiple perspectives from adolescents, parents, and teachers, would be particularly illuminating in this area.


A final interesting line of research could elicit adolescents’ perspectives about the characteristics of family homework help that they consider appropriate and useful at different developmental stages. Listening to students’ voices and seeing potential benefits of their involvement would further encourage them to play a more active role in self-monitoring their homework behavior (Xu & Corno, 2003).

PRACTICAL IMPLICATIONS


In reality, it appears that adolescents in some homes benefit from family involvement in homework, whereas other adolescents are left to their own trial and error to develop desirable study habits. Fortunately, the results from these two surveys suggest that an adult being available for continued help to adolescents as they complete homework matters more than parents’ or family helpers’ level of education. Families from diverse educational backgrounds and socioeconomic levels can play a role in promoting desirable homework management strategies beyond the elementary years (Xu & Corno, 2003).


This implication seems straightforward. However, not all homes have adult help available to adolescents doing homework; the percentages of students sampled in these two surveys said they had homework help available were 73% and 69%, respectively. In addition, compared to parents of elementary students, parents of secondary students studied by other researchers said they felt less capable of helping their children with the academic content of homework (Balli et al., 1998; Dauber & Epstein, 1993). Such feelings may intimidate parents and discourage them from getting involved with their adolescents’ homework altogether. Thus, one important message here seems to be that schools can profitably encourage families to help their children with homework.


Regardless of their educational levels, parents and families need guidance from their children’s schools on how to promote homework management strategies. This interpretation seems plausible, in light of Reetz’s (1991) survey of elementary and middle school parents, in which more parents (about one half to two thirds) reported that they were concerned about helping children establish positive study habits than assisting them with the academic content of their homework (about one third). This is also consistent with what Keith et al. (1993) learned from a nationally representative survey of eighth graders and their parents about the need for parents to help children develop a homework routine. Along this line of logic, the second implication is that the initial message to encourage parents to help with homework should be complemented by another message that schools also need to provide guidance. Parents need guidance and support on how to develop homework management strategies, particularly on how to help their children deal with internal distractions (e.g., monitoring attention and motivation).


There appears a tension between the dual purposes of homework (i.e., using it for academic achievement and the development of good study habits), as homework is currently practiced. Homework is found to be ‘‘more strongly associated with achievement for high school than middle school students and for middle school than elementary school students’’ (Cooper & Valentine, 2001, p. 147). Yet, at the same time, as evident in the follow-up survey, along with empirical evidences from other relevant studies (e.g., Bryan & Nelson, 1994; Chen & Stevenson, 1989; Cooper et al., 1998; Csikszentmihalyi & Larson, 1984), older students exhibit more negative attitudes toward homework. What seems at stake is that academic gains associated with secondary school homework may come at the cost of forming increasingly negative attitudes toward homework. For example, one study by Cooper et al. (1998) revealed that, ‘‘positive teacher attitudes toward homework may affect students [Grades 6–12] negatively,’’ by causing longer homework assignments, lower completion rates, and poorer graders (p. 81). Indeed, Hoover-Dempsey et al. (2001) argue that ‘‘a solitary emphasis on student achievement [by adults] is unfortunate,’’ as such an emphasis tends to overlook ‘‘the attitudes, ideas, and behaviors enacted by students’’ (p. 204).


From the angle that academic achievement depends on the kind of homework activities as well as the congruence between these activities and the instructional demands and supports of their courses, Thomas and Rohwer (1987) questioned the proposition that achievement can be elevated simply and directly by increasing the time students are required to spend on homework. Epstein and Van Vorrhis (2001) similarly argued that ‘‘just assigning ‘more’ homework is a mechanical response to a set of complex issues’’ (p. 181). Simply piling on more homework over the kitchen table could backfire (Begley, 1998) and undermine the very academic achievement purpose homework is intended to serve. Too much homework turns students off to school, and makes them avoid rather enjoy schoolwork. Indeed, as Corno (1996) argues, ‘‘deadly homework is a quick route to academic dread’’ (p. 29). This argument is, to some extent, substantiated by one survey of attitudes of 210 high school seniors toward homework, in which about two thirds felt that homework was not beneficial and about two thirds thought that it did not motivate them to learn more about the topics they were studying (Reddick & Peach, 1993).


Consequently, to address the tension between the dual purposes of homework, high schools, in particular, could profitably reexamine their homework practices and try to design homework assignments that are intrinsically interesting, relevant, and engaging. This much-needed reexamination is in line with similar calls from a number of researchers, including Leone and Richards (1989) who seek ‘‘education approaches that foster greater intrinsic enjoyment of learning as children get older’’ (p. 547). Epstein and Van Voorhis (2001) similarly argue that ‘‘teachers have a responsibility to select or design assignments that are purposeful, engaging, and of high quality’’ (p. 186). Finally, Warton (2001) calls for teachers to ‘‘ensure that homework is enjoyed, valued, and not seen as a disliked, solitary activity’’ (p. 164).


If the major benefits of homework are that it helps students develop better time-management strategies and study habits and helps them to become autonomous, lifelong learners outside formal educational settings (Cooper, 1989; Cooper, Lindsay, Nye, 2000; Schunk & Zimmerman, 1994; Xu & Corno, 1998), then homework is ‘‘unlikely’’ to fulfill its role ‘‘unless it is viewed in a relatively favorable light by students’’ (Warton, 2001, p. 164). Accordingly, in reexamining the homework process, schools need to keep the view of its key participants—the students themselves—in mind.


‘‘As students grow older their own attitudes about homework . . . play an increasingly important role in how much homework they complete and in their class grades’’ (Cooper et al., 1998, p. 81), it becomes increasingly necessary and profitable to involve high school students in the homework process. They need to be involved in designing more interesting homework assignments and improving the favorable rating of homework in relation to other activities in which they normally engage during after-school hours and ultimately in making doing homework a more fulfilling experience that serves to promote academic achievement and desirable study habits, as well as an experience that enriches, not merely competes with or prevents social and leisure activities. There is merit to some unconventional thinking about homework, it seems, notably in regards to its benefits as ascribed by adults (Warton, 2001) such as policymakers, teachers, and, to some extent, parents. Instead, more attention needs to be paid to its benefits and costs as perceived by adolescents. Another broad message worth offering in this article is to involve students more actively in the homework process so that homework becomes something that teachers and families do with them and for them, but not to them, or worse, conspire together in a premeditated plan to make their young lives miserable.

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JIANZHONG XU is an associate professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at Mississippi State University. His research interests focus on teaching and learning in the school and home setting, in home-school relationships, and in partnerships with families from diverse cultural backgrounds. His recent publications include articles in Elementary School Journal, Journal of Teacher Education, and Theory Into Practice.




Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 106 Number 9, 2004, p. 1786-1803
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11670, Date Accessed: 10/21/2021 4:50:29 AM

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