DENVER — From reconnecting with friends, restarting extracurricular activities to learning new things — there are many reasons for students to be excited for a new school year to begin.
One return most students do not relish, however, is their nightly homework load. Conversations on the topic have been swirling for decades, calling into question the merits of homework and also worrying about possible detrimental impacts to sleep and stress levels during important periods of transition in the lives of our young people.
Denver7 went 360 to gain multiple perspectives on the topic of homework to ask if its benefits outweigh the downsides for our students as they pursue their futures; and, if so, just how much homework they should be assigned.
We talked to two students about the level of work they’re expected to complete. We also spoke to college professors, who are experts in the subject matter of psychology and development, and two high school teachers, who have fundamentally rethought their approaches to assigning work outside of class.
Jackson adjusts to make it work
Jackson Decker is undoubtedly a busy guy. He’s entering his senior year at East High School, with a very full schedule: several AP and honors courses, dual enrollment courses to get early college credit, swimming, tennis, an internship with the governor’s office, and playing the piano are all on the menu on any given school day.
That’s to say nothing of other important parts of teenage years, like spending time with family and friends.
Decker said he has had to learn how to manage his homework around all of his other commitments.
“It gets pretty busy, but I also try to find time for myself,” he said. “A day in the life is waking up pretty early. If I have work to do, I’ll do it in the morning. If I don’t, I’ll give myself a little extra sleep. And then, off to school. If I’m working, I’ll go to work directly after school; and if I’m not, I’ll just go home and do homework if I need to. Then, eat some dinner and go to bed. Do it again [the next day].”
Decker estimates he spends about six hours per week doing homework, an amount he finds reasonable.
“I think I find it manageable, but that’s because I make it a priority to cut out time for myself,” he said. “So if I don’t have time to relax or to enjoy my hobbies, then I’ll become too stressed and then it’ll become too much.”
Helen had a lot on her plate
Finding that balance can be easier said than done. Helen Miller just graduated from East High and put a lot on her plate to get into her dream college. This fall, she’ll be crossing the Atlantic Ocean and studying biochemistry at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.
Miller is “very excited” for this new chapter in her life, and worked very hard to make it a reality.
“This past school year, I took three AP classes, plus two concurrent enrollment classes, and then I did a TA in my free period,” she explained. “I also ran cross country. And, I have a job as well so I worked my job on weekends.”
The hard work paid off for Miller, and she is proud of all she accomplished during her high school career. But with five hours of homework or more some nights, she felt it was too much at times.
“I think that some homework is helpful… but like, the sheer amount of homework I had, from all the classes I took, was overwhelming,” she said.
The research that has been done on the topic of homework and learning does largely show that it is beneficial, with some caveats.
Dr. Harris Cooper, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, has spent decades researching the effects of homework and falls squarely in the camp that homework should still be assigned to our students.
“Homework helps achievement,” Dr. Cooper said. “All kids should be doing homework, but the amount and type of homework that they do should depend upon their age or developmental level.”
Dr. Cooper subscribes to what’s called the “10 Minute Rule,” which advises that a student should receive their grade in school, multiplied by 10, in minutes of homework per day.
“So for second graders, 20 minutes is a good anchor,” Dr. Cooper explained. “Fourth graders is 40 minutes. When you get up to high school, two hours of homework per night is not uncalled for.”
Going above that amount is where potential downsides of homework can begin to appear, as benefits to learning level off and no longer justify the added stress and potential impacts to social activities and sleep. Dr. Aaron Richmond, a professor of educational psychology and human development at MSU Denver, argues that many of our high school students are spending too much time on homework assignments.
“What we see when we get up into the 4, 5, 6, sometimes 9 hours per week—those are the students that are impacted the most in terms of stress, health, mental health, eating, sleeping, all of those factors that are not good for the body,” Dr. Richmond said. “I think you see that in advanced placement courses, where they kind of get burned out.”
Dr. Richmond also said equity issues are important for teachers to keep in mind, with some students having access to fewer important resources—such as high-speed internet, and outside assistance on difficult assignments. These can compound the stresses of homework and further undermine its potential benefits, he said.
Ms. Hayashi’s epiphany
Teachers are navigating this balance every day, and some are totally reworking their lesson plans as they hear from their stressed-out students. Christy Hayashi, a social studies teacher at Standley Lake High School in Westminster, said she has no choice but to assign homework in her advanced classes to get through all of the required material. For her general classes, she has entirely eliminated homework from her curriculum.
In the spirit of her subject matter, she frames the conversation as a “social contract” between students and their classmates.
“I tell them: if you can give me 45 really strong minutes, then we can end our learning here,” Hayashi said. “And, that does create legitimate buy-in from them, because they do need that time to do other things, or want that time to do other things.”
Hayashi’s view on homework has been evolving over her thirteen years in the field. It was the pandemic, though, that fundamentally and permanently shifted her approach.
“You saw, firsthand, what home was like for students, and it became so obvious that home for a lot of our kids is not a conducive place to learn,” she recalled. “And, I did not want homework to be an obstacle for legitimate learning."
We asked Hayashi if she’s noticed a decline in her students’ learning since ending homework in her classes.
“Honestly, no,” she replied.
The Advent of A.I.
A new wrinkle is being added to the discussion of homework among teachers: artificial intelligence. Many homework assignments—especially those written—can now be done by a computer in a matter of seconds, and can be individually tailored to seem like genuine work on behalf of the student.
That was a lesson that fellow Standley Lake High School social studies teacher John Ford learned in real-time during the previous school year and a reason he no longer assigns homework in most of his classes.
“Kids can go home and do their homework on a home computer, copy and paste, drop it into a documents, share it on their Google Drive, and you’ll never know,” he said.
Ford watched this past year as one of his students showed him how she could use ChatGPT to write her essay on the Middle Ages. She simply commanded the program to complete her assignment, and it began writing faster than Ford could read it.
“Here’s what blew my mind: something that would take a kid, maybe two or three days to write, it did in about a minute,” Ford said. “And I had that realization, about: what does homework really mean? And what is it going to look like in the future?”
The general conclusion our subjects collectively reached is that homework doesn’t have to be a bad word—and the research shows it can help students to better understand their courses and to develop life skills like organization and time management. Like anything in life, though, a balance is needed. If your student’s workload begins to affect their health and happiness, it may be time to reevaluate the classes they’re taking and decide if they’re truly needed for their long-term goals. Rest assured: both college professors we talked to insisted as much.
Editor's Note: Denver7 360 | In-Depth explores multiple sides of the topics that matter most to Coloradans, bringing in different perspectives so you can make up your own mind about the issues. To comment on this or other 360 In-Depth stories, email us at 360@Denver7.com or use this form. See more 360 | In-Depth stories here.