Balancing Homework

By Kwan Jin Yao

“Across the countries and regions surveyed, students who came from socio-economically advantaged backgrounds tended to devote more hours to homework” (Singapore Ranks Third Globally In Time Spent On Homework, Amelia Teng)

At first glance the finding that students in Singapore rank third globally in time spent on homework – with 9.4 average hours every week – is another confirmation of Singapore’s stressful education system (ST, Dec. 27). “Are you sure Singapore is not first” was a common response on the Internet. However, Associate Professor Jason Tan of the National Institute of Education was right to mention that with little indication of the subjects and nature of homework completed, it is “hard to draw any conclusions from [the findings]”.

Moreover, more questions should be asked of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) administered by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a triennial international survey which evaluates education systems.

For one, the correlation between the time spent on homework and higher scores in PISA appears incongruous with Finland and Russia, for instance, in the picture. Finnish students spend less time on homework (2.8 hours) than the OECD average of 4.9 hours, Russian students spend more time (9.7 hours), yet the Finnish 15-year-olds outperformed their Russian counterparts in PISA scores: a mean score of 519 versus 482 in 2012. In other words, the assertion that “students who did more homework scored higher in PISA” should not go unchallenged. Even if the correlation does exist, barring anomalies, the amount of time spent on homework could instead be the result of PISA scores.

For one, the correlation between the time spent on homework and higher scores in PISA appears incongruous with Finland and Russia, for instance, in the picture.

Finding a balance for homework is tough. When taken seriously by educators and their students homework accelerates and enhances learning. Beyond the quantity – since the time spent on homework depends not only on the amount of assignments, but also on its difficulty and the guidance provided – the type of coursework matters too, as Associate Professor John Tan emphasized. In this vein PISA argues that evidence from 2009 suggests that there is “negligible impact” after around four hours of homework a week, though what is this proposition premised upon? What kinds of schoolwork are the most effective, and for which subjects? If the amount of homework assigned is associated with better performance in mathematics, how does the statistics hold up for the other subjects? Furthermore, the PISA study does not account for after-school classes and personal tutors, which increase the quantity of homework and time spent on it, and could also influence academic performance.

These concerns are not new in Singapore. Parents have been worried that their children struggle to balance other school commitments, and are inundated by tasks during the holidays. In 2012 The New Paper detailed “specialist tutors” who did homework for students.

While the PISA report is unlikely to significantly influence education policies in Singapore, perhaps we could assess the efficacy of homework in our own schools. To what extent does it shape learning? For the moment, we are content to let schoolchildren and their parents find their own balance. In the long run, if we could aggregate data on homework and scholastic results across subjects, pedagogies can be designed more productively.

This post was first published over at the blog of Kwan Jin Yao on 29 December 2014. It is reproduced with permission.


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