Teachers have many reasons to assign homework. In particular, we want our students to practice whatever they’re learning, so they can get better at it.
We might also plausibly hope that homework benefits students in other ways. Perhaps it helps them get more organized. Perhaps it involves parents in learning. Or, perhaps homework improves conscientiousness.
This last option seems especially intriguing.
Obviously, conscientiousness improves the likelihood that students will do homework. But, does that causal process flow the other way? Do people who do more homework become more conscientious?
To answer that question, several researchers gathered data from German middle school students, and — crucially — their parents.
Then, they crunched a lot of numbers. I mean, A LOT of numbers.
Early results showed that, for these middle schoolers, homework effort and conscientiousness change in tandem. More specifically, both homework effort and conscientiousness increased from 5th to 7th grades, and then declined quite sharply from 7th to 8th grades.
(My condolences to 8th grade teachers.)
These correlations also appeared when analyzing parents’ points of view. Like their children, they saw that the effort going in to homework correlated with their children’s conscientiousness in other areas of life.
Researchers then ramped up their analytical methodology to explore causal direction. They used a particular statistical method to contrast students whose effort did not go up with those who did, and to compare their conscientiousness levels.
Is it true that doing more homework improves conscientiousness? Here is their summary:
We are willing to tentatively propose that changing one’s homework effort may lead to changes in conscientiousness, but obviously, this inference and our results await more rigorous testing.
In other words: based on the data they have and the methods they can use, it seems so. But, these methods have limits, so we need to explore this question further.
Homework Improves Conscientiousness: Not So Fast…
This study appeals to me because its authors recognize not only the limits of their methods, but also the limitations of its implications.
For instance, teachers might conclude “if homework improves conscientiousness, then we should all assign more homework. It will be good for them, and not just their learning.”
NOT SO FAST, the authors respond.
First, not all students do the homework we assign. After all, in the dry language of research, they note that “students differ in the extent to which they ascribe value to the activity of doing homework.” (Ain’t that the truth…)
Second, an increase in homework might (might!) increase conscientiousness, but it might harm other important things: like, say, happiness, or relationships with peers. Conscientiousness is an important part of life, but it’s not the only important part of life.
Reasonably enough, these researchers call for more investigation of this question. In particular, they hope for a study that controls the amount of homework that students do, and learns from what happens next.
(The current study, remember, simply looks at what students did.)
But what should we teachers do because of this research?
Schools are having a healthy and important debate right now about the benefits of homework. (For earlier posts on this topic, click here and here.) Reasonably enough, we want to ensure that its benefits outweigh its potential harms: lost time, increased stress.
This research encourages us to remember the non-academic benefits of homework. If we cut back on practice problems, what can teachers and parents do in their stead to help young children develop the healthy characteristics essential for a productive adult life?
I don’t know the answer, but I do know that’s an important question.