Facts So Romantic

Attitude, Not Quantity, Makes Homework Effective

Photograph by Lars Plougmann / Flickr

A smile pulled the corner of Yú’s* mouth. “There is a saying in China,” she says. “‘No students compete. Parents compete.’” The polished Beijing native, who is both a mother and a grandmother, leaned forward with flawless posture as she reminisced about overseeing her son’s education. He was a brilliant student who graduated high school at 14, completed both a bachelor’s and master’s degree by 20, and then moved from China to the United States in pursuit of a doctoral degree in engineering.

Now devoted to the education of her three granddaughters who reside in the United States, Yú travels regularly from Beijing and is witness to the countries’ stark dichotomy in educational practices. Yú recounted sitting beside her son for hours nightly while he labored over homework in subjects like math, Chinese language, and even drawing—a common practice in China. And so, when her granddaughter arrived home from American first grade with an empty backpack—no textbooks or homework—she exclaimed, “Well, what do you learn?” with a chuckle of bemusement. 

To augment what she sees as a deficiency, and in keeping with Chinese educational practices, Yú assigns her granddaughter homework daily—just as she did her son. Yú explained that Chinese parents believe homework is an essential part of a successful education. The notorious competition among Chinese parents to ensure that their children out perform their peers comes in part from the looming pressure to score well on Gaokao—China’s national higher education entrance exam—the most grueling college entrance test in the world. Yú described a daily ritual of school, homework, supper, returning to school, homework, and bedtime past midnight for students preparing for Gaokao.

In an ironic twist, American parents overwhelmingly report that homework help is unimportant, and yet they highly value their own involvement.

According to the newly released Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) data, which surveyed over half a million 15-year-olds in 35 participating countries, students in China report studying after-school for an average of 27 hours per week—second only to the United Arab Emirates. American students report studying after-school for approximately 20 hours per week and hover at, or below, average in math, reading, and science on PISA. China fared much better, placing second in math and in the top five for science

So, should American teachers start assigning more homework? Policy-wise, that’s been the take-away. In America, our faith in the meritocratic work ethic has lent itself to the assumption that the formidable workloads of Eastern countries, like China, are solely responsible for their students’ high achievement. This belief was favored in 1990s after an important meta-analysis found American students trailing their Japanese and Chinese counterparts in both homework quantity and educational achievement. Naturally, American policy-makers and parents called for an increase in homework. But, in the years to follow, American performance on international assessments didn’t improve as expected, which led researchers, educators, and parents to question the “more-homework” model. As backpacks transitioned from light, to heavy, to light again, we’ve notably overlooked a significant variable, which differs considerably in America and China—namely, the parent-child relationship.

When researchers finally turned to the parent-child relationship in an attempt to understand why homework was less effective in Western countries, they found something odd: Homework help from Western parents seemed to negatively impact student academic performance and behavior. For instance, a meta-analysis of middle school students demonstrated that homework help is the only type of parental involvement that does not improve students’ GPA and standardized test scores.

It’s worth noting that, according to PISA, time spent doing homework is negatively correlated with overall academic success—per extra hour of study time, students’ PISA scores decreased by five points in math and two points in science. Due to a widening performance gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students, the poorest performing students do the most homework, and still achieve less no matter where they live. 

It might be intuitive to conclude that homework is failing students. But non-Western cultures have a different approach, rooted in a collectivist social philosophy, that may make parental involvement in homework more effective overall. Perhaps this is why the most disadvantaged students who took PISA in Macao, China, and Vietnam outperformed the most advantaged students from 20 other countries.

The collectivist social philosophy prioritizes the interconnected group over the individual. Because honor is obtained through serving collective needs, interdependence is expected and encouraged. Western countries tend to value family, community, and country insofar as they serve the needs of the individual. Parents and children view homework assistance in China as a sacred duty, while in the West help is viewed as a failure. In an ironic twist, American parents overwhelmingly report that homework help is unimportant, and yet they highly value their own involvement. 

Researchers find that in individualistic cultures, like in the United States, parents who help with homework are often thought of as intrusive by their children, especially mothers by their daughters. But students in China report welcoming homework help when they feel it is necessary. Xiaozhu An, a Chinese citizen and developmental psychology doctoral student, confirmed that the concept of parental intrusiveness doesn’t directly translate in Chinese languages, and suggested “Tiger Mother” instead. This is not uncommon for languages from collectivist cultures, says psychologist and Fulbright Scholar Dian Ratna Sawitri of Diponegoro University in Indonesia: “Intrusiveness is not relevant to the context of the parent-child relationship.” 

Regardless of how the behavior is understood, research demonstrates that children suffer when parents control homework time in negative ways, like expressing overly ambitious aspirations, giving answers, completing assignments, rushing children, or assisting before help is requested. A meta-analysis in the Review of Educational Research suggests that, instead, parents should focus on modeling a positive attitude about homework, being clear about when and where homework should be completed, setting explicit rules, and following through on enforcement. Kids do best academically when parents refrain from micromanagement and provide supportive supervision.

The Transactional Model of Development, developed by the psychologist Arnold Sameroff in the 1970s to explain the complex interaction between nature and nurture, best illuminates the importance of the child-parent relationship to academic success. Transactions, Sameroff wrote, are the “interdependent effects of the child and their environment.” Both the parent and child possess the ability to influence each other’s behaviors, feelings, and beliefs. 

Homework is no exception. Children who perform well in school tend to have parents who are responsive and constructive during homework time. Highly involved parents like Yú are not necessarily intrusive; rather, intrusiveness is determined by how help is offered and received. Therefore, parental intrusiveness is a function of the quality of help, rather than of the quantity and can directly impact student motivation. 

Psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, of the University of Rochester, are the leading experts on intrinsic motivation. Their landmark Self-Determination Theory, cited over 18,000 times by experts from diverse fields, demonstrates how people experience peak motivation when they possess a sense of competence, autonomy, and relatedness. Non-Western students reported dramatically higher levels of homework motivation than their peers in America. So, why are Western students less motivated? It may be because Western students, as opposed to non-Western ones, see homework more as a chore than an opportunity—or an obligation—to cement learning. Deci says, “Parents need to help children understand why homework is meaningful for their future by providing precise reasons for completing it.” This tactic can reduce the total time that homework takes each night, while increasing kid’s academic success. 

Of course, alongside the collectivist mentality in China is a more practical motivation for success: inordinate competition among an enormous and increasingly well-educated population. In China, Gaokao haunts children from the time they are young. Students are only permitted to take the test one time, and failing Gaokao can lead to a life sentence of family shame, sparse wages, and low social ranking. Consequently, the parent-child team labor in unison to succeed. It can be a matter of survival. 

“It is very different,” Yú says. “On the whole, my son liked my help because he was very young and I kept him on schedule. He depends on me. When I pushed him hard, he was angry, but good students like to have their parents involved because they can improve their studies. My son liked it.”

Kristen E. Paral is a developmental consultant, freelance writer, and former teacher. She writes about psychology, philosophy, education, and the sciences. Follow her on Twitter @Kristen_Paral.

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Watch: Max Tegmark, a theoretical physicist at MIT, explains why he skipped out on homework.

*Yú’s name has been changed.

The lead image is courtesy of Lars Plougmann via Flickr.

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