Maths homework causing more harm than good – study

Maths homework causing more harm than good – study

Homework has long been accepted as a practice that helps kids do well at school, but when it’s too complex for them to complete even with the help of their parents, it begs the question: why was set as a homework task in the first place?

Researchers from the University of South Australia (UniSA) recently set out to answer this in a study that explored how mathematics homework policies and practices affect families.

What they found was telling.

UniSA researcher, Associate Professor Lisa O’Keeffe said that while parents are often the first people children turn to when they need help with homework, many parents are unsure of the current mathematics strategies and approaches that their children are learning as these have changed markedly since they were at school.

“Like many things, mathematics teaching has evolved over time. But when parents realise that their tried-and-true methods are different to those which their children are learning, it can be hard to adapt, and this can add undue pressure,” Associate Professor O’Keeffe said.

“When children see their parents struggle with mathematics homework, or where mathematics homework becomes a shared site of frustration for families it can lead to negativity across generations.”

Associate Professor O’Keeffe said pointed out that negative interactions with mathematics, and negative discourses like these can lead to reduced confidence, reduced self-efficacy, and can negatively affect children’s resilience, persistence, and ultimately their inclination to continue with mathematics.

Studies have shown that any decline in STEM subjects such as maths can have long-term impacts for Australia’s future. According to Australian Government statistics, less than 10% of students are studying a higher level of maths, with maths capabilities declining more than 25 points (15-year-olds in 2022 scored at a level that would have been expected of 14-year-olds, 20 years earlier).

Responsibility of homework largely falls on mothers

UniSA’s study, titled: ‘Mathematics homework and the potential compounding of educational disadvantage’, also identified gendered biases, with mothers being overwhelmingly responsible for managing children’s homework.

“They often experience frustration or despair when they were unable to understand the maths problems,” Co-researcher, UniSA’s Dr Sarah McDonald said.

“When mothers find maths hard, there is concern that this may demonstrate to their children, especially their girls, that this is not an area in which they would naturally excel. The last thing teachers want to do is disadvantage girls in developing potentially strong mathematical identities.”

Dr McDonald said a greater understanding of homework policies and expectations are needed to address these issues.

“The experiences of the families in our study do not support the often-quoted claim by researchers that that homework has potential non-academic benefits such as fostering independence, creating positive character traits, developing good organisational skills, or virtues such as self-discipline and responsibility.”