Is it Busy Work or Homework?

When is Homework Really Homework?

Boy (8-9) doing homework
Compassionate Eye Foundation/Steven Errico/Getty Images

One out of three parents thinks the quality of their child’s homework is not up to par. It’s not the children's efforts parents are complaining about--it’s the homework being assigned.

According to a MetLife Survey, The Homework Experience, not all parents are happy with the type of work coming home every day. In fact, 40 percent of the parents surveyed felt that their child was being asked to do busy work, not homework.

What is Busy Work?

Busy work is an assignment that may take a lot of time but doesn’t impart anything of educational value to a student. In other words, your child may look as though he’s really busy, but is actually simply doing work to stay occupied and isn’t learning anything from it.

In the classroom, busy work sometimes has its merits. Lesson plans for substitute teachers often contain busy work, especially when a teacher had planned on introducing new concepts to the class and would rather wait until she returns to do so.  Busy work keeps the students occupied and often practices skills they’ve already learned, but doesn’t teach anything new.

What is Homework?

Homework, on the other hand, serves a different purpose than busy work. Effective homework assignments are assigned to supplement learning and practice and integrate newly learned skills. Homework gives students the chance to study at their own pace and discover for themselves which concepts they are having trouble with and those which they have mastered.

Sometimes homework can look like busy work, particularly in vocabulary and math. That’s because there are some skills that are best learned by repetition.

Twenty-five math problems using the same process can seem like busy work, but by the twentieth problem, most students will find that knowing how to solve the problem has become automatic.

Spelling homework can also be boring and repetitive, although there are some unique ways to practice spelling that can make it a little more exciting.

Is It Busy Work or Homework?

The question on many parent’s minds is how to tell whether homework is really homework or whether it’s busy work. Sometimes the answer is obvious. Unless your child needs to improve her fine motor skills, homework asking her to cut, color and glue doesn’t have a whole lot of educational value. (An exception to this is when a project is assigned to be completed as a family. Family projects teach the value of teamwork and help kids understand that parents are an important part of their education.)

Sometimes the answer depends on your child. When it come to skill practice, what holds educational value to one child may be busy work for another. Some children need repetition to help them learn, while others are able to “get it” and move on.  

What Can You Do?

If your child seems to be whizzing through his homework without any challenges, it’s probably busy work for him. In that case, it’s a good time to talk to his teacher about how this can be handled.

Some teachers hold fast to the idea that every student needs to complete the same homework, while others are more willing to provide individualized homework.

Advocating for no homework may not be a good approach, but speaking with the teacher about the difference between being “fair” and providing “equal” learning experiences is a good tactic.

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