What You Need to Know About Tracking Homework

Amy Lauren Smith

Editor's note: How much homework are your students really getting? Choices Teacher-Advisor Amy Lauren Smith--a sixth- through eighth-grade health teacher at the Shanghai American School in Shanghai, China, and the brilliant mind behind our Teacher's Guide each month--explains all the different factors you need to consider while tracking your students' homework load.

My middle school has a homework policy. For seventh graders, it's no more than 20 minutes per subject per night. The kids have four classes a day, so even if every one of their subjects assigned the maximum homework amount, that only adds up to 80 minutes per night.

Yet when I talk to their parents, I hear about hours upon hours of homework every night. They say their kids are staying up until 11 p.m. or midnight to get it all done. My colleagues care deeply about the health and well-being of our students, so it's hard for me to believe they'd break the homework policy and collectively pile on hours of work.

After reading this month's Choices debate, Is Homework Out of Control?, I set out to have my students track their workload for a week to see how they stacked up. It didn't exactly go as planned. Our school is 1-to-1, which means the kids have their own laptop from grade six up--and in the digital age, tracking time spent on homework is easier said than done.

The first batch of tracking worksheets I sent home came back a weekend later, and if you were to judge the results without further discussion, you'd think my students were studying for their medical school entrance exams. Apparently, 12-year-olds were doing homework from 5 p.m. until 11 p.m. or later, with just a short break for dinner and perhaps a snack or two. So, six hours a night, as opposed to the six hours a week most American teenagers are getting? Something definitely wasn't adding up.

Just to make sure I wasn't mistaken, I checked with the other teachers on the seventh-grade team. As I suspected, they hadn't been piling any additional work on the kids. In fact, with our rotating schedule, the kids only have two core classes and two specials per day, so it's more likely they'll have closer to 40 minutes of homework per night, as opposed to the school policy maximum.

When I told my students this fact--and that their trackers were in no way accurate--they defended themselves by arguing that they were multitasking. I had to explain to them that multitasking means actually doing more than one task at once. Given that they were "multitasking" for six hours a night, they were obviously getting sidetracked along the way.

So we went back to the drawing board, and I created a new tracker that had a bit more detail.

Homework assigned:
Time started:
Time finished:
Breaks taken:
Total time on homework:
Procrastination station (where did I get distracted?):

As with any tracker assigned in health class, I can't guarantee the accuracy of the results, but the act of reflecting was an effective exercise for the kids. They were able to take a critical look at how they were spending their time, realizing that they were causing themselves unneeded stress and sleep deprivation.

Of course, I'm in no way saying teens shouldn't be able to chat with their friends while they work. Collaboration is a key 21st century skill, and some of my best memories of growing up are of doing my homework with friends. I'm just hoping my students will see how much free time they could have, and go meet up with their friends in person instead. I think they're just hoping that I don't tell their parents the truth!

Find out how much homework your students are doing each night with this HOMEWORK TRACKER worksheet:


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