Given the oft-heard lament of Singaporean parents and students alike over heavy school workloads, it comes as no surprise that 15-year-olds here rank third globally in the amount of time spent on homework. With an average of 9.4 hours per week, they clock almost double the global average of nearly five hours a week and are behind only students in Shanghai, with 13.8 hours, and Russia, at 9.7 hours.
At first sight, it would appear that the hard work is paying off. Singaporeans rank second and third in maths and science respectively in the same study, the Programme for International Student Assessment by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). But a closer look at the study shows that the correlation between homework and academic performance is not so straightforward. Russian students are 34th for maths and 37th for science, behind students from many other countries who spend less time on homework. Hong Kong students, who at six hours a week spend a third less time on homework than Singapore teens do, rank second in science, ahead of the Republic, and third in maths. As some studies have reaffirmed, the quality of homework is more important than quantity in determining the effect of homework on performance.
Worryingly, in every country that participated in the OECD study, those from disadvantaged homes spend less time on homework than advantaged students do. This is because the former are less likely to have a congenial place to study at home, or parents who encourage them to do so, or access to resources to help them. This can perpetuate the differences in performance of students from different socio-economic backgrounds. To preserve social mobility, it is important for the community to lend a helping hand to disadvantaged children struggling with homework in different areas.
For all students, it should not be just about counting the hours that are spent on homework. It is really about making homework count by effectively boosting learning. It should not be just about chasing good grades as that would make learning a chore. And, importantly, it should not be just about preparation for exams but rather for life as a whole via a range of well-rounded, balanced experiences after school hours.
While homework is to reinforce concepts learnt in class and to instil discipline, it should also promote discovery and interest in topics outside the syllabus. Indeed, homework might take the form of practice in sports or the arts or preparation for community work done collaboratively with others. An enlightened approach to homework might well make it a lifetime habit, serving youngsters well in many pursuits.