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Books like "The Case Against Homework" (Crown, 2006) and "The Homework Myth" (Da Capo, 2007) have given a voice to a movement bubbling up in the homes and hallways of U.S. schools – parents are pushing back on teachers that assign too much homework. According to Duke University’s Harris Cooper, teachers should assign 10 minutes of homework a night per grade – i.e., a fifth grader should have 50 minutes of homework each night.  This "10-minute rule" has won the endorsement of the National PTA and the NEA, although parents all over the country continue to bemoan assignments that take their early elementary-schoolers in excess of one hour to complete.

So with kids already feeling the pinch and pressure of too much homework, and parents growing resentful about work that takes their children away from precious time with their families, why do many research designs include a “homework” or “pre-work” element?

Well, we think these assignments show up in proposals for many good reasons…

  • Pre-work can extend the life of your focus group or ethnography in a cost-effective way. While homework costs (facilities charge for distributing, mailing packets take postage and people power, and prepping a thoughtful assignment can take as much time as crafting a great guide), it’s also much more efficient than extending the time of your focus group or recruiting multiple cells of respondents to complete different tasks. Asking youth to write a story about an experience they have before they arrive will not only give them time to think and mentally prepare for participating, but will also preserve group time for getting to the “why” rather than watching them write.
  • For kids, tweens and teens, being “chosen” for a focus group can be a very big deal. We want them to know that their opinions really matter – and if we succeed in conveying this import to them, they might be a bit nervous. Not only do they have to answer questions “on the spot” but they often have to do so in front of a few strangers and their peers. Giving them an assignment can actually alleviate their fears and make them feel confident that they’ll have something to say right from the start.
  • Pre-placement is important to help you answer specific types of research questions.  Some types of “products” like TV shows, can’t be “authentically” researched without a little pre-placement. Seeing someone’s first reaction in a group might be useful, but will a preschooler love Dora as much the first time as she does on the fifth or sixth viewing? Sometimes replicating a real-life reaction means exposing kids to your product or concept more than once before you begin discussing it with them.
  • Kids, tweens and teens have great memories, but they might not have been paying attention to the minutiae that we would like them to be able to recall…Even a request as seemingly benign as “tell me what you ate for breakfast last week” can cause anxiety or at least a pause as kids, tweens and teens attempt to retrieve these mundane memories from among their more visceral ones (getting a hit in the big game, having a big laugh with their pals or getting a surprise pop quiz in social studies class). Homework that has youth keep track of a topic in the moment or rewind their weekly history in advance of meeting the moderator can make for a much more fruitful conversation and can avoid some of those “I don’t knows” or “I forgets” that are inevitably part of research with youth.

But before you pile on the prep work, consider the following:

  • Are you setting kids, tweens and teens up for success? Is the assignment doable in the time allotted? Is the assignment clear and concrete enough for them to complete it on their own? Despite great intentions, a homework assignment that rushes or confuses your respondent can do more damage than good…
  • Is pre-work feeling like homework? Are you setting a tone that’s right for your topic? If getting great feedback from youth means putting them in a playful mindset, make sure your assignment doesn’t feel – gasp – boring! The stakes are higher for homework in general, as it signals to youth what the conversation will be like and what they can expect from the research experience. Pre-work that feels too much like homework might inspire your respondents to find something else to do the evening of your groups or the day of your ethnography.
  • Finally, is your homework meaningful to your study? In the interest of adding value, or getting more bang for your research buck, it’s tempting to address a question in pre-work that only loosely relates to your overall study objectives. This approach might seem savvy, but it can raise roadblocks to getting to the heart of your real issue. Kids, tweens and teens (and adults!) want to help…Having them complete a media diary, for example, when your conversation is about all kinds of play might garner you responses that are more focused than authentic. When youth spend time on an assignment, only to find that there isn’t time to debrief on it in a group, they can feel slighted and unacknowledged. Payment doesn’t go as far as praise, and if you want kids to engage, show them that you want to see what they did in their pre-work assignments.