Giving pupils math homework can sometimes do more harm than good, according to a new study – particularly when the tasks involved in the work are too complex for kids to complete even with the help of their parents.

The researchers, from the University of South Australia and St Francis Xavier University in Canada, interviewed eight Canadian families, asking questions about their experiences with mathematics homework and its effects on the family.

All the families had a child in grade 3, typically aged 8 or 9, the age at which the first standardized math tests are introduced in the area where the survey was conducted. Overall, math was talked about as a subject that wasn't liked, and that involved too much extra work.

"Homework has long been accepted as a practice that reinforces children's learning and improves academic success," says Lisa O'Keeffe, a senior lecturer in mathematics education at the University of South Australia.

"But when it is too complex for a student to complete even with parent support, it raises the question as to why it was set as a homework task in the first place."

The issues identified by the study included homework being too difficult – even with parental help – as well as the work pushing back bedtimes, crossing over into family time, and causing feelings of inadequacy and frustration.

As with many subjects, approaches to teaching and learning mathematics can change over time. Parents who, as children, had been taught how to tackle problems in a different way to their kids was another frustration noted by the researchers.

"Like many things, mathematics teaching has evolved over time," says O'Keeffe. "But when parents realize 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."

This can lead to "negativity across generations", the researchers say. Mothers in the study tended to be mostly responsible for helping with the homework – and when they also find the assignments tough, that can reinforce negative stereotypes about mathematics not being a subject in which girls "naturally excel", according to the study authors.

These negative stereotypes can have lasting impacts on their grades and career aspirations, other studies show.

Of course, the coronavirus pandemic is still fresh in everyone's minds – a time when children were often asked to study at home, and parents often had to help out when it came to completing assignments.

While this study uses a small sample of participants, the researchers say its findings match common narratives in education. They want to see more done to make sure math homework is set in an appropriate way, and that it doesn't end up putting youngsters off the subject at an early age.

"The last thing teachers want to do is disadvantage girls in developing potentially strong mathematical identities," says study author Sarah McDonald, an education lecturer at the University of South Australia. So "we need a greater understanding of homework policies and expectations."

Homework is often thought to have non-academic benefits, such as fostering independence and developing organisational skills and self-discipline, McDonald adds, although the family experiences captured in their study don't necessarily back that up.

The research has been published in the British Journal of Sociology of Education.