What research reveals about the work you do outside of therapy sessions.
Homework is an important component of cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) and other evidence-based treatments for psychological symptoms. Developed collaboratively during therapy sessions, homework assignments may be used by clients to rehearse new skills, practice coping strategies, and restructure destructive beliefs.
Joel Minden, PhD is a clinical psychologist, Director of the Chico Center for Cognitive Behavior Therapy, and lecturer in the Department of Psychology at California State University, Chico.
Editor: Saad Shaheed
Although some clients believe that the effectiveness of psychotherapy depends on the quality of in-session work, consistent homework during the rest of the week may be even more important. Without homework, the insights, plans, and good intentions that emerge during a therapy session are at risk of being buried by patterns of negative thinking and behavior that have been strengthened through years of inadvertent rehearsal. Is an hour (or less) of therapeutic work enough to create change during the other 167 hours in a week?
Research on homework in therapy has revealed some meaningful results that can be understood collectively through a procedure called meta-analysis. A meta-analysis is a statistical summary of a body of research. It can be used to identify the average impact of psychotherapy homework on treatment outcomes across numerous studies. The results of four meta-analyses listed below highlight the value of homework in therapy:
- Kazantzis and colleagues (2010) examined 14 controlled studies that directly compared treatment outcomes for clients assigned to psychotherapy with or without homework. The data favored the homework conditions, with the average client in the homework group reporting better outcomes than about 70% of those in the no-homework conditions.
- Results from 16 studies (Kazantzis et al., 2000) and an updated analysis of 23 studies (Mausbach et al., 2010) found that, among those who received homework assignments during therapy, greater compliance led to better treatment outcomes. The effect sizes were small to medium, depending on the method used to measure compliance.
- Kazantzis et al. (2016) examined the relations of both quantity (15 studies) and quality (3 studies) of homework to treatment outcome. The effect sizes were medium to large, and these effects remained relatively stable when follow-up data were collected 1-12 months later.
Taken together, the research suggests that the addition of homework to psychotherapy enhances its effectiveness, and that clients who consistently complete homework assignments tend to have better mental health outcomes. Finally, although there is less research on this issue, the quality of homework may matter as much as the amount of homework completed.
To enhance the quality of homework, homework assignments should relate directly to a specific goal, the process should be explained with clarity by the therapist, its method should be rehearsed in session, and opportunities for thoughtful out-of-session practice should be scheduled with ideas about how to eliminate obstacles to completion.