+ Quality Homework is What Matters — Not Quantity

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In the New York Times, Annie Murphy Paul wrote a piece titled “The Trouble With Homework.” 

Paul says there seem to be two divergent conceptions about homework out there.  One is that our students are burdened with backpacks full of “too much homework.”   The other is that they are glassy-eyed goof-offs all evening long in front of their digital screens engaged in mindless nonsense . 

She feels that neither case is true, and we ought to ask a different question.  Ask instead how effectively do children’s after-school assignments advance learning.

The quantity of students’ homework is a lot less important than its quality.  And evidence suggests that as of now, homework isn’t making the grade.  Although surveys show that the amount of time our children spend on homework has risen over the last three decades, American students are mired in the middle of international rankings: 17th in reading, 23rd in science and 31st in math, according to results from the Program for International Student Assessment released last December.

 One-third of parents in a study rated the quality of their children’s homework assignments as fair to poor.  A study coming in the Economics of Education will offer a report in which homework in science, English and history had “little to no impact” on student test scores.

To enrich classroom learning, says Paul, we will be required to  make homework not shorter or longer, but smarter.

In recent years cognitive and neuro-scientists, as well as educational psychologists, have made a series of discoveries about how the human brain learns. 

They’ve founded a new discipline  known as Mind, Brain and Education. 

Mind, Brain and Education is devoted to understanding and improving the ways in which children absorb, retain and apply knowledge. 

Teaching based on these findings have been implemented in some classrooms around the country.  It’s still early, but they have achieved measured success. 

Teachers at Columbia Middle School in St. Louis collaborated with psychologists at Washington University.  They lifted seventh-  and eighth-grade students’ science and social studies test scores by 13 to 25 percent.

But as yet, these findings have not been applied to homework.  Mind, Brain and Education methods  are simple to understand and easy to carry out, but they can seem unfamiliar and even counterintuitive.

After-school assignments are ripe, says Paul, for the kind of improvements offered by this new science.

Some Examples of Research-Based Approaches 

One example: “spaced repetition.”  This is a research-based technique that has already had a positive impact on learning. 

Instead of instructors concentrating on single blocks of information, as many homework assignments currently do (Civil War one evening, Reconstruction the next), learners encounter the same material in briefer sessions spread over a longer period of time.

With this approach, students would be re-exposed to Civil War and Reconstruction information all throughout the semester.

Spaced repetition has produced impressive results. 

Eighth-grade history students who relied on a spaced approach to learning had nearly double the retention rate of students who studied the same material in a consolidated unit, reported researchers from the University of California-San Diego in 2007. 

The reason the method works so well goes back to the brain: when we first acquire memories, they are volatile, subject to change or likely to disappear. 

Exposing ourselves to information repeatedly over time fixes it more permanently in our minds, by strengthening the representation of the information that is embedded in our neural networks.

A second learning technique is known as “retrieval practice.”  This employs a familiar tool: the test.  But in a new way: not to assess what students know, but to reinforce it.

While we often imagine “memory” to be something like a storage tank, and a “test” as a kind of dipstick to measure the level of information in there, in fact, the brain doesn’t work that way.

Every time we pull up a memory, we make it stronger and more lasting.  So teasting doesn’t just measure, it changes learning too.  The usual methods, re-reading, taking notes and making outlines, doesn’t have this effect.

One experiment found that language learners who used the retrieval practice strategy remembered 80 percent of the vocabulary words they studied, while those using standard methods remembered only about a third of them.

Students who used retrieval practice to learn science retained about 50 percent more of the material than students who studied in traditional ways.  (Purdue, 2011.)

Students — and parents — may groan at the prospect of more tests, but the self-quizzing involved in retrieval practice need not provoke any anxiety.  It’s simply an effective way to focus less on the input of knowledge (passively over textbooks and notes) and more on its output (calling up that same information from one’s own brain).

 Another misconception: we think that if information feels easy to absorb, we’ve learned it well.  But the opposite it true.  What we work hard to remember, we are better able to recall it.  The extra effort signals to the brain that this is important information.

There is a name for this phenomenon: “cognitive disfluency,” and it is so effective in learning that psychologists have devised all manner of “desirable difficulties” to introduce into the learning proces. 

For example, they might sprinkle a passage with punctuation mistakes, deliberately leave out letters, shrink font size until it’s tiny, or wiggle a document while it’s being copied so the words come out blurry.

While teachers are not likely to send home smudged or error-filled worksheets, they may introduce another kind of desirable difficulty called “interleaving.”  This can readily be applied to homework.

An “interleaved” assignment mixes up different kinds of situations or problems to be practices, instead of grouping them by type.  When students can’t tell in advance what kind of knowledge or problem-solving strategy will be called for to answer a particular question, their brains must work harder to come up with the solution.  The result is that students learn material more thoroughly.

An example of interleaving happened in the world of sports, and it illustrates why the tactic is so effective.  Researchers at Cal Tech conducted a study of baseball players practicing hitting.  When different kinds of pitches were interleaved, batters improved their performance later in which they didn’t know the type of pitch in advance (as happens in real world games).   

Interleaving produces the same sort of improvement in academic learning.  A study published last year in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology asked fourth-graders to work on solving four types of math problems and then to take a test evaluating how well they had learned. 

The scores of those whose practice problems were mixed up were more than double the scores of those students who had practiced one kind of problem at a time.

According to Paul, the application of these kinds of research-based strategies to homework has not as yet been used to its best advantage.  We have the opportunity to raise student achievement by applying them.  The science is out there.  Our assignment, she says, is to make it happen.

Sole source: Annie Murphy Paul’s article in the New York Times on September 10, 2011.Read the article at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/11/opinion/sunday/quality-homework-a-smart-idea.html?scp=1&sq=Annie%20Murphy%20Paul&st=cse

Paul is the author of “Origins,” and is at work on a new book about the science of learning.

tutoring in Columbus OH:  Adrienne Edwards  614-579-6021  or email aedwardstutor@columbus.rr.com.


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