The Homework Controversy
The debate concerning the value of school homework continues. On one side of the argument is that it is busy work and not helping with the learning process. However, flip the coin and we hear that quality homework that is reinforcing knowledge, challenging, and creative is essential for the student to grow academically.
Some educators argue that doing homework has negative effects, doesn’t leave room for quality family time, doesn’t allow for exercise/extra activities, and causes conflict within the family. Others maintain that our kids need to be challenged to be both successful and prepared for college and beyond. Well, who’s right? The true answer lies in what kind of after-school work advances learning by offering quality assignments. The kind of challenge which helps the student clarify information, practice key concepts, and solidify knowledge in long term memory. In short, will the assignment be worthwhile to the child’s overall intellectual growth? We must offer ways in which the child better absorbs, retains, and applies knowledge.
Well, the answer to all this has been studied by educational psychologists who have made remarkable discoveries about how the human brain learns. Many of these can be used to make homework a powerful learning strategy.
Here at Oak Hill Academy, a top private school in Monmouth County, New Jersey, we have been using a number of these. “Spaced repetition” is one example of the kind of evidence-based techniques that researchers have found has a positive impact on learning. The idea is that our brains will retake and understand information if it gets exposure in briefer sessions spread over a longer period of time.
,The theory is that this method works well since our brain first acquires information that is volatile, subject to change, or even likely to disappear. Practice is the key here in small doses permitting the brain to store this knowledge in long-term memory. For instance, we all can relate to that song that we have heard repeatedly and can totally recall years later including words and melody. Exposing ourselves to information repeatedly over time fixes it more permanently in our minds, strengthening the representation of the information that is embedded in our neural networks. So, tools like the use of flash cards or using a method called interleaving applied to homework. An interleaved assignment mixes up different kinds of situations to be practiced, instead of grouping them by type. This allows the brain to work hard and practice the recalled information.
A second learning technique, “retrieval practice”, employs low stakes quizzing to help pull information to the front permitting reinforcement. Testing of this pulls up memory, making it stronger and more lasting, so that testing doesn’t just measure, it changes learning. Almost every subject area may use Retrieval practice. Studies tell us that using retrieval practice to learn science for instance; students retain about 50 percent more than if studying in traditional ways. Homework assignments that require self-quizzing or even making up our own tests from text have a lasting value for retention. Forming a study group has a positive effect as a homework device.
“Desirable difficulties” is the third strategy. As the brain works hard to understand information, the theory implies this extra effort signals the brain that this material is important. A challenging assignment might be to have students find mistakes in a math procedure, sprinkle a passage with punctuation mistakes, or deliberately leaving out letters. Even young children would benefit from doing work where they had to reach for solutions or go beyond rote. Creative assignments bring a positive attitude toward school work and helps peek curiosity. They also help improve self-concept in terms of the student’s ability as a learner and assists with the idea that learning also takes place outside of the classroom.
Another out-of-the-box method is to have the student create the assignment. Students using their spelling words to write declarative essays, complex reading strategies to a text of their choice, or math skills to new math problems helps accomplish this goal.
So, it seems that quality of homework assignments make the difference in advancing the child’s individual growth. Therefore, assignments which meet the following criteria pushes the student in the direction of learner rather than just doer.
This criteria is as follows:
- It is desirable to practice skills to promote growth and correct misconceptions. Deeper understanding is the goal.
- Homework should expose the child to the “Big Idea”. Just what is this all about? How is this a part of the real world or even some abstract event.
- Assignments pointed to “Essential Questions” put life into the students work creating enthusiasm and discovery.
- Homework should be checking for understanding and clearing up misconceptions.
- Focusing on purpose and mistakes taken as opportunities to regroup and move forward.
- Assignments should be flexible enough to accommodate all student abilities (i.e., (a) the perfectionist (b) deep thinker (c) slow mover (d) unorganized (e) less motivated, etc.)
- Help child build a knowledge base by evaluating topics for pros/cons; promote accuracy while leaving room for opinion and exploration.
In conclusion, quality homework, extension of the classroom, is a very important part of our children’s education at the best private elementary and high schools. Done well, it molds the thinking process, allows for creativity, encourages independent thinking, and sets the stage for life-long learning.
We must, however, remember to reserve time for:
- independent reading
- exploring academic interests
- enjoying a sport
- playing an instrument
- unstructured relaxing
- writing to learn
- especially participating in scheduled family time.