When Homework is a Waste of Time

Most after-school assignments are based on out-of-date and often ineffective methods

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We often hear passionate arguments about how American students have too much homework, or too little. But I believe that we ought to be asking a different question altogether. What should matter to parents and educators is this: How effectively do children’s after-school assignments advance learning?

The 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 past three decades, American students are mired in the middle of international academic rankings: 17th in reading, 23rd in science, and 31st in math, according to the latest results from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). In a 2008 survey, one-third of parents polled rated the quality of their children’s homework assignments as fair or poor, and four in ten said they believed that some or a great deal of homework is busywork. A recent study, published in the Economics of Education Review, reports that homework in science, English and history has “little to no impact” on students’ test scores. (The authors did note a positive effect for math homework.)

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Fortunately, research is available to help parents, teachers and school administrators make homework smarter, although these particular innovations have yet to be applied outside the classroom. A new discipline, known as Mind, Brain and Education, has recently emerged that is devoted to understanding and improving how people absorb, retain and apply knowledge.  A collaboration between psychologists at Washington University in St. Louis and teachers at nearby Columbia Middle School, for example, lifted seventh- and eighth-grade students’ science and social studies test scores by 13 to 25 percent. The field’s methods may seem unfamiliar and even counterintuitive, but they are simple to understand and easy to carry out. After-school assignments are ripe for the kind of improvements this new science can offer.

“Spaced repetition” is one example of the kind of evidence-based technique that researchers have found has a positive impact on students’ learning. Here’s how it works: instead of concentrating the study of information in large one-shot doses, as many homework assignments currently do—reading about, say, the Civil War one evening, and Reconstruction the next—learners encounter the same material in briefer sessions spread out over a longer period of time. With this approach, students would be re-exposed to information about the Civil War and Reconstruction in their homework a number of times during the semester. It sounds unassuming, but spaced repetition produces impressive results. Eighth-grade history students who tried 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 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.

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A second learning technique, known as “retrieval practice,” employs a familiar tool—the test—in a new way: not to assess what students know, but to reinforce it. We often conceive of memory as something like a storage tank, and a test as a kind of dipstick that measures how much information we’ve put in there. But that’s not actually how the brain works. Every time we pull up a memory, we make it stronger and more lasting—so that testing doesn’t just measure, it changes. Simply reading over material to be learned, or even taking notes and making outlines, as many homework assignments require, doesn’t have this effect. In one experiment, language learners who employed the retrieval practice strategy to study vocabulary words remembered 80 percent of the words they studied, while learners who used conventional study methods remembered only about a third of them. Study subjects who used retrieval practice to learn from a science textbook retained about 50 percent more of the material than those who studied in traditional ways, reported researchers from Purdue University in 2011. [10] 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 reading over textbooks and notes) and more on its output (calling up that same information from one’s own brain).

Another common misconception about how we learn can render homework much less effective than it might be. Most of us assume that if information feels easy to absorb, we’ve learned it well. In fact, just the opposite is true. When we work hard to understand information, we recall it better; the extra effort expended signals the brain that this knowledge is worth keeping. This phenomenon, known as cognitive disfluency, promotes learning so effectively that psychologists have devised all manner of “desirable difficulties” to introduce into the learning process: for example, sprinkling a passage with punctuation mistakes, deliberately leaving out letters, shrinking font size until it’s tiny, or wiggling a document while it’s being copied so that the words come out blurry. Teachers are unlikely to start sending students home with smudged or error-filled worksheets, but there’s another kind of desirable difficulty—called interleaving—that can readily be applied to homework.  An interleaved assignment mixes up different kinds of situations or problems to be practiced, instead of grouping them by type. When students can’t tell in advance what kind of knowledge or problem-solving strategy will be required to answer a question, their brains have to work harder to come up with the solution—and the result is that they learn the material more thoroughly.

A study published in 2010 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. The effectiveness of interleaving has been demonstrated many times in the laboratory, yet real-world homework assignments still commonly present problems of a single type together.

Homework has long been an academic laggard, slow to adopt scientifically-supported approaches to learning. No wonder it’s assailed by critics on all sides, whether they believe homework is piled on too heavily or given too sparingly. Maybe the heated debates about the amount of homework children are assigned would cool if it became clear that the homework was effectively advancing their learning. At our resource-strapped public schools, the application of such research-based strategies to homework is an untapped opportunity. Science has shown us how to turn homework into a potent catalyst for learning. Our assignment now is to make it happen.

This article is from the Brilliant Report, a weekly newsletter written by Annie Murphy Paul.

93 comments
thephyrnge
thephyrnge

Anybody there???????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????

kamander
kamander

I loved this article. I would add that homework also has the potential to teach children in many indirect ways as well.

The one that immediately comes to mind revolves around time management. Gradually my kids have to learn how to allocate their time for work. Often they have to decide on a topic. It's a challenge for them to not necessarily pick the most personally interesting topic, but one that lends itself to the project and can be completed in the time available. When given the choice, children have to learn when to embellish, and when to keep it simple. These lessons are more difficult to learn in the classroom, where they won't be given as much freedom to go down the wrong path.

BingJou
BingJou

Kids of every other country are spending more time more homework. Knowledge is expanding and demands more of our effort to learn. It is clear the author wants our kids more time or less on homework.  If homework is redesigned so as to require a student to concentrate more, does it make kids to spend more time on homework?  You can give a kid a fewer number of harder questions.  Does it make kids learn better?

Interleaved assignment is also problematic. If there are 4 sets of problems, each of which requires a knowledge of a particular skill.  You don't let a kid to practice one skill, and wait until a kid has learned all 4 skills.  Only then is a kid given homework to solve all 4 sets of problems simultaneously.  Some kids are going to figure out how to apply 4 types of skills to solve 4 sets of problems.  What happens to those kids who are confused and are unsure what to do?  The author seems to suggest that the only way to make kids learn more efficiently is to make the homework a lot more mentally demanding and complex. 

My experience in learning as an adult is that I learn one skill at a time and it is hard to acquire 4 skills simultaneously. 

elouise_b
elouise_b

@sakegesprek ek sal dit maar eerder skip vnd want "ons" sit nog steeds n taak en doen wat die 12-jarige van "vergeet" het! ;)

dazmck
dazmck

@janeconsidine Math(s) homework makes a difference, article admits. Important to note this!

ProfHarlan
ProfHarlan

@TIME @dsurry Glad your homework assignments seem to be project production focused instead of busy work!

airdog64
airdog64

@TIME @TIMEIdeas when its "warriors code". how about reading is fun? suddenly its nuts in the face and a baseball bat. (sic)'n buffoon.

koushikbose
koushikbose

@TIME @TIMEIdeas wish teachers gave us chance to waste our time playing effectively than a ineffetive waste through home work.

lollanna
lollanna

@TIME @TIME Thank you time for giving our teenagers even more ammunition against doing homework! So kind of you really!

jewishbeat
jewishbeat

Stupid article, homework works to reinforce things learned in class or lecture.

I can tell you if I didn't do homework or study outside of class, I would not have passed my accounting classes, nor would I have known accounting principles off hand that every accountant should know.

RiceloveBeans
RiceloveBeans

@todayshow. I think to much homework is harmful,some children have 2 to 4 hours of it. Studying, n reading are good also math

Messy_Hands
Messy_Hands

@todayshow homework should only come from classes thatll help u in the long run. Replace trigonometry classes with budgeting classes

ToddTempleton
ToddTempleton

@drleatongray @TIME @TIMEIdeas I'd like to see more research done on the Prussian schooling methods still used on our kids. You won't see any, including any on homework, because the goals of the financial elite are the only one's being met by government schools. The big secret is that kids are born with plenty of facilities for learning on their own, and love to learn. Before going to school, that is. The goal of the government and the foundations is to create compliant little employees and soldiers who will not question statism or collectivism. Think about it, shouldn't parents totally (100%) run the schools at the very least? They pay for them and it's their kids for goodness sake. The "experts" we like to imagine at the helm, DO NOT have our children's best interests in mind. "None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free" -Geothe

Search- "John Taylor Gatto" for much, much more info. Let's put on our big boy/girl pants and do our own research for the wellbeing of OUR children.

Openminded1
Openminded1

@jewishbeat Please at the end of a school day teachers go home have a drink eat dinner and watch tv and most likely  do nelp there own kids with homework given by another lazy teacher. teachers to day send kids home with 3 hours of home work. What about family life after 6 to 8 hours in school and other things like after school activities that really help kids to be better people and help there social behavior and self esteem. Home work should be given once in a while and on special projects not 3 hours day because some ass hole teacher is lazy.

Openminded1
Openminded1

@Messy_Hands @todayshow exactly teach subjects they will use in life. who in hell has used Trig or even algebra since leaving school? teach economics, basic math, teach reading comprehension , grammar, geography , history. if some one is going in to a field where Trig or algebra is needed they can take that in college, chemistry etc.