This is your child's brain on homework. Or, is it?

CJ Westerberg, January 9, 2013 9:15 PM


TDR Classic

"What should matter to parents and educators is this:
How effectively do children's after-school assignments advance learning?
-Annie Murphy Paul

by C.J. Westerberg

Annie Murphy Paul in The Trouble with Homework thinks we are asking the wrong questions when it comes to the issue of homework, specifically as it relates to the middle and high school grades: 
 . . . 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. . . .

In a 2008 survey, one-third of parents polled rated the quality of their children's homework assignments as fair or poor, and 4 in 10 said they believed that some or a great deal of homework was busywork. A new study, coming in the Economics of Education Review, reports that homework in science, English and history has "little to no impact" on student test scores. (The authors did note a positive effect for math homework.) Enriching children's classroom learning requires making homework not shorter or longer, but smarter.

Interesting that math homework proved to be the exception.  Hmm . . . 
The article continues by introducing a "new discipline, know as Mind, Brain and Education, that is devoted to understanding and improving the ways in which children absorb, retain and apply knowledge, yet have "not yet been applied to homework."  She reports on these three findings:

"Spaced repetition" is one example of the kind of evidence-based techniques that researchers have found have a positive impact on learning. Here's how it works: instead of concentrating the study of information in single blocks, 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 over a longer period of time. With this approach, students are re-exposed to information about the Civil War and Reconstruction throughout the semester.

Does this sound like "less is more" where you cover material deeper, rather than "an inch deep and a mile wide" covering lots of topics superficially?  Or, does this sound more like math spiraling, where you keep returning to the same topic - such as multiplying fractions - without necessarily mastering the material?  Does this work for all "subjects" the same way?

This second technique is interesting and would be a great way to explain tests and quizzes to students and parents.  I wonder how students would react to this information: 

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 learning. Simply reading over material to be learned, or even taking notes and making outlines, as many homework assignments require, doesn't have this effect.

Then comes a statement which I question - I don't think parents groan at tests, which is another form of assessment, but at high-stakes tests. 

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).

The third technique was a little confusing to me until Paul introduced the sports analogy (maybe I was watching too much U.S. Open tennis this weekend):

Another common misconception about how we learn holds that if information feels easy to absorb, we've learned it well. In fact, the opposite is true. When we work hard to understand information, we recall it better; the extra effort 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 words come out blurry.

Teachers are unlikely to start sending students home with smudged or error-filled worksheets, but there is 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 students learn the material more thoroughly.

Researchers at California Polytechnic State University conducted a study of interleaving in sports that illustrates why the tactic is so effective.  . . (snip)

The article uses baseball as an analogy.  I will use my experience as a tennis instructor to give another one that supports this premise, as it also supports the balance between deliberate practice and constructivist learning.  Here is a comment I made in a recent post from The Daily Riff  - which is related - from  "21st Century Skills: A Thorny Problem in The Classroom:"

I taught tennis for many years and you can't play a match unless you know the basics. You won't get better without practice. On the flip side (supporting Koretz's intended point?), I witnessed so many students who could hit perfect strokes in drills and then who fell apart when they had to put it all together in a real match.  I'd sometimes think, "How could this be the same student?" Think Koretz was warning us of the pitfalls of one kind of assessment. And aren't we short-changing students if we only assess them one way, or worse yet, if we only expose them to tennis drills without ever really playing the game?

Continuing on that same premise, if you mix strokes out of context, with different spins and pace, it's almost a "new game" entirely. 

Alfie Kohn has done much work in the homework arena and know he didn't like to use the sport analogy in this essay here, but I still do.  There is much to learn.

What do you think?

Link to The Trouble with Homework - The NY Times Opinion article.

Originally posted The Daily Riff  - September 12, 2011
Related posts from The Daily Riff:

How 7 Principles of Baseball Can Help Transform the Way Teachers Teach

Math Spiraling: Down a Black Hole to Nowhere?

Math Tutors to the Rescue?

The Dark Side of our Achievement Culture  Trailer Race to Nowhere

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  • CJ Westerberg

    Great tips, Aaron. Love the fact that you were only "mediocre" in math yet are not passing along that self-fulfilling gene ;) - You might like the post "Parents: Are we sabatoging our own kids' math learning?" found at our sister site- Daniel Koretz does it again.

    Without a solid math foundation, every year just gets harder and harder for a student in math. We hear that from teachers all the time - how they have to contend with kids at so many different levels in one class. Same goes with reading comprehension.

    Better yet, with a good foundation your child can become more and more independent from your direct parental help when it come to homework, which is one of the ultimate goals and a life necessity.

    Also, check out a 13 year old's idea of a subject mash-up. It certainly humbled me.

  • AaronS

    I used elements of deliberate practice to teach my son reading and math. Very simply, the moment he made a mistake, I corrected him. This instant feedback and adjustment have worked wonders. He just entered 2nd grade and is doing long division, multiplication, carrying/borrowing for addition and subtraction, and basic algebra problems. He's not a genius, but he learned by using deliberate practice.

    After reading the NYTimes article, I found that I had been interleaving his math. Several days a week, I give him a paper with 3-6 problems--a division, addition, subtraction, multiplication, word, and/or algebra problem.

    But I wondered after reading the article if interleaving might work by mixing different SUBJECT together, as well. That is, you do a math problem, then read a reading comprehension section, then a science problem, then another math problem, then a Social Studies problem, etc. I wonder if that might not only work to create advanced interleaving, but a new form of desirable difficulty?

    I am of the opinion that the quizzing IS the way forward. Put a student in front of a computer and let them answer questions. Give them IMMEDIATE feedback when they are wrong, as well as why they are wrong, or hints, or even the right answer. This reinforces. At the same time, using spaced intervals, place that same questions back in the mix somewhere to ensure that the student now understands. To pile it all in, mix up the text with questions from all the student's classes. So you get a math problem, then a history problem, then a spelling question, on and on. THEN, to top it off put in the desirable difficulty of, perhaps, having to scroll back and forth on the page to read it all, or what have you.

    That is, MAYBE instead of using just one of these things at a time, we can put them all together in a highly-effective package....

    Lastly, with my son, I use a think I call "advanced scanning" (I'm sure there is an actual term for it). I look at the state's standards for each grade, pulling from these standards the things I can teach my son NOW. That is, long before he has been taught anything about the speed of light, he knows that it's the fastest thing in the universe.

    There's all kinds of little teachable nuggets that, if taught now, may make it easier on our children when they actually do have to learn it. For instance, a child that already knows his/her multiplication tables will have a HUGE step up over kids that labor through two school years to learn them.

    Times zero, times one, and times 10 are easy to teach (just put a zero behind whatever you are multiplying times ten, etc.). Now, I'm teaching my son the doubles: 2x2, 3x3, 4x4, etc. I play it as a game to spark his competitiveness.

    I also try to teach him the commutative nature of multiplication and addition. That way, instead of having to learn 3x7 AND 7x3, he will just have to learn one to know the answer to both, which will spare him from having to learn half the multiplication table.

    OK, sorry for going on so long. I'm just passionate about finding breakthrough ways to give my son an advantage. I was only mediocre in math and want him to excel in all subjects. So far so good!

    Thanks for a GREAT site!

  • Bala Kumthekar

    Hi Aaron,

    Great points. My son just started second grade and he too is quite advanced for his age. I started teaching him math since he was in Kindergarten and now he can do mental multiplication and division. Addition and subtraction are second nature to him now. :-)

    It's been a great experience teaching my son math. So, I decided to to translate that in to a structured and rigorous math practice program, which is called Lymboo Math. The fruits of those efforts are now at:

    I designed the curriculum to be comprehensive - to include problems of basic type, word problems, critical thinking, and problem solving. Children who do Lymboo Math are required to do daily assignments, and each assignment has both accuracy and speed targets. If they are unable to meet those targets they are required to do more assignments (brand new, every time) until they hit their accuracy and speed targets.

    In addition to these focused daily assignments I also designed spiral-review assignments that children do after they have completed a set of closely-related topics (a Unit.) These spiral-review assignments show up a few weeks after a Unit is done. And, the same accuracy and speed targets apply to these spiral-review assignments, as well.

    Spiral review tests actually accomplish exactly what you described - mixing different topics, helping children to develop context-switching skills, etc.

    Now I notice that current Lymboo Math students are doing really well. I am really pleased that this program is helping so many children do well at math.

    If you have some time take a look and read my philosophy:

    Take care.



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