Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Making homework worthwhile

My oldest child just started first grade, which in our district is when homework officially begins. It's supposed to be light at this age (10 minutes a night) and is done more for the idea of building the habit than anything else. My son's teacher also has the good system of assigning homework on a weekly basis. You turn it all in on Friday, so if you want to get it all done on Monday and not do it the rest of the week, fine. If you want to cram at the end, you can do that too. I think it will probably be a valuable lesson in time management, since much of life requires us to manage our own deadlines over multiple days.

Of course, homework can be done well or done badly. It's no surprise that in many schools, a lot of it is done badly. It winds up being busy work covering the exact same stuff done in school that day. That time could be better spent reading for pleasure. Or playing outside.

But some forms of homework can be very helpful. Annie Murphy Paul wrote, recently, at Mind/Shift on how to make homework worthwhile. A few ideas?

First, try spaced repetition. Rather than cover what the kid did at school that day, homework can revisit topics from earlier in the year. Or preview topics coming later! A history class may have moved on from the American Revolution, but revisiting the founding documents later in the semester may remind children of the ways those documents influence later events (being covered at that time in class).

Another option is "retrieval practice" -- which is basically quizzing yourself to make memories stronger. Tests don't just show what you know, they change what you know.

Paul also notes that knowledge is better burned into our brains if we have to work harder to learn it. People retain more knowledge from reading passages that are smudged, or in hard-to-read fonts, because they're working to decode them. Schools aren't really relying on those awful mimeograph machines anymore, but homework's difficulty level can be upped by putting different kinds of problems together. You don't get 30 subtraction problems in a row, you get a mixed bag of different functions and different numbers of digits. That keeps your brain working.

What kind of homework do your kids get? Do you think it's worthwhile?


nicoleandmaggie said...

This year DC1 hasn't been getting much homework at all.

I don't have firm opinions on the contentious homework topic one way or the other. I do think there's a lot of recommendations out there based on garbage "science", but I don't know if Paul's recommendations fall in that category or are based on real science. That is true about the working harder = remembering more, so hopefully the rest of the recommendations are based on good science as well.

Laura Vanderkam said...

@N&M - Paul's pretty good that way. She's careful. Her background is as a science journalist. So in the same paragraph she mentions some studies finding slight increases in homework in the US, she also mentions that in international comparisons it's quite middle of the pack.

Nother Barb said...

My son is in high school now, and his geometry class does it "backwards". He watches a video lecture (done by our teachers) at home, and they work problems together in class the next day.

We'll see how it all pans out as the year progresses, but so far my son likes it, and the teacher can see how the kids approach the work, not just the "aftermath".

Natalie F said...

My daughter is in the second grade and while she is flying through her weekly package (same system as yours) on the first day, I think her homework is just a busy work for her and keep wishing to see something either more creative or more challenging. Sadly, the teacher still has to mark and return 26 of those weekly packages. I wish stronger students could get an exemption from homework - that would unload both students and teachers from unnecessary rituals.

nicoleandmaggie said...

In our p/t conference this week we found out that DC1 is the only kid in class who doesn't get (regular) homework... because he finishes it up after his regular assignments while the other students are still working.

He did come home with a neat homework assignment for Social Studies yesterday. They had to look up a fact about Vermont on Wikipedia and he brought home a random map (his was Antarctica) and had to answer questions about the map, though none of us could figure out what type of map it was because it didn't have elevations or anything but Antarctica doesn't exactly have cities or states so it didn't really look like a political map. (It would have helped if DC1 had brought home his list of types of maps...)

Kristi Lea said...

At the back-to-school night this year, a bunch of other parents complained about one of the math assignments that our 4th graders had begun bringing home. They have the regular assignments out of the book plus another worksheet that has around 20 mixed problems. Most of the problems are review (spanning multiple years worth of problems) and some are topics that they may not have even covered yet.

Most of the parents seemed upset that their kids were given problems to solve that they hadn't been taught yet. I think they're afraid that the "hard" problems will hurt their kids' grades, and also that the kids will bring home a problem that the parents don't know how to solve. (She's only in 4th grade, so that last part doesn't scare me yet...and I figure I've always got Google plus the math text book once she gets into topics that I don't immediately remember how to solve--I also like math so reviewing this stuff sounds fun).

For our part, once we realized that the struggles weren't a lack of attention on our kid's part (i.e. she wasn't just daydreaming in class and missed something), we just help give her pointers on how to solve the problem. I think having that little teaser of things to come is a good thing, and it gives her a chance to really think the problem through instead of just repeating the same memorized steps over and over.