April 21, 2024
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Homework, Some Solutions: Part 2

Educators need to apply as much effort assigning work as the students take to complete the assignment. There is nothing more rewarding than completing an assignment and walking away like an expert on the topic. Educators should strive to promote this sense of accomplishment in their students by assigning thought-provoking work. Brainless repetition of identical questions might improve the short-term memory of a student for a brief period, but in the long run that information goes in one ear and out the other.

There has been a revolution in learning theory with new approaches to instruction that significantly increase test scores. If homework assignments were based on these principles, we would see academic achievement soar. However, for teachers to carry out any new approach to instruction, they will need intense professional development and support. There is no shortage of research-based programs that promise increased student achievement. What there is, is a shortage of communal will to make the investments in our schools and teachers that are needed to turn education around in this community.

We tend to attribute the rapid learning that occurs in infants and toddlers to their very “plastic” brains. But perhaps the reason they learn so quickly is that for children that age, life is a constant “quiz”; they are always being asked to recall and reproduce everything they hear or see (“Where’s Mommy?” “Show me your nose.” “Give me the ball.”). If, in fact, it is the constant demand to recall and reproduce that facilitates such rapid learning in infants and toddlers, a similar approach to learning at all ages might produce equally impressive results. The key would be to do it in a way that makes it part of the learning routine and not a means to distinguish among children.

Testing done to “grade” children is going to be a source of stress. Can a way be found to “quiz” that is not? Yes. Better homework assignments like those using “spaced repetition” and “retrieval practice” aren’t only valuable homework assignments; they would also teach students how to study.

When you think of America’s students, do you picture overworked, stressed-out children bent under backpacks stuffed with textbooks and worksheets? Or do you call to mind glassy-eyed, empty-headed teenagers sitting before computer screens, consumed by video games and social-networking sites, even as their counterparts in China prepare to ace yet another round of academic exams? Divergent though they are, these characterizations share a common emphasis: homework. The studying that middle school and high school students do after the dismissal bell rings is often an unreasonable burden and a crucial activity that needs beefing up. The question is not too much homework or too little. 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 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 academic rankings: 17th in reading, 23rd in science, and 31st in math, according to results from the Program for International Student Assessment released last December.

In a recent survey, one-third of parents polled rated the quality of their children’s homework assignments as fair or poor, and 40% said they believed that some or a great deal of homework was busywork. Another study 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.)

Fortunately, research is available to help parents, teachers and school administrators make homework smarter. In recent years, neuroscientists, cognitive scientists, and educational psychologists have made a series of remarkable discoveries about how the human brain learns. They have founded a new discipline, known as Mind, Brain, and Education, that is devoted to understanding and improving the ways in which children absorb, retain, and apply knowledge.

Educators have begun to implement these methods in classrooms around the country and have enjoyed measured success. One school showed seventh- and eighth-grade students’ science and social studies test scores improved by 13% to 25%. But the innovations have not yet been applied to homework. Mind, Brain, and Education methods may seem unfamiliar and even counterintuitive, but they are simple to understand and easy to carry out. And after-school assignments are ripe for the kind of improvements the new science offers.

Research in how the brain learns indicates moderate advantages of no more than two hours of homework for high school students. Homework does teach other important, non-cognitive skills such as time management, sustained attention, and rule following, but let us not mask that as learning the content and skills that most assignments are supposed to teach.

Let’s talk reality. Most teachers would love to give students more group work, student choice, portfolios, and student class presentations, but the reality is The Test is not group work, there is no class presentation on The Test, and students don’t get to choose which part of The Test to take. The Test is based on students demonstrating comprehension of concepts through reading and writing (and now computer) skills, not group work or class presentations. Second, the curriculum is entirely too broad for the demanded depth they are to teach. They want to do more alternative forms of instructional delivery and create better demonstrations of student mastery. But until someone revisits the breadth, depth, and pacing of the curriculum, the teacher and school evaluation systems, and the increasing non-instructional duties placed on classroom teachers, we have a definite disconnect.

“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.

It sounds unassuming, but spaced repetition produces 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. 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, 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.

According to one experiment, language learners who employed the retrieval practice strategy to study vocabulary words remembered 80% of the words they studied, while learners who used conventional study methods remembered only about a third of them. Students who used retrieval practice to learn science retained about 50% more of the material than students who studied in traditional ways. 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 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. When baseball players practiced hitting, interleaving different kinds of pitches improved their performance on a later test in which the batters did not know the type of pitch in advance (as would be the case, of course, in a real game).

Interleaving produces the same sort of improvement in academic learning. A study published last year in 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 application of such research-based strategies to homework is a yet-untapped opportunity to raise student achievement. Science has shown us how to turn homework into a potent catalyst for learning. Our assignment now is to make it happen.

Rabbi Dr. Wallace Greene has had a distinguished career as a Jewish educator. He has taught children, teens, and adults. He was a college professor, day school principal, and director of two central agencies for Jewish education, including our own community’s Jewish Educational Services, for over a decade. He is the founder of the Sinai School, and has received many prestigious awards including the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Lifshitz College of Education in Jerusalem and The World Council on Torah Judaism. He is currently a consultant to schools, non-profit organizations, and The International March of The Living. He can be reached at [email protected].

By Dr. Wallace Greene

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