Are we giving American students too much homework, or maybe, not enough? Everyone has an opinion but it’s possible that this is not the question we should be asking. What we should be asking is this: How is the after-school homework enriching the learning of our children?
That important piece of the puzzle is the quality of a students’ work, not the quantity. Current research shows that the current state of homework isn’t having the desired effect. Surveys show that our students are spending more time on their work but are still stuck in the middle of international academic rankings: 17th in reading, 23rd in science and 31st in math, according to the most recent 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 4 in 10 said they believed that some or a great deal of homework was 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 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.
Fortunately, research is available to help parents, teachers and school administrators do just that. 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 measurable success. 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.
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.
“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.