Science says not to waste my daughter’s time with frivolous homework

Stephan Neidenbach

My daughter’s homework last night involved writing her ten spelling words three times each. As a father and educator moments like this put me in a difficult situation.

This is an inappropriate assignment, for homework or classwork.

Her teacher is out on maternity leave and currently has a long term substitute for the remainder of the school year, which will be a total of four weeks. The substitute has a difficult job. At a fraction of the pay and training that a certified teacher makes, she is expected to do the same work.

So I’m not going to make her job more stressful by raising a fuss at the end of the school year. I do appreciate consistency; and the teacher out on leave had a very consistent homework schedule for math, spelling, and reading comprehension.

But it is a great reminder of the uselessness of a lot of homework assignments.

Ever had a math teacher assign dozens of problems for homework, or a social studies teacher ask for words to be defined from a textbook or dictionary?

Why? What’s the purpose? More importantly, what does the research say?

Time examined this issue in 2016:

The most comprehensive research on homework to date comes from a 2006 meta-analysis by Duke University psychology professor Harris Cooper, who found evidence of a positive correlation between homework and student achievement, meaning students who did homework performed better in school. The correlation was stronger for older students — in seventh through 12th grade — than for those in younger grades, for whom there was a weak relationship between homework and performance.

Cooper’s analysis focused on how homework impacts academic achievement — test scores, for example. His report noted that homework is also thought to improve study habits, attitudes toward school, self-discipline, inquisitiveness and independent problem solving skills. On the other hand, some studies he examined showed that homework can cause physical and emotional fatigue, fuel negative attitudes about learning and limit leisure time for children. At the end of his analysis, Cooper recommended further study of such potential effects of homework.

Why is there such a discrepancy between upper and lower grades when there comes to the value of homework? The answer probably lies in the age old discussion about correlation vs. causation, as the Washington Post explains:

….one prominent researcher, Timothy Keith, who did find a solid correlation, returned to the topic a decade later to enter more variables into the equation simultaneously, only to discover that the improved study showed that homework had no effect after all, and at best we’re only talking about a correlation — things that go together — without having proved that doing more homework causes test scores to go up.

Who is more likely to go home and complete homework? Students with involved parents looking over their shoulder. When do parents tend to start backing off a bit? The upper grades.

According to research looking at nine meta-analyses:

The results indicated that the relationship between parental involvement and academic achievement was positive, regardless of a definition of parental involvement or measure of achievement….

the relationship between parental involvement and academic achievement was found to be consistent across different grade levels and ethnic groups.

But that doesn’t mean homework can’t be beneficial. It just has to be assigned in a matter that connects with how our brain works. KQED News took a look at issue. Homework should not assess, but instead it should reinforce.

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.

My daughter’s copying of spelling words, or copying definitions from a textbook, doesn’t actually aid a student’s memory.

Take my experience from last night. It was a beautiful evening after a week of almost non-stop rain. My daughter knew she couldn’t go outside and run around until she finished her homework. She was also worried about what her younger brother was doing. Would mommy and daddy let her watch TV for a few minutes before bed?

A second grader has a lot going on through their head, and most of it was there when she was copying those words three times. The physical act of just copying those words took little to no actual concentration.

This is potentially another reason why homework may have more importance in the upper grades. Middle and high school tends to involve more research based assignments, essays, and critical thinking. Students may just be asked to go home and read something to take part in a classroom discussion the next day. Assignments that actually engage the students.

Practicing math problems is going to help students remember how to do them. But assigning dozens of them like many math teachers have assigned historically? If a student knows how to do the math, why do they need to do it at home? If a student doesn’t know, sending it home isn’t going to help.

THE Journal gives some excellent ideas for worthwhile math homework:

For fixed problem sets in which students appear to have attained little mastery after a certain number of attempts (perhaps two), students might write or even record audio about what they do and don’t know so that the teacher might better address the concept during the following class lesson. This latter promotes thinking about mathematics, tells the student that his/her thinking is valued, and would also minimize the frustrations that parents experience when attempting to “do” homework for and/or with their children….

Homework might involve an open-ended task or a unit long independent investigation, which serves to synthesize content and develop literacy skills. Short- and long-term projects and performance tasks, which include options for oral, visual, or written response modes, allow students to test their interpersonal and self-expressive styles of learning math….

Better yet, differentiate the math homework. Give the students who mastered it in class extension activities and the struggling students something to practice more basic skills with.

Our children are only young for a short period of time. Let’s let them enjoy it. They have been sitting on their rear ends all day, let them come home and run around. At the very least don’t waste their precious time with frivolous assignments.

They have the rest of their lives to be Working Class Heroes.

Stephan Neidenbach

Written by

Middle School Teacher, Father, Blogger &Twitter @welovegv. Email: COI Statement —

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