Homework: Quality over Quantity

Source: Annie Murphy Paul website, Sep 2013

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.

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.

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.

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

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