Annie Murphy Paul is the author of “Origins" and is at work on a new book about the science of learning.Enlarge This Image
Jessica Walsh, silhouette by Petite Prints
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? The first view dominates a series of recent books and movies, including the much-discussed film “Race to Nowhere.” The second image has been put forth by other books, with titles like “The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future.”
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 either an unreasonable burden or a crucial activity that needs beefing up. Which is it? Do American students have too much homework or too little? Neither, I’d say. 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 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.
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 measured 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.
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, reported researchers from the University of California-San Diego in 2007. 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.
Huffington Post The Global Search for Education: Finnish Math Lessons Huffington Post Illustrations and the approach to math and science treat boys and girls equally. The Finns stress homework much less than in the U.S.
Leila DeMarchi's insight:
Might provide some support, doesn't relate directly to the topic.
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