Homework Without Hassles

Homework was not going well at my house. My 8-year-old son, Jamie, would spread his papers out on the kitchen counter and start bouncing on and off his stool. Then he'd be "dying of hunger." Next he'd try to convince me that he had already done his reading at recess. Forty-five minutes could go by, and he'd have written only one spelling word in his notebook. And more often than not, evenings ended with tears -- his and mine.

I tried being more involved, then less involved. I took a lenient approach and also a firm one. But nothing seemed to help him tackle his work efficiently. Finally, I consulted an educational psychologist, who met with Jamie, then with my husband and me, and finally with the three of us together for a few "homework coaching" sessions. Here are the strategies I learned from her, along with tips from other experts, which have made a major improvement in the homework situation -- and frustration level -- for both Jamie and me.

  • Have reasonable expectations. "The goal of homework at this age should be to help kids develop good study habits and feel successful," says Harris Cooper, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Duke University, in Durham, North Carolina, who recently completed a homework study involving 700 kids, parents, and teachers. Don't assume that your child will always understand the directions, be neat, and get the right answers. Most educators agree that children in first through third grades should be doing ten to 30 minutes of homework (the rule of thumb is ten minutes per grade, per night). Of course, make sure you know what the teacher's expectations are -- whether your child should stop working after a certain length of time even if he's not finished and whether independent reading is expected in addition to assigned homework.
  • Set up a homework spot. Create an area that is comfortable but conducive to working. It was a small but significant revelation for me to realize that my slouching and fidgety son needed the physical support of a chair pushed all the way in. Six- to 8-year-olds don't necessarily need to sit alone in their room at a desk, however. As long as your child has easy access to the supplies she needs, the kitchen or dining-room table might be ideal.
  • Time it right. There are three reasonable time periods during which kids can do their homework: immediately after school, before dinner, or after dinner. "Let your child help choose the time," Dr. Cooper advises. "Some kids really need to let off steam when they get home, while others will be too tired if they wait. Figure out a time that suits your child and your family, and then stick with it." (Of course, if your child gets home later on a certain day because of an activity, the plan may have to be altered on that day.) Before bed is the only time Dr. Cooper advises against doing homework, because kids wind up going to sleep later than they should.
  • Limit distractions. Kids find all sorts of reasons to avoid doing their work, so you need to anticipate them. "Most 6- to 8-year olds require a parent's or caregiver's help getting started, and those who are wiggle-worms or procrastinators need help staying focused too," explains Rita Emmett, author of The Procrastinating Child. To start off on the right note, you might say, "Once homework starts, there are no breaks, so go to the bathroom and get your snack now." Don't talk on the phone or watch TV within earshot while your child is trying to work.
  • Avoid negotiation. Jamie and I used to spend ten minutes going back and forth about what the teacher "really meant" in her assignment. During our homework coaching session, when Jamie said, "I don't have to do this math sheet because my teacher said we'll do it in class tomorrow," the psychologist had an amazing comeback: "Do it anyway, and then you'll be ahead." This strategy, which I eagerly adopted, has all but eliminated our arguments. If your child is regularly unsure about the assignments, talk to the teacher.
  • Don't hover. Your child should do his homework mostly without your help. Experts agree that being nearby is great, but being on top of your child is not. "If he's doing his math homework, sit with him and pay some bills," Dr. Cooper suggests. "If he's reading, you read too." This sends the message that homework has real-world applications. However, the younger your child is, the more she may need help breaking her homework into manageable steps or moving from one subject to another. When you do need to interact with your child, keep your comments brief: "Good," "Get going," "Right!"
  • Don't give your child the answers -- but do ask questions. Homework is an important way that teachers gauge how much kids are absorbing in class, and they adjust their lessons accordingly. When your child seems stuck, pose questions: "Where does the story go next?" "Wow, that's interesting. Can you give me more details?" "What strategy did you use to figure out that last math problem? Can you use it for this one too?" You might also ask the teacher what questions she uses in class to spark kids' thinking.

3 Things Parents Can Do to Help Kids Manage Homework

Like all teachers, I’ve spent many hours correcting homework. Yet there’s a debate over whether we should be setting it at all.

I teach both primary and secondary, and regularly find myself drawn into the argument on the reasoning behind it – parents, and sometimes colleagues, question its validity. Parent-teacher interviews can become consumed by how much trouble students have completing assignments. All of which has led me to question the neuroscience behind setting homework. Is it worth it?

'My son works until midnight': parents around the world on homework

Increasingly, there’s a divide between those who support the need for homework and those who suggest the time would be better spent with family and developing relationships. The anxiety related to homework is frequently reviewed.

A survey of high-performing high schools by the Stanford Graduate School of Education, for example, found that 56% of students considered homework a primary source of stress. These same students reported that the demands of homework caused sleep deprivation and other health problems, as well as less time for friends, family and extracurricular pursuits.

Working memory?

When students learn in the classroom, they are using their short-term or working memory. This information is continually updated during the class. On leaving the classroom, the information in the working memory is replaced by the topic in the next class.

Adults experience a similar reaction when they walk into a new room and forget why they are there. The new set of sensory information – lighting, odours, temperature – enters their working memory and any pre-existing information is displaced. It’s only when the person returns to the same environment that they remember the key information.

But education is about more than memorising facts. Students need to access the information in ways that are relevant to their world, and to transfer knowledge to new situations.

Many of us will have struggled to remember someone’s name when we meet them in an unexpected environment (a workmate at the gym, maybe), and we are more likely to remember them again once we’ve seen them multiple times in different places. Similarly, students must practise their skills in different environments.

Revising the key skills learned in the classroom during homework increases the likelihood of a student remembering and being able to use those skills in a variety of situations in the future, contributing to their overall education.

The link between homework and educational achievement is supported by research: a meta-analysis of studies between 1987 and 2003 found that: “With only rare exceptions, the relationship between the amount of homework students do and their achievement outcomes was found to be positive and statistically significant.”

The right type of work

The homework debate is often split along the lines of primary school compared with secondary school. Education researcher Professor John Hattie, who has ranked various influences on student learning and achievement, found that homework in primary schools has a negligible effect (most homework set has little to no impact on a student’s overall learning). However, it makes a bigger difference in secondary schools.

His explanation is that students in secondary schools are often given tasks that reinforce key skills learned in the classroom that day, whereas primary students may be asked to complete separate assignments. “The worst thing you can do with homework is give kids projects; the best thing you can do is reinforce something you’ve already learned,” he told the BBC in 2014.

The science of homework: tips to engage students' brains

So homework can be effective when it’s the right type of homework. In my own practice, the primary students I teach will often be asked to find real-life examples of the concept taught instead of traditional homework tasks, while homework for secondary students consolidates the key concepts covered in the classroom. For secondary in particular, I find a general set of rules useful:

  • Set work that’s relevant. This includes elaborating on information addressed in the class or opportunities for students to explore the key concept in areas of their own interest.

  • Make sure students can complete the homework. Pitch it to a student’s age and skills – anxiety will only limit their cognitive abilities in that topic. A high chance of success will increase the reward stimulation in the brain.

  • Get parents involved, without the homework being a point of conflict with students. Make it a sharing of information, rather than a battle.

  • Check the homework with the students afterwards. This offers a chance to review the key concepts and allow the working memory to become part of the long-term memory.

While there is no data on the effectiveness of homework in different subjects, these general rules could be applied equally to languages, mathematics or humanities. And by setting the right type of homework, you’ll help to reinforce key concepts in a new environment, allowing the information you teach to be used in a variety of contexts in the future.

Helen Silvester is a writer for npj Science of Learning Community

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