Homework Experts Say Dow

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Does homework help? Only if it's the right homework, expert says

By Jonathan Hepburn and Paige Cockburn

Posted August 24, 2016 19:47:50

Homework is not useless but its quality is far more important than quantity and schools should think very carefully about why they are setting it, an education expert at the University of South Australia says.

Over the past week an anti-homework note sent to parents by a teacher in Forth Worth, Texas, has spread around the world after being posted to Facebook by a parent.

"After much research this summer, I am trying something new," the note from Mrs Brandy Young, which has been shared more than 70,000 times, says.

"Homework will only consist of work that your student did not finish during the school day. There will be no formally assigned homework this year."

The note goes on to say that research has been unable to prove that homework improves student performance.

Instead, Mrs Young urges parents to spend their evenings doing things like reading together, playing outside, and getting their children to bed early, which "are proven to correlate with student success."

Not surprisingly, the note was posted to Facebook with the comment "Brooke is loving her new teacher already!"

External Link: Facebook no-homework note

Good homework is 'purposeful, specific, and reinforces learning'

However, "she's not quite right," says Brendan Bentley, a PhD candidate and lecturer in the Education Department of the University of South Australia.

In 2006, a review of American research conducted between 1987 and 2003 found that "there was generally consistent evidence for a positive influence of homework on achievement."

The review, led by Dr Harris Cooper of Duke University, found that evidence was stronger for students in grades seven to 12 than for kindergarten to grade six, and for when students, rather than parents, reported how much time they spent doing homework.

On the other hand, in 2013, Australian academics Richard Walker and Mike Horsley published Reforming Homework, in which they reviewed international research and found that for young primary school children, homework is of little or no value and students are regularly given too much.

The issue is that although if you do something more often you get better at it, you have to be doing the right thing in the first place.

"Homework has to be purposeful, specific, and reinforce learning. If it's just to finish work, that may not help the student at all," Mr Bentley said.

In fact, too much homework can be worse than useless: It can be detrimental.

"For students in grades three or four, more than 20 minutes of homework can exhaust them. They go into cognitive load, and their ability to learn goes into a decline," Mr Bentley said.

"They can develop a negative attitude towards learning. It's about getting the balance right."

Cognitive load refers to the total amount of mental effort being used: a heavy cognitive load creates errors or interference.

That 20 minutes is not a guideline for each day: "There needs to be a good argument for having homework every single night," Mr Bentley said.

"Schools have to understand why they are giving homework. Without a good purpose and a rationale: Reconsider it."

He says that homework can be ramped up as students get older, but even in grade 10, research shows that, "if it's more than an hour, it's a waste of time."

Designing effective homework also depends upon how much the student is able to learn.

"Adults can learn about seven things at a time. For young children, that's maybe two or three," Mr Bentley said. "You only need 20 minutes to reinforce that."

However, he says the benefits of homework are not just about reinforcing learning, and that if it does not turn students off, it can teach important study habits.

He agrees that family time and relaxation can be more important than homework.

"Developing good habits and attitudes through interaction with parents can be good — every time you interact with your children, you are teaching assumptions," he said.

On the other hand, too much homework can lead to conflicts with parents.

"Parents are keen for their children to be the best, so they may ask about homework, and may do it for their children, which defeats the purpose," Mr Bentley said.

Topics:education, children, secondary-schools, primary-schools, schools, youth, australia

Key points:

  • Academics agree that too much homework can harm learning
  • Good homework is 'purposeful, specific, and reinforces learning'
  • Time spent with family after school can be more important than more study

NEW YORK — Robert Stewart, the man behind the "Ask Dr. Bob" Web service, is glad to answer any questions students may have about oceans.

But he draws the line when students ask him to complete entire homework assignments. When one e-mailed a list of 10 questions from an assignment on octopuses, he replied simply with a link to a Web site about them.

It's all in a day's work for Stewart, a Texas A&M University oceanography professor who responds to questions from teachers and other adults, too.

Stewart is one of scores of experts from academia, government and elsewhere offering free advice to students needing homework help — as long as they're motivated by curiosity and aren't merely lazy.

"I find a lot of very curious students out there who really have an interest and are trying to find out something to arouse their curiosity," said Stewart, who gets a $100,000 a year grant from NASA to run the service and his OceanWorld Web site.

Henry Fliegler gets no such funding, yet he's no less dedicated to helping students around the world with math problems. He spends about three hours daily answering 25 or so questions, up from three or four when he started in 1996.

The retired engineer from Orange, Calif., said he gets enough reward from the "17 jillion responses of thank you notes," including one declaring him "my math God."

"It doesn't get any better than that," Fliegler said.

Among his favorite questions is one from a second-grader who asked whether it's OK to count with her fingers (Yes, as long as the answer isn't more than 10). He also hears from adults, including an Italian math professor who wanted him to critique a paper on a new number theory (He suggested contacting wiser folks at Princeton).

Rosalie Baker, a former Latin teacher who now edits a nine-issue-a-year archaeology magazine for children called dig, said she's happy that students with assignments "are not just looking at a book on archaeology and giving some rote answer."

Students can also turn to for-fee services.

Text-message help
AskMeNow will launch a mobile service this fall in which people can call or message in a simple question and receive a text reply on their phones within a few minutes. More than 10,000 are now participating in a free test, and the company eventually plans to charge up to 49 cents a question, possibly less for students.

Google Inc. offers the Google Answers service, in which users are matched with researchers willing to conduct online searches for a fee. Though a credit card is required, Google says parents sometimes sign up for their kids.

Google also runs ads from companies offering to complete homework assignments, including one promising to "solve hard problems" for a recommended $20 a problem. "Why not pay us to do your homework?" the ad teases.

Such come-ons hint at some of the downsides with homework help services.

For one, students have to evaluate them for credibility, as the Internet allows anyone to claim expertise. Services offered by universities and government agencies, for instance, may be more reliable than a commercial service with little information about its operators.

And because many of the free services are run by volunteers, responses can take days, weeks or even months. Baker said she saves the best questions for her magazine, meaning students with an assignment due in five minutes may be out of luck.

Many services stopped as more people found out about them because the volunteers simply got overwhelmed, said Joshua Koen, who tracks such resources at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J.

Students should think twice before submitting a question and make sure it's not something — such as what "NASA" stands for — easily answered elsewhere, he said.

No student shortcut
The common complaint from those running such services relate to students who see them as shortcuts to doing the work.

"Some will say, 'Show me how to do this step by step,'" said Sally Illman, an online math and physics tutor at Elluminate, which offers free services for customers of certain textbooks and for-fee tutoring for others. "Some people come in thinking they will just watch a movie and see someone doing their homework for them."

But Illman said many students are glad to devote the time once they adjust their expectations.

Some commercial services have shied from such offerings completely.

Scholastic Inc. opted to focus on teaching students good research methods rather than providing answers.

"Learning is not about immediate answers," said Seth Radwell, president of Scholastic's online division. "It's about figuring out how to get better at research and organization."

America Online Inc. recently discontinued a bulletin board where students could post questions, opting instead to let visitors search for answers prepared ahead of time on frequently asked topics.

"It's more efficient," said Jennifer Maffett, director of AOL's Research and Learn unit. "It's the way we can reach the most kids."

Some services, including AskMeNow and Webmath.com, blend automated responses with human-generated answers to serve more users.

Ken Leebow, an author who visits schools to educate parents and teachers on Internet resources, also suggests that students look through answers to frequently asked questions that many sites cull.

Fliegler, for instance, has a page with the basics on fractions, decimals and percentages and suggests that students check there first.

But for tougher questions, the 82-year-old Fliegler said he will keep giving individual responses "as long as I can stay alive and stay alert. It's good mental exercise for me at this stage of the game."

And if he's not helping students with homework? "I'd drive my wife nuts doing all kinds of things," he said.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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