By: Natalie Wolchover
Published: 03/30/2012 09:42 AM EDT on Lifes Little Mysteries
Piling on the homework doesn't help kids do better in school. In fact, it can lower their test scores.
That's the conclusion of a group of Australian researchers, who have taken the aggregate results of several recent studies investigating the relationship between time spent on homework and students' academic performance.
According to Richard Walker, an educational psychologist at Sydney University, data shows that in countries where more time is spent on homework, students score lower on a standardized test called the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA. The same correlation is also seen when comparing homework time and test performance at schools within countries. Past studies have also demonstrated this basic trend.
Inundating children with hours of homework each night is detrimental, the research suggests, while an hour or two per week usually doesn't impact test scores one way or the other. However, homework only bolsters students' academic performance during their last three years of grade school. "There is little benefit for most students until senior high school (grades 10-12)," Walker told Life's Little Mysteries.
The research is detailed in his new book, "Reforming Homework: Practices, Learning and Policies" (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).
The same basic finding holds true across the globe, including in the U.S., according to Gerald LeTendre of Pennsylvania State University. He and his colleagues have found that teachers typically give take-home assignments that are unhelpful busy work. Assigning homework "appeared to be a remedial strategy (a consequence of not covering topics in class, exercises for students struggling, a way to supplement poor quality educational settings), and not an advancement strategy (work designed to accelerate, improve or get students to excel)," LeTendre wrote in an email. [Kids Believe Literally Everything They Read Online, Even Tree Octopuses]
This type of remedial homework tends to produce marginally lower test scores compared with children who are not given the work. Even the helpful, advancing kind of assignments ought to be limited; Harris Cooper, a professor of education at Duke University, has recommended that students be given no more than 10 to 15 minutes of homework per night in second grade, with an increase of no more than 10 to 15 minutes in each successive year.
Most homework's neutral or negative impact on students' academic performance implies there are better ways for them to spend their after school hours than completing worksheets. So, what should they be doing? According to LeTendre, learning to play a musical instrument or participating in clubs and sports all seem beneficial, but there's no one answer that applies to everyone.
"These after-school activities have much more diffuse goals than single subject test scores," he wrote. "When I talk to parents … they want their kids to be well-rounded, creative, happy individuals — not just kids who ace the tests."
Follow Natalie Wolchover on Twitter @nattyover. Follow Life's Little Mysteries on Twitter @llmysteries, then join us on Facebook.
Copyright 2012 Lifes Little Mysteries, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
For those who are reading this column I suspect that, interested as you are in gifted education, it comes as no surprise that gifted students can also have distraction issues. Some may have an official ADD or ADHD diagnosis, yes, but many others may not—despite the fact that they may be as equally affected, even in some cases debilitated, by the problems of chronic distractibility. The reason? Their intellectual gifts help them cope with it in ways that keep them a bit lower under the radar. Take, for example, the gifted student’s ability to rapidly assimilate new information with less practice than his peers. This trait affords him the opportunity to miss his teacher’s review of two-digit multiplication three out of the four times because, the one time he did tune in, he got it. (In fact, because he often has a knowledge base that exceeds those of his chronological peers he may even have known the material already!)
When that child is at school, there are some things that the teacher can do to help, which is the reason why committees (such as our “child study”) meet together periodically to discuss, assess, and revise the progress of such distraction issues. But it is certainly fair to say that in these circumstances—whether or not there is a formal ADD/ADHD diagnosis—both parent and child are likely continue to face hardships even after the school day has finished. The very real problems that these gifted children face—poor organizational skills, an inability to focus, perhaps even a long-suffering attitude about school in general—can turn completing a homework math worksheet into a battle for sanity. Here, then, are a few tips for parents who find themselves ready to throw in the towel with their distractible gifted child.
Consider the space. Many families use the kitchen table for homework. But is the TV on in the background? Are there lots of other family conversations going on around the child as dinner is prepared? If so, consider shifting to a different work place, or moving the homework to a different time in the evening.
Avoid over-organization. Your child arrives home with a backpack full of wrinkled papers, unable to locate the week’s spelling list (or that critical permission slip that is “absolutely needed by tomorrow!”). The parent thinks, “Aha! We’ll set up a separate folder for each subject and have an extra one for teacher notes!” This is a common trap. The trouble for the highly unfocused child, who already struggles with organization, is that she has now been given the monumental challenge of becoming ultra-organized—a paradox if ever there was one. Find a happy medium. Maybe you’ll have three folders: one for office notes; one for completed homework to be turned in the next day; and a final one to be used for all papers given out in class, regardless of subject. At home, you can model how to move through and organize those folders for the next school day.
Stay positive and don’t lose your cool.
Finally, ask for help and advice. Relatives, teachers, and fellow parents are the best sources of hints. Chances are pretty good that whatever you are experiencing, others have gone through it before. Benefit from their trials and tribulations! Talk it out, be flexible, try suggestions, and see what happens.
You’ve got three-quarters of the school year still to go, so take heart. That’s plenty of time for both of you to practice.
Your Turn: Do you have a gifted child that is highly distractible? Or were/are you, perhaps, one of those people? What strategies seem to work for you? Share your thoughts in the comments. We’d love to hear your ideas.