Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Thoughtful Homework

My friend, Erik Ellefsen, always has good stuff for me to think about. (If you are an educator, you should really follow him on Twitter.) Today he shared this with me...

Here's the tweet from Daniel Willingham that Erik was retweeting to me...
I appreciated the post by Willingham that is shared here. If you've been following my rant against homework over the past few months, this is a really interesting piece to consider. Willingham starts off with this gem:
There's plenty of research on homework and the very brief version of the findings is probably well known to readers of this blog: homework has a modest effect on the academic achievement of older students, and no effect on younger students...
That's what I've been writing about--homework doesn't do what teachers often think it does. (Check out this post calling for an end to "crappy homework," or this one encouraging teachers to rethink worksheets. And there's lots more, if you want to read them...check out this list of posts tagged with "homework.")

But this piece from Willingham was really interesting to me.

Specifically, it caught my attention because it flies in the face of so much of the research on homework that makes up the scholarly literature: this study actually showed a significant correlation between time spent on homework and students' grades! (Other widely-cited research on homework indicated modest, if any positive impact on students' grades.)

There are a couple of particular things to note about this study, which you can access in full if you are interested:

  1. The participants in the study are undergraduate engineering students in a statistics course. This is a different population than most of the research on homework to date, focusing on students in K-12. So we have to be careful generalizing from results of a study like this one to kids in K-12; college students only spend a couple hours a week in class, and are expected to do a significant part of the learning for a given course outside of classtime--as homework. So we can't really make an apples-to-apples comparison here in good conscience.
  2. The data collection in this study is the really interesting part. Most studies of homework rely on students (or their parents) reporting how much time the students spend working on it. In this study, smartpens (that digitally track students' actual time on task) were used to capture the data. While this is a really innovative idea to track the time that students are writing--and for a statistics course where students are working out problem sets long-hand, this could be a really great way to keep track of this!--this is a specific kind of homework. I don't think it's fair to assume that all homework is computational in nature like this.

In his discussion of the findings of this study, Willingham includes this comment:
Please don't take this blog posting as an enthusiastic endorsement of homework. For one thing, this literature seems pretty narrow in focusing solely on academic performance outcomes, given that many teachers and parents have other goals for homework such as increased self-directedness. For another thing, even if it were shown the certain types of homework led to certain types of improvement in academic outcomes, that doesn't mean every school and classroom ought to assign homework. That decision should be made in the context of broader goals.
But if teachers are going to assign homework, researchers should investigate its efficacy.
I am grateful he suggests this. While I am completely opposed to thoughtlessly assigned homework (which is what I see far too much of the time), I acknowledge that some homework can have some benefits in some situations for some students. So the question becomes--as Willingham suggests--how can we make it good homework?

Let's keep thinking about that, teachers. Just assigning homework because you think you should out of some vague sense of "it will help kids learn" is bad teaching. If you're going to assign homework, let's make it thoughtful homework.

Public Domain image by Pixabay

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