Is homework helpful?

Maclean's 11-Sept-2006In September 2006, Maclean’s magazine (which might be considered Canada’s version of Time Magazine) ran a cover story with a provocative title: “Homework is Killing Kids (and it’s not making them any smarter either).” Inside was an interview with Alfie Kohn, an outspoken former teacher and author of The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thinghomework. Kohn contended that there is no research evidence indicating that homework is helpful. While that’s a bit of an exaggeration (see, for example, Cooper, Robinson & Pattall’s article in the Review of Educational Research which found that some kinds of homework is related to improvements at school), Kohn argued that, for elementary school students, there is no link between homework and achievement. At the high school level, there is a small connection, he said, that disappears when sophisticated statistical methods are employed. Kohn’s point is an interesting one: even if there is an effect on academics, are the potential benefits of homework sufficient to outweigh the costs?

If parents and educators were asked to list the potential benefits of completing homework assignments, there could be a number of responses: higher grades, better learning or retention, improvements in work ethic, and quality family time spent together. Admittedly, the research is mixed with regard to the positive impact on learning (check out Trautwein, Schnyder, et al. in Contemporary Educational Psychology), especially when kids have negative feelings about working at home. Kohn also argued that most of the work sent home with kids is “busy work,” aimed at giving them something to do besides playing video games, rather than improving their critical thinking skills.

Help for kids with math disabilities

AJ PHOTO / SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARYMany readers would agree that homework time can be stressful – for some kids, schoolwork is frustrating enough that they’ll use almost any tactic to avoid it. Kids with learning problems often find homework to be an especially difficult time. Parents might teach the material in a different way, or using different language than the teacher did, leading to confusion, for example. Math homework could be especially challenging – the way math is taught has changed a lot since I was a student, and many parents (myself included) sometimes find it difficult to help their kids! Not only that, but learning disabilities affecting math are not uncommon; some researchers have quoted rates of mathematics disabilities as high as 9% in the school-age population! These problems are serious, and might have an effect on employment and productivity in adulthood.

How can parents help kids who are having trouble understanding math concepts? There are a number of commercial programs and tutoring services that say they’ll improve math performance, but I think that few of them have been validated with data to back up their claims. Researchers at Vanderbilt University and University of Houston looked at two different tutoring methods in a study published in the current issue of the Journal of Educational Psychology, to see whether programs focused on combining numbers result in greater performance than those emphasizing word problems. They tested these methods on groups of Grade 3 students who were identified with a mathematics disability or a combination of reading and math disabilities.

One method examined in the study concentrated on teaching number combinations, referring to basic addition and subtraction calculations. The idea was to teach strategies to increase calculation speed and to improve the students’ ability to memorize answers so they can retrieve them automatically. This program included practice with basic calculations and also required the students to recite “number chants” (for example, 1+1=2, 2+2=4, 3+3=6, etc.). Strategies included explicit teaching of how to count up or down from the largest number in the combination. Students were also encouraged to “pull the number out of their head” if they “just know” the answer to a question.

How parents can help young teens at school

Parents of adolescents know that it can be a difficult stage for kids. Schoolwork can sometimes take a back seat to stress about physical changes, along with social and relationship concerns. Add to these factors an increasing desire and need for independence, and it can leave parents uncertain as to how they can support their…

Homework problems? Check your eyes.

If your child gets headaches or eye strain during homework time, or even if he or she has reading problems, optometrists suggest an eye exam. As many as one in twenty children suffer from “convergence insufficiency”, in which the eye muscles must work harder to focus on text. The eyes have to turn slightly inward…