I was having a sidebar conversation with a coaching client last week and he was lamenting his 7 th grade daughter’s home work assignments. Its seems like her teacher has given her a bunch of rote memorization assignments and he feels like this is a crazy way to learn. “We learned to memorize things like the Gettysburg address or maybe our math tables, but I’d like my daughter to be gaining more critical learning skills. Why not give her an essay to write”. he told me emphatically.
I was wondering later on about the state of the art for learning and homework’s role in it and voila, an article appeared in yesterday’s New York Times about “The Trouble with Homework”. He was right, I thought.
Well the article, by Annie Murphey Paul drawn from her book about the science of learning entitled “Origins”, points out some cool ideas about learning, many of which are studied under the heading of Mind, Brain and Education. She describes some interesting learning strategies coming out of this research
- Spaced Repetition- This approach spaces out the learning timeframe that students usually study a subject. Instead of a class segment that studies poetry for two weeks followed by some other form of literature, they may study poetry over a 6 week period interspersing other subject matter in between the discussion on different poets.
- Retrieval Practice- Student learn better if they must actively retrieve information from their brain and there may be no better tool for doing this than the testing format. So in addition to the test measuring performance, a series of small tests actually help the student learn. As I certainly learned in school, just taking notes and making outlines, does not a learner make
- A final approach pushes student learning by forcing them to get out of their routine of expectations. For example, if the assignment for a 7th grade biology class involves working on an expected set of question about volcanos, earthquakes, tsunamis and hurricanes, it is best to mix up the topics among homework questions rather than asking 5 questions on volcanos, 5 on earthquakes, etc. Results from a study with 4th graders showed that kids who worked on practice questions that were mixed up did better than those who studied one problem at a time.
While I was excited to see this study of homework and I was all ready to send it to my client as an FYI, I realized (as the author also concludes) that the state of the art for homework is pretty dismal (or as she say “a yet untapped opportunity”). Like so many things in our lives, we make presumptions about what works best even when we don’t know exactly what works best.
© Richard Citrin, 2010