Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Learning first, achievement second, homework still dead last.

I have received many responses to my "no homework" policy, so I decided to blog more about it.  In my classes, I do not assign daily required work.  I have, however, given my students assignments to complete out of class time, but these are not the traditional math assignments.

The myth about daily repetitive work is that this actually increases student mastery of a concept.  Many people believe the saying “Practice makes perfect”.  This saying, recently, has evolved to “perfect practice makes perfect”.  I would agree to the second statement when referring to a physical skill, such as shooting a basketball.  To master a physical skill, our body needs to mimic the correct actions multiple times.  The question that homework in a classroom does not address is “How does one practice understanding?”

Psychologist, Nate Kornell, completed a study that showed that intensive immersion is not the best way to master a particular concept.  Nate found that college students and adults of retirement age were better able to distinguish the painting styles of 12 unfamiliar artists after viewing mixed collections (assortments, including works from all 12) than after viewing a dozen works from one artist, all together, then moving on to the next painter.  Nate then deduced:
“What seems to be happening in this case is that the brain is picking up deeper patterns when seeing assortments of paintings; it’s picking up what’s similar and what’s different about them,”
Unfortunately, most classes immerse students into one concept; assign them multiple questions of the same concept, then move on to the next concept.  The research states that this is not the most effective way if we want students to retain mastery.
According to Cooper, homework increases student achievement (Even a formula has been created, 10 min per grad level)  This is a self-fulfilling prophecy.  First, educators need to realize that student achievement and student learning are not the same idea.  When looking at Cooper'sstudies, he shows that test scores increase due to the homework assigned.  Unfortunately, assigning repetitive work for students, or giving them loads of questions before an exam is the equivalent of cramming for an exam.
Cognitive scientists do not deny that cramming will lead to a better grade on an exam (thus increase student achievement), however this knowledge is quickly forgotten (student learning has decreased).  We, as educators, need to realize we are here to increase student learning first and student achievement second. 


  1. I agree with you on the homework, but I don't know that I completely agree that repetitive work is completely useless. If you are teaching foundations in math or literacy, students need to know sight words and they need to know addition, subtraction, multiplication adn division rules. I know so many middle school students who can not recite their times tables, I know so many middle school students who have trouble with reading common words. So these students have come up with the new math program and new reading programs that you or I did not experience as children. Are we less or more prepared for life than these students?
    I just believe that there are some things that can assist students in mastering their concepts that they need to understand, but that it can't be the only tool you use.

  2. Jenn, I also know many students who can recite their multiplication facts, but don't understand what multiplication is. Would you rather have for your own children;
    1) They can't do math quickly, but understand the concepts
    2) They can do math quickly but don't understand why 3 x 2 = 6.

  3. I think there still has to be a balance, not all students learn the same way you have to use all tools, even if some of them seem antiquated....
    Because I am not a math teacher but I am a parent I have been exposed to the new math program and as a parent I am hopelessly lost in how I can work with my child to solve his problems now. I know from conversations with other parents that they are struggling to help their child with homework and so it just creates all kinds of frustration... because not all teachers are like you and don't assign homework.

  4. Reinforcement and recitation are telling terms. They give away some of the underlying beliefs of the speaker: too many people see school as a product rather than a process.

    The argument for the "basics" is problematic: