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Posted at 10:41 AM ET, 06/17/2011

Homework: The useful and the useless

We’ve come a long way from the 1930s, when the American Child Health Association put homework next to child labor as a leading cause of child deaths from tuberculosis and heart disease.

Yet the value — or lack thereof — of homework never seems to go away. The issue has been raised anew by a story on the front page of the New York Times about a number of school systems around the country that are either reevaluating their homework policies or have already found new, less stressful ways of giving kids work to do after school.

Some of the impetus for the change comes from a movie — “ Race to Nowhere ,” a documentary film showing students who are burned out from the stress of school. Added to that is the research that shows that too much homework is often counterproductive and that in the early grades, the homework that actually helps kids learn is reading. Just reading.

There has never been any agreement in the education world about exactly what homework should be or even what its basic purpose is. Should it be about review or about learning new concepts? Should it be graded or not?

Harris Cooper, professor of education and psychology at Duke University, who is probably the best known researcher on the subject, has concluded that:

• Up until fifth grade, homework should be very limited.

• Middle-school students should not spend more than 90 minutes a day on homework

• Two hours should be the limit in high school.

Beyond those time limits, he has said, research shows that homework has no impact on student performance.

Kids often complain about homework assignments for good reason: Many consist of mindless tasks, or else are time wasters that have nothing to do with the lesson at hand.

In 2009, I asked some students to tell me their favorite and least favorite homework assignments. Here, in an encore performance, are the still informative answers.

Meanwhile, what were your or your children’s most useful and useless assignments this past year? Write them in the comments or e-mail me at straussv@washpost.com, and I’ll publish the best of them.

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Gabrielle Bluestone

Attended George Washington University, Horace Mann School in New York

The best homework assignment I can remember was a project on music that corresponded with a civil rights class. Using different time periods (slavery corresponded with Robert Johnson, the civil rights movement with the song “A Change Is Gonna Come”), we analyzed current music for gospel and blues influences and wrote about how they developed from specific points in history. It was pretty much the only time I’ve seen an entire high school class excited about a project.

Lousy homework assignments are uninspired ones — the ones that get assigned only to prove that the student completed the reading or opened the textbook.

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Nikki Kaul

Attended McLean High School

McLean, Va.

The most useless homework assignment I’ve ever had was where I had to write about the history of a cultural festival, and when the day came to turn in the assignment, the teacher didn’t even touch upon that subject. The teacher went straight into another subject that was completely irrelevant to what was in the curriculum and had nothing to do with what would be relevant to the final exam, the tests, quizzes, and midterm.

The best homework assignment I’ve ever had was for my math class, where the homework assignment covered literally everything that was on a huge test. I learned more than I had expected to because of all the critical thinking that the homework required.

What I feel makes a homework assignment good is if it is relevant, challenges the student doing it, and is not too time-consuming. A bad homework assignment is one that has absolutely no relevance to what is being taught or anything that is learned or part of the curriculum.

If it is meaningless AND time-consuming, then it is quite possibly the worst of the worst in terms of homework assignments.

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Naveed Siddiqui

Graduated from Eleanor Roosevelt High School

Greenbelt, Md.

The most useless homework is always those study questions that we get after we read a text in a class. The questions are always something along the lines of “What is the main idea of the passage?” I’m not going to be able to answer this type of question right away.

And even if I were able to, the answer would not stick with me unless I knew why it was the answer. I get the most out of these passages and essays by discussing them in class.

The best homework assignment I received was ... in English.

After a long year in which we all worked hard and definitely improved our reading and writing skills, my teacher simply told us to write a journal entry in which we tell her something. Anything (well, anything school appropriate).

I wrote about how my family moved from Pakistan to the United States when I was very young. This assignment gave me the opportunity to use my refined writing skills and also allowed me to reflect on my life.

A good homework assignment is one where you and the classmate sitting next to you do not necessarily have the same answer. It allows you to be creative in the way you put to use what you learn in class.

Bad homework assignments are those tedious, monotonous pieces of work that you get each time you finish a section of lessons in class. They are a series of repetitions that are supposed to polish your skills in a particular subject, but do not effectively do this.

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Emily Gordon

Bethesda, Md.

I think that the most useless homework assignment was ... when I got homework on a lesson that I learned a week earlier, and when I had learned something completely different that day.

The best homework assignment I ever had was when ... I had to write a persuasive essay on the Japanese Internment [during World War II], and whether it was for America’s own good or not. It was fun. Even though I had to read various parts of the Constitution, and had to read many different articles and readings on people debating the same topic, it was still fun.

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Hojung Lee

Attended Mt. Hebron High School

Ellicott City, Md.

The best homework I had was not something that made me learn something unexpected.

Homework should be something expected that will have problems and challenging ideas that will hone the skills we acquired that day of the lesson or before and shouldn’t go further than that.

I generally like my Calculus homework because my teacher gives problems that we learned from a long time ago along with newly learned ones but never something we will learn or totally unexpected. Especially when it comes to math, many students give up tackling “difficult or unexpected” problems.

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Sarah Scire

Atended George Washington University,

Salem High School, N.H.

A great homework assignment from high school was given in a Comprehensive American Studies and Literature course taught by two completely opposite personalities (one had a fetish for legendarily difficult pop quizzes and the other enjoyed taking us on walks in the woods to ponder transcendentalism).

We were asked to illustrate a quote from Thoreau on a poster for the course and write a paper on the quote, and what it meant to us. The posters were displayed in the classroom and the papers shared with the class. The assignment was great because our work was appreciated and displayed and my classmates chose a variety of quotes, with even those picking the same one interpreting them in wildly different ways.

The worst homework assignment was all of the ones given in Statistics. The teacher assigned almost every problem of every chapter (making for horribly repetitive and time-consuming work). If we got through the lesson plan for the day, it would always be “okay, start your homework for chapters three, four and five!”

Feeling like you were doing work simply for the sake of doing work ... was the worst part of the assignment — and high school.

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Emily Cahn

Attended George Washington University, Columbia High School

Maplewood, N.J.

I have two memorable homework assignments, both for good reasons.

When I was in 5th grade, we were assigned a project to come up with a plan to spend $1 million. “The Million Dollar Project,” as it was called, was supposed to teach us the value of money. We had to spend every last cent of the million, however we could spend it any way we liked. The assignment was a fun and easy way to learn the value of money and to see what $1 million could really buy.

[At college in 2008], I took a class called U.S. Political Participation during the fall semester. Thus, the presidential election was taking place over the course of the semester. We were given a project to predict the final Electoral College result. We had to analyze polling data and research past voting records of each state. We then had to determine the main issue voters would base their decision off of, and look at that in historical context to see whether those issues lead to the election of a Democrat or Republican. It was also an engaging assignment that forced me to pay more attention to election coverage.

Overall, assignments that allow me to be hands-on usually turn out to be my favorite.

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By  |  10:41 AM ET, 06/17/2011

 
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