One of the most unfortunate things that the never-ending rollout of "education reform" has spawned is an overemphasis on quantity where homework is concerned. The following letter, sent to me by the parents of two elementary-age children, illustrates the problem: "The school our children attend places a great deal of emphasis on homework. Teachers begin assigning homework in the last half of kindergarten, and it builds from there. It isn't unusual for a third-grade child to average two hours of homework a night, four nights a week. And that's two hours, mind you, only if the child doesn't dawdle."
An unfortunate situation but not at all uncommon. In 1983, a presidential commission report on education called ours a "nation at risk." In response, many school systems across the nation embraced the work ethic. In their obsessive zeal to improve their rankings in the standardized test scores game, they made the mistake of thinking that more is better.
Presumably, the thinking is that learning and retention take place in direct proportion to the amount of time a child spends practicing a given lesson. In fact, there is a grain of truth in that, but the point of diminishing returns is reached quickly. Studies show that when someone is learning a large amount of new information or skill, it's best to separate the total learning time into several brief practice periods. This is known as "distributive practice" or "distributive learning." In contrast, "massed practice" occurs when learning is expected to take place in one large chunk of time. Assigning fifty division problems when ten would suffice is an example of massed practice.
A major problem with massed practice is that too many learning trials tend to produce an aversive response toward the learning itself. Aversive conditioning results in attempts by the learner to avoid the cause of his or her discomfort.
If the learner is a child and the discomfort is caused by excessive homework, avoidance behaviors will include putting it off 'til the last minute, lying about it, acting incompetent, finding numerous excuses to wander off task, staring out the window, and trying to get someone else to shoulder part, if not all, of the load. In short, that's the very set of problems that make up the homework hassle.
In addition, too much homework can result in a child eventually losing interest in school and motivation for learning altogether. I don't need to tell you that this is the deepest cut of all.
So, how much homework should be assigned? Research on human learning strongly suggests that although homework is a worthwhile exercise, it should not demand much more than thirty minutes per day on average, especially during the early elementary grades. (I recommend that homework be introduced in the second half of the first grade.) Any more than this and returns are likely to diminish. For a fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-grade child, homework should not consume more than sixty minutes a day.
This makes good common sense from a practical standpoint as well. Six hours spent in school and one hour spent on homework amounts to a seven-hour academic day. Considering that an eight-hour workday is standard for adults, seven hours is plenty to expect of a twelve-year-old child.
From seventh grade on, the heat can be gradually increased. Most high school students, and especially those on a college-prep track, should be able to tolerate an average of two hours of homework per night, occasionally more. At this point, the increased load begins to prepare youngsters for the more rigorous demands of college.
From "John Rosemond's Fail-Safe Formula for Helping Your Child Succeed in School," copyright 2014 by John Rosemond
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