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Friday, October 10, 2014

Homework-performance correlation

Good article available by link in today's Washington Post by Alfie Kohn on the studies relating to the impact of homework on learning/performance in kids.  The article came out in 2012, but for some reason there's a link in today's paper, and only as I was writing this did I realize that it was a 2012 article.  I might have blogged about it back then for all I can remember.

Anyway, the upshot is that by now it's agreed that homework does absolutely no good in all of elementary school, but now the dispute is whether there is any benefit of homework in high school.  And a 2012 study by Adam Maltese et al was trying to say that there was some benefit.  Here's a cite and link to that study:

Adam V. Maltese, Robert H. Tai, and Xitao Fan, “When Is Homework Worth the Time?  Evaluating the Association Between Homework and Achievement in High School Science and Math,” The High School Journal, October/November 2012: 52-72.  Abstract at

Now that I think back, I didn't have any homework in elementary school, and I did fine.

Here's the abstract of the study:

"Even with the history of debate over the merits of homework, there are significant gaps in the research record regarding its benefit to students. The focus of this study is on the association between time spent on homework and academic performance in science and math by assessing survey and transcript data from two nationally representative samples of high school students collected in 1990 and 2002. Using multiple linear regressions and controlling for students’ background, motivation, and prior achievement, we investigated how much variance in science and math course grades and achievement test scores could be explained by time spent on homework in those classes. The results indicate that there is no consistent significant relationship between time spent on homework and grades, but a consistently positive significant relationship between homework and performance on standardized exams."

The article reaffirms my belief that people need to have licenses before they do studies.  What a waste of time and money for no useful results at all! 

I would have to read more closely to understand how they controlled for background, motivation, and prior achievement. 

As Kohn describes it, the studied focused on math and science homework, and it relied on two large preexisting datasets -- from the National Education Longitudinal Study [NELS] and the Education Longitudinal Study [ELS] -- in which thousands of students are the single question of how much time they spent on homework per day.  From that, the authors apparently are able to use statistical tests to determine whether there's a correlation between that number and student grades or standardized test performance.

Kohn point out an immediate problem that the authors seem to sweep under the rug.  One of the studies came back with "37 minutes" and the other came back with "60 minutes", even though (apparently) the same question was asked of the same basic dataset.  I haven't read far enough to understand how the authors did or didn't deal with this.

But the bottom line of even this study is that it found no correlation between homework time and grades, and it found an extremely tenuous connection between homework time and a tiny increase in standardized test scores.  Somehow, the authors still seemed to think that the study supported assigning homework (just doing it smarter), but Kohn disagrees.

Anyway, I find the whole debate to be very off-base.  It's a bunch of people who are not scientists trying to do science.  Real scientists are pretty bad at this kind of science themselves -- just witness all the debates about clinical studies in the pharmaceutical area, not to mention all the cases of falsified data, selection bias, etc. etc.  But the bottom line is that this is just a stupid way to approach the question of whether homework benefits kids or not. 

One of the major problems that I don't think this study can possibly answer is the simple fact that "slower" kids need more time to figure things out.  If everyone is really "doing" the homework, the students who do MORE of it might well be the slower kids.  Obviously, a lot of slow kids give up and do less.   But that's my basic point -- some kids are naturally faster than others at picking things up, and doing stuff like homework.  That shouldn't be controversial -- a large percentage of kids are diagnosed with ADHD.  An untreated kid with ADHD might take several times as long to do a simple homework assignment as another kid.  Either that or he or she won't do it.  Also, in my life, I've encountered some very impressive people who were clearly slower than me, but took more time to figure things out, with the result that they were just as successful (or more) in school than me. 

And we all know kids who were extraordinarily quick -- kids who could get high every day and still pull in straight A's.

So none of this high level statistical crap is going to get us anywhere with this problem.

The only way to really do it would be to get in the minds of the kids themselves.  I.e. follow them in school, figure out how they learn, etc. etc.  The best way to do that is for those of us who are reasonably self aware to think back on our own experiences, and then report back.  We are the ones who are best able to figure out how to control for different variables.

I myself was reasonably smart, but probably had a kind of ADD that caused me to get distracted on homework such that when the going was tough, it took me a long time to work things out.  The same ADD probably caused me to miss key points in class, that I had to make up for at home.  And as a result I often got help from my older brother on math, physics, and chemistry.  As I think about it, I probably would have been much better served if the school had just had a mandatory study hall of some sort, where students did their "homework" under supervision/tutelage of more advanced students.  In other words, there would be a set time for doing the homework, and the kids would work during that period and at the end of it would be done.  And then the "advanced" students could report back to the teachers on what concepts kids were having trouble with. 

Anyway, I'm getting a bit distracted from my topic right now.  What I'm saying is that for me, homework was not an efficient use of time.  But I do remember that there were many times when I didn't understand what was going on in class, and it only became clear through doing the homework, often with the help of my brother.  So at least in my case, the homework was an integral part of the classes -- if I hadn't done it -- or had done less of  it, I would not have succeeded in those classes.  In fact, I would have failed them.  But I'm sure there were other kids who understood what the teacher was saying all along, and could do the homework in just a few minutes.

And of course my nature was that I was competitive enough that I wanted other kids to think I was smart, so I didn't want to show up in class not knowing anything.  And if someone had asked me how much time I spent on homework, I probably would have lied and underestimated, with the idea that if I gave a real number, the questioner would think I was slow.

From the discussion above, you can see that there are just too many variables going on for the question "how much time do you spend on homework" to do any good in trying to figure out a correlation.  Still, I think it's a question worth exploring, but really, as I just said, it ought to be through a really careful and informed "study" of a set of truly self-aware individuals.  Yes, I realize that that's the opposite of a "scientific" study.  But liberal-arts academics have long ago proved themselves absolutely incapable of making any good use of scientific studies.  

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