Homework, Sleep, and the Student Brain

Post by Glenn Whitman

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At some point, every parent wishes for their high school aged student to be able to go to bed earlier as well as to find time to choose and pursue THEIR passions or maybe even choose to relax. This thought reemerged as I re-read Anna Quindlen’s commencement speech, “A Short Guide to a Happy Life.” The central message of this address, that was actually never given, was “Get a life.”

But what prevents students, especially between September and June, from “getting a life.” One answer is homework.

As a history teacher and director of the nationally recognized Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning (http://www.thecttl.org), I want to be clear that I both give and support the idea of homework. But homework, whether good or bad, takes time and often cuts into each student’s sleep, family dinner, or the freedom to follow passions outside of school. For too many students, homework is too often about compliance and, “not losing points,” rather than learning.

Most schools have a philosophy about homework (do you know your child’s?), a philosophy that is challenged by each parent’s experience doing homework “back in the day”. The common misconception that parents have is that teachers and schools that give more homework are therefore more challenging and thus better schools. This is a false assumption. The amount of homework your son or daughter does each night should not be a source of pride for the quality of a school. In fact, I would suggest a different metric when evaluating your child’s homework: Are you able to stay up with your son or daughter until he or she finishes their assignments? If the answer is no, then too much homework is being assigned, and you both need more sleep that is crucial to memory consolidation.[1]

I have often joked with my students at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School while teaching the Progressive Movement and rise of unions between the turn of the 19th and 20th century, that they should consider striking because of how schools violate child labor laws. If school is each student’s “job”, then students are working hours usually assigned to Washington, DC area lawyers (combing the hours of the school day, school sponsored activities, and homework). This would certainly be a risky strategy to change how schools and teachers think about homework but it certainly would be attention getting (if any of my students are reading this, don’t try it).

So how can we change things?

The work of The CTTL seeks to connect research in how the brain learns to the instructional practice of teachers. So what does the research say? In “What Great Homework Looks Like?” from the CTTL’s nationally recognized pedagogical journal, Think Differently and Deeply, research shows moderate advantages of homework of no more than two hours for high school students. For younger students, the correlation is even smaller. Now homework does teach other, important, non-cognitive skills such as time management, sustained attention, and rule following, but let us not mask that as learning the content and skills that most assignments are supposed to do.

Homework can be a powerful learning tool, if designed and assigned correctly. Notice I say learning, because good homework should be an independent moment for each student or groups of students through virtual collaboration. It should be challenging and engaging enough to allow for deliberate practice of essential content and skills but not so hard that parents are called in to recall what they learned in high school. All that usually leads to is family stress.

But even when good homework is assigned, it is the student’s approach to their homework that is critical. The CTTL believes that teaching students how to tackle their homework using science can actually lead to deepened learning and less time on homework. The biggest contributor to the length of a student’s homework is task switching. Too often, students jump between their work on an assignment and the lure of social media (Instagram, Snap Chat, Facebook, Twitter or the next frontier of social media). But what I have found hard to convince students of is the transaction cost associated with such task switching. Imagine a student writing an essay for AP English class or completing math proofs for their Honors Geometry class. In the middle of their work their cell phone announces a new text message. This is a moment of truth for the student. Should they ignore their cell phone and address the text message before or after they finish their assignment?

When a student chooses to check their text, respond and then possibly take an extended dive into social media, they lose a percentage of the learning that has already happened. As a result, when they return to the AP essay or Honors Geometry proof they need to retrace their learning in order to catch up to where they were. This jump, between homework and social media, is actually extending the time a student spends on an assignment. At St. Andrew’s, teachers coach their students to see social media as a reward for finishing an assignment. Delaying gratification is an important non-cognitive skill and one that research has shown (see the Stanford Marshmallow Test) enhances life outcomes.

The CTTL at St. Andrew’s goal is to reduce the barriers for each student to meet his or her peak potential without lowering the bar. Good purposeful homework should be part of any students learning journey. But it takes teachers to design better homework–which can include no homework at all on some nights–parents to not see hours of homework as a measure of school quality, and for students to reflect on their current homework strategies while applying new, research-backed, ones. Together, we can all get more sleep and that, research shows, is very good for all of our brains and each student’s learning.

For a deeper dive into “What Great Homework Looks Like?” see the CTTL’s, Think Different and Deeply

[1] Daniel T. Willingham, “Are Sleepy Students Learning?” American Educator (Winter 2012-2013), 35-39.

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