Stanford research shows pitfalls of homework

Stanford News

A Stanford researcher found that students in high-achieving communities who spend too much time on homework experience more stress, physical health problems, a lack of balance and even alienation from society. More than two hours of homework a night may be counterproductive, according to the study.

Denise Pope

Education scholar Denise Pope has found that too much homework has negative effects on student well-being and behavioral engagement. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

A Stanford researcher found that too much homework can negatively affect kids, especially their lives away from school, where family, friends and activities matter.

“Our findings on the effects of homework challenge the traditional assumption that homework is inherently good,” wrote Denise Pope, a senior lecturer at the Stanford Graduate School of Education and a co-author of a study published in the Journal of Experimental Education.

The researchers used survey data to examine perceptions about homework, student well-being and behavioral engagement in a sample of 4,317 students from 10 high-performing high schools in upper-middle-class California communities. Along with the survey data, Pope and her colleagues used open-ended answers to explore the students’ views on homework.

Median household income exceeded $90,000 in these communities, and 93 percent of the students went on to college, either two-year or four-year.

Students in these schools average about 3.1 hours of homework each night.

“The findings address how current homework practices in privileged, high-performing schools sustain students’ advantage in competitive climates yet hinder learning, full engagement and well-being,” Pope wrote.

Pope and her colleagues found that too much homework can diminish its effectiveness and even be counterproductive. They cite prior research indicating that homework benefits plateau at about two hours per night, and that 90 minutes to two and a half hours is optimal for high school.

Their study found that too much homework is associated with:

• Greater stress: 56 percent of the students considered homework a primary source of stress, according to the survey data. Forty-three percent viewed tests as a primary stressor, while 33 percent put the pressure to get good grades in that category. Less than 1 percent of the students said homework was not a stressor.

• Reductions in health: In their open-ended answers, many students said their homework load led to sleep deprivation and other health problems. The researchers asked students whether they experienced health issues such as headaches, exhaustion, sleep deprivation, weight loss and stomach problems.

• Less time for friends, family and extracurricular pursuits: Both the survey data and student responses indicate that spending too much time on homework meant that students were “not meeting their developmental needs or cultivating other critical life skills,” according to the researchers. Students were more likely to drop activities, not see friends or family, and not pursue hobbies they enjoy.

A balancing act

The results offer empirical evidence that many students struggle to find balance between homework, extracurricular activities and social time, the researchers said. Many students felt forced or obligated to choose homework over developing other talents or skills.

Also, there was no relationship between the time spent on homework and how much the student enjoyed it. The research quoted students as saying they often do homework they see as “pointless” or “mindless” in order to keep their grades up.

“This kind of busy work, by its very nature, discourages learning and instead promotes doing homework simply to get points,” Pope said.

She said the research calls into question the value of assigning large amounts of homework in high-performing schools. Homework should not be simply assigned as a routine practice, she said.

“Rather, any homework assigned should have a purpose and benefit, and it should be designed to cultivate learning and development,” wrote Pope.

High-performing paradox

In places where students attend high-performing schools, too much homework can reduce their time to foster skills in the area of personal responsibility, the researchers concluded. “Young people are spending more time alone,” they wrote, “which means less time for family and fewer opportunities to engage in their communities.”

Student perspectives

The researchers say that while their open-ended or “self-reporting” methodology to gauge student concerns about homework may have limitations – some might regard it as an opportunity for “typical adolescent complaining” – it was important to learn firsthand what the students believe.

The paper was co-authored by Mollie Galloway from Lewis and Clark College and Jerusha Conner from Villanova University.

The Risks of Guesstimating Homework Time


Studies show that homework is ineffective beyond a certain amount per night.

It is often said that a sign of insanity is doing something over and over again and expecting different results each time. This sums up how most American schools are dealing with the homework issue.

Not only does homework impact students but it also impacts their families. It is common for students and families to feel that they don’t have the time it takes to maintain a healthy balance between work and the rest of their lives. Family time that could be spent getting outdoors, visiting friends and relatives, and relaxing is being unnecessarily burdened by the large amount of homework kids have to do.

One student’s homework has the power to reshape how the entire family spends its time and sets its schedules. I don’t think most teachers appreciate this fact when they assign work.

Guesstimating Pitfalls

Despite studies — such as this one from Stanford — that show homework is ineffective beyond a certain amount per night, teachers and administrators continue to assign too much homework.

Teachers promise to assign a manageable amount of homework, but they don’t gather data on how long it takes their students to complete their homework. And exactly how do teachers estimate how long an assignment will take? Do they do it themselves first — not factoring in that they already understand the content? How on earth do you measure the length of time it takes for a student to think through a problem or a question, and not just write the answer down on a piece of paper?

One negative result of guesstimating time allotment is that students who take more time than is allotted for the assignment can feel that they are somehow inadequate, when the truth is that the allotted time is arbitrarily set. Students might also grow cynical and believe that the teachers are gaming the system by not being honest in stating the allotment, knowing that the homework will probably take more time than promised.

Valuing Free Time

I’ve heard some teachers argue that if students stop multitasking and stay off social media, they could then get the work done in the time allotted. Perhaps, but in addition to this argument also lacking data, it is built upon the dangerous idea that young people are experts at wasting their own time.

Too many adults seem to vastly undervalue the benefits and necessity of free, unstructured time. They undervalue the impact of relaxation and social time on forming well-rounded, healthy adults. So, when students get home from band practice, a game, or their extracurricular activity at six (if they have a short commute), are eating dinner by seven, and doing their homework by eight, at what point do they have time for decompressing, connecting with friends, pets, and family?

This is a plea to teachers and administrators: Take these studies and the testimonies of students and families seriously. Gather data, and if the assignment can be done in class, determine whether making it a homework assignment is truly warranted.

The Growth Mindset – “Nice Try!” Is Not Enough

NY Times Motherlode

Among the most-uttered phrases of my generation of parents have to be these: “Great effort!” “Nice try!” “I can tell you worked so hard!”

Many of us have sipped from the well of research suggesting that children praised for effort rather than ability stick to their work longer, pursue more creative solutions and enjoy the whole process more. Those kids, we want to believe, get what Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, calls the “growth mind-set:” the belief that their abilities can be developed, as opposed to a “fixed mind-set” in which innate aptitude limits the ability to learn.

The growth mind-set has joined “grit” in the pantheon of desirable qualities we long to bestow upon our children, while secretly suspecting that those particular gifts aren’t ours for the giving. We have collectively seized on the idea that a growth mind-set leads to success, while a fixed mind-set produces the child on the floor sobbing “I can’t. I’m bad at this. I’ll never get it.”

And so we sing the effort song again and again, even when the result of that effort is perhaps not all that we would wish, and even when we know that their effort was strongly boosted by our behind-the-scenes help in varying forms. In doing so, we take a big idea — that the ability to keep trying matters more than immediate success — and drag it down to a small scale. While we’re at it, we risk teaching our children to expect that any effort, no matter how puny or how enabled, should be enough to earn them the results they desire.

That’s far from the real message of the research surrounding the growth mind-set. The exclusive focus on effort has been misplaced, says Dr. Dweck, whose book “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success” delivered the phrase into popular culture. The emphasis should be on learning as an active process, not a goal. “We’re not just saying ‘effort’ anymore,” she says. “We also talk about using good strategies and getting help from others.” Part of a growth mind-set is being willing to learn how best to learn. “Parents may be familiar with the growth mind-set, but they may be using it toward the goal of the next test grade or school application. That’s not what it is. It’s about learning and improving and loving the process. Those other things come about as a byproduct.”

Just as effort alone can’t deliver results, praising effort isn’t enough to help a child develop a love for the challenge of learning. Both parents and teachers should follow that “great effort” message with something more. Dr. Dweck provides a list of suggestions in an article for Education Week. When a child is trying but not succeeding, she writes, appreciate the effort, then add “Let’s talk about what you’ve tried, and what you can try next.” When a child is discouraged, avoid the “you can do it if you try” trap. Instead, acknowledge the challenge. “That feeling of math being hard is the feeling of your brain growing.”

As children get older, parents can also talk with them about the ways their successes haven’t been entirely dependent on their own efforts, no matter how great those have been. “They should recognize that not everyone has the opportunities to develop their abilities in the same way,” says Dr. Dweck. “Other kids may be working hard, but not have people teaching them the right strategies, or giving them the help they need to flourish.”

Children growing up with parents and teachers who care about helping them develop a “growth mind-set” are already ahead of the game. As parents, we can encourage them to use the strategies and skills they develop in both smaller and larger ways.

“I worry that kids aren’t being taught to dream big any more,” says Dr. Dweck. “It’s so grade-focused. I feel like parents should be focusing on what contribution children can make. What’s the purpose of growing up and having an education and developing skills? What kind of impact are you going to have on the world?” A growth mind-set, she says, should help a child feel fortunate to have the opportunity to make a difference.

It’s a somewhat complex lesson we hope to convey: It’s not enough just to try, you have to eventually find a way to learn, and yet it’s not all about immediate or even long-term success. As temptingly simple as the whole “praise effort, not ability” concept seemed, there are no shortcuts to the growth mind-set, not for our children — or for ourselves.

Ironically, it’s easy for adults to fall victim to a “fixed mind-set” about our own children. We need to remember that an appreciation for challenge, and a belief that we can find a way to change, learn and grow, can’t itself be fixed in place. Instead, we all struggle with fear and discouragement at times. Sometimes we run toward new experiences. Sometimes we have to find a way to learn something we really did not want to learn. Sometimes, some part of us is always on the floor, sobbing: “I can’t. I’m bad at this. I’ll never get it.”

So how do you raise a child with a growth mind-set, along with a nice healthy appreciation for where it came from and the will to keep it strong? By applying the encouraging messages of the growth mind-set to yourself. I’ll borrow, out of context, another phrase from Dr. Dweck: “The point isn’t to get it all right away. The point is to grow your understanding step by step. What can you try next?”

That’s a great thing to say to our children, and just as important a thing to say to ourselves.

Push, Don’t Crush Students


CreditKeith Negley

PALO ALTO, Calif. — PALO ALTO HIGH SCHOOL, one of the nation’s most prestigious public secondary schools, is sandwiched between two stark and illusory paths. Across the street to the west, Stanford University beckons as the platonic ideal, a symbol of the road to Google, the White House, the mansion on the hill. To the east, across a bike trail, are the railroad tracks where three boys from the school district have killed themselves this year.

Suicide clusters are relatively rare, accounting for about 5 percent of teenage suicides. Startlingly, this year’s is the second contagion to visit this city. Five students or recent graduates of the district’s other high school, Gunn High School, killed themselves beginning in 2009.

Experts say such clusters typically occur when suicide takes hold as a viable coping mechanism — as a deadly, irrational fashion. But that hasn’t stopped this community from soul searching: Does a culture of hyperachievement deserve any blame for this cluster?

The answer is complex, bordering on the contradictory: No, the pressure to succeed is not unique, nor does it cause a suicide cluster in itself, but the intense reflection underway here has unearthed a sobering reality about how Silicon Valley’s culture of best in class is playing out in the schools.

In addition to whatever overt pressure students feel to succeed, that culture is intensified by something more insidious: a kind of doublespeak from parents and administrators. They often use all the right language about wanting students to be happy, healthy and resilient — a veritable “script,” said Madeline Levine, a Bay Area psychologist who treats depressed, anxious and suicidal tech-industry executives, workers and their children.

“They say, ‘All I care about is that you’re happy,’ and then the kid walks in the door and the first question is, ‘How did you do on the math test?’ ” Ms. Levine said. “The giveaways are so unbelievably clear.”

Denise Pope, an education expert at Stanford, calls this gulf between what people say and what they mean “the hidden message of parenting.”

But here, and in lots of other ultrahigh-achieving communities and schools, Ms. Pope said that children are picking through the static to hear the overriding message that only the best will do — in grades, test scores, sports, art, college. “In everything,” she said.

“I hear students tell me that if I don’t get into X, Y, Z college, I’ll wind up flipping burgers at McDonald’s,” said Ms. Pope, who is working with Ms. Levine to counsel at the high schools.

Ms. Pope said that wrongheaded idea becomes an emotional and physiological threat when multiplied by at least three other factors: technology that keeps teens working and socializing late at night, depriving them of essential rest; growing obligations from test-prep classes and extracurricular activities; and parents too busy to participate in activities with their families.

“We are not teenagers,” Carolyn Walworth, a junior at Palo Alto High School, wrote in an editorial in the local paper in response to the suicides. She described students as “lifeless bodies in a system that breeds competition” and wrote of going to the emergency room to deal with stress, missed periods and having “a panic attack in the middle of a 30-person class and be forced to remain still.”

There has been lots of talk in the community about what to do, she wrote, but action has not followed. (The district is providing counseling services, offering a suicide-prevention kit and urging teachers to limit homework hours.)

“Please, no more endless discussions about what exactly it is that is wrong with our schools, and, above all, no more empty promises,” she wrote, and noted: “We are the product of a generation of Palo Altans that so desperately wants us to succeed but does not understand our needs.”

THIS curious idea of a rhetorical divide came up in a number of recent discussions with parents and their children. In one conversation about the suicides, a mother at a Bay Area school in a similarly high-achieving community told me how little pressure she puts on her teens and noted by way of an anecdote how she had succeeded: Her daughter, she proudly recounted, was so well balanced that she decided last year not to go to the best college she got into but, rather, the school that best fit her passions. The school was Vassar.

In this subtle linguistic slip, Vassar qualified as a second-rate school.

Esther Wojcicki, the teacher who oversees the Palo Alto High School newspaper, lamented the competitive environment but noted seconds later that the school paper had just won a “Gold Crown” award from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and that the two dozen students sitting at computer terminals at 4 p.m. that day were thrilled to stay until 9 p.m. to put out the school magazine because they have so much fun doing it.

Alan Eagle, a sales director at Google whose 17-year-old son, William, is a junior at Gunn, was frank about the distance between what he tells his son and what he means.

“I can say all I want that it doesn’t matter where my son goes to college,” Mr. Eagle told me.  But “I’m sure that as much as I preach that, I’m not being 100 percent authentic and frank.”

He added: “I personally went to Dartmouth and it did help. I look at the economy, the difference between haves and have-nots, and I believe a college education is critical.”

And a rich high school experience, too. A few minutes later, while acknowledging that his son had given up playing on the basketball team to study more, Mr. Eagle noted that “at least he’s still got track.”

Glenn McGee, the district’s superintendent, also seemed to struggle to walk the line between celebrating the exceptional nature of this area while urging students to relax. Sitting in his office and looking across the street at the Stanford campus, he mourned the fact that some parents feel that such a school is the only acceptable outcome.

“In many cases, people have made a big sacrifice to live in this community,” Dr. McGee said, referring to exorbitant housing costs (the median housing price last year was $3.3 million, making it the fourth most-expensive ZIP code in the country, according to Richard Florida, an academic who studies demographic trends). Characterizing the attitude of many parents, Dr. McGee said, “To be blunt, what is my return on investment?”

“My job is not to get you into Stanford,” he said he tells parents and students. “It’s to teach them to learn how to learn, to think, to work together — learn how to explore, collaborate, learn to be curious and creative.”

Some parents hear it, he said, but “a lot of families and parents don’t hear the message and say: compete and compete.”

Dr. McGee said he had interviewed 300 students and found that half would be “really embarrassed” to tell their friends they got a B. But the truth is that it’s awfully hard to be the best here, given the curve: The SAT scores are so high on average that a student who finishes in the 75th percentile in the district has a 2,200, the 99th percentile in general for college-bound seniors.

Soon after lamenting the pressure, Dr. McGee raved about a student who was part of a math team that finished first in January in a national competition, and about the new performing arts center under construction, and about the coming $24 million athletic facility funded by a private family foundation.

And why wouldn’t he rave? Why not be thrilled by achievement?

Because the bar for academic success here has become so high that solid performance can feel mediocre.

It puts enormous pressure on a school, or a community, when such consistent, across-the-board greatness becomes a baseline of sorts — what Mr. Eagle described as a culture of “not just excellence but uber-excellence.”

Perhaps that explains some of the doublespeak: Parents are searching for language to encourage their children, even push them, but not crush them.

One solution, said Ms. Pope of Stanford, is “downtime, playtime, family time.” For parents, too. In other words: Take a leap of faith (well supported by science) that downtime will lead to a healthier perspective.

Dr. Morton Silverman, a psychiatrist and senior science adviser to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, suggested that another answer is recognizing that the doublespeak also betrays a sense of terror about the future among both students and parents.

With the economy in flux and the income gap growing, parents don’t see a clear path anymore to financial stability — even here, maybe especially here, where things move fast and competition is fierce. In addition, many of the fortunes made here have been based on creating things that destabilize traditional businesses and their workers.

So confront the new realities, Dr. Silverman suggested, urging parents to say something like: “I can’t tell you which path to take or how to get there, but I will support you,” he said. “I’m here to back you up.”

It’s a hard message to hear in a can-do place like this.

Walking near the train tracks where the children laid themselves down, Dr. McGee said this community, if any, should have answers.

“Can we put sensors up there?” he mused quietly to me, maybe to alert the train operators that someone has climbed onto the tracks. “This is Silicon Valley. There ought to be something we can do.”

Researchers: How memorization can inhibit math fluency

Students most effectively learn math working on problems that they enjoy, not drills or exercises

January 30th, 2015 by Clifton B. Parker in Other Sciences / Social Sciences

Students most effectively math working on problems that they enjoy, not drills or exercises
Stanford Professor Jo Boaler finds that children who excel in math learn to develop “number sense,” which is much different from the memorization that is often stressed in school.

Stanford Professor Jo Boaler finds that children who excel in math learn to develop “number sense,” which is much different from the memorization that is often stressed in school.

Students learn math best when they approach the subject as something they enjoy, according to a Stanford education expert. Speed pressure, timed testing and blind memorization pose high hurdles in the youthful pursuit of math.

“There is a common and damaging misconception in – the idea that strong are fast ,” said Jo Boaler, a Stanford professor of mathematics education and the lead author on a new working paper. Boaler’s co-authors are Cathy Williams, cofounder of Stanford’s YouCubed, and Amanda Confer, a Stanford graduate student in education.

Curriculum timely

Fortunately, said Boaler, the new national curriculum standards known as the Common Core Standards for K-12 schools de-emphasize the rote memorization of math facts. Maths facts are fundamental assumptions about math, such as the times tables (2 x 2 = 4), for example. Still, the expectation of rote memorization continues in classrooms and households across the United States.

While research shows that knowledge of math facts is important, Boaler said the best way for students to know math facts is by using them regularly and developing understanding of numerical relations. Memorization, speed and test pressure can be damaging, she added.

On the other hand, people with “number sense” are those who can use numbers flexibly, she said. For example, when asked to solve the problem of 7 x 8, someone with number sense may have memorized 56, but they would also be able to use a strategy such as working out 10 x 7 and subtracting two 7s (70-14).

“They would not have to rely on a distant memory,” Boaler wrote.

In fact, in one research project the investigators found that the high-achieving students actually used number sense, rather than rote memory, and the low-achieving students did not.

The conclusion was that the low achievers are often low achievers not because they know less but because they don’t use numbers flexibly.

“They have been set on the wrong path, often from an early age, of trying to memorize methods instead of interacting with numbers flexibly,” she wrote. Number sense is the foundation for all higher-level mathematics, she noted.

Role of the brain

Boaler said that some students will be slower when memorizing, but still possess exceptional mathematics potential.

“Math facts are a very small part of mathematics, but unfortunately students who don’t memorize math facts well often come to believe that they can never be successful with math and turn away from the subject,” she said.

Prior research found that students who memorized more easily were not higher achieving – in fact, they did not have what the researchers described as more “math ability” or higher IQ scores. Using an MRI scanner, the only brain differences the researchers found were in a brain region called the hippocampus, which is the area in the brain responsible for memorizing facts – the working memory section.

But according to Boaler, when students are stressed – such as when they are solving math questions under time pressure – the working memory becomes blocked and the students cannot as easily recall the math facts they had previously studied. This particularly occurs among higher achieving students and female students, she said.

Some estimates suggest that at least a third of students experience extreme stress or “” when they take a timed test, no matter their level of achievement. “When we put students through this anxiety-provoking experience, we lose students from mathematics,” she said.

Boaler contrasts the common approach to teaching math with that of teaching English. In English, a student reads and understands novels or poetry, without needing to memorize the meanings of words through testing. They learn words by using them in many different situations – talking, reading and writing.

“No English student would say or think that learning about English is about the fast memorization and fast recall of words,” she added.

Strategies, activities

In her paper, “Fluency without Fear,” Boaler provides activities for teachers and parents that help students learn math facts at the same time as developing . These include number talks, addition and multiplication activities, and math cards.

Importantly, she said, these activities include a focus on the visual representation of number facts. When students connect visual and symbolic representations of numbers, they are using different pathways in the brain, which deepens their learning, as shown by recent brain research.

“Math fluency” is often misinterpreted, with an over-emphasis on speed and memorization, she said. “I work with a lot of mathematicians, and one thing I notice about them is that they are not particularly fast with numbers; in fact some of them are rather slow. This is not a bad thing; they are slow because they think deeply and carefully about mathematics.”

She refers to the famous French mathematician, Laurent Schwartz, who wrote in his autobiography that he often felt stupid in school, as he was one of the slowest math thinkers in class.

Math anxiety and fear play a big role in students dropping out of mathematics, said Boaler.

“When we emphasize memorization and testing in the name of fluency we are harming children, we are risking the future of our ever-quantitative society and we are threatening the discipline of mathematics. We have the research knowledge we need to change this and to enable all children to be powerful mathematics learners. Now is the time to use it,” she said.

More information: “Fluency Without Fear: Research Evidence on the Best Ways to Learn Math Facts”:

Provided by Stanford University