Falling asleep over homework

I’ve been working a lot with teachers recently, holding up their homework assignments to the criteria for “deliberate practice.” (Since that’s the only kind of practice that actually helps us get better at things, it’s a good guide to whether homework is worth doing.)

But all that thinking about homework has also brought on that irresistible urge to sleep that I used to feel as a teenager. As Vivian, a student contributor to Fires in the Mind, said:

I’m like, “Okay, what’s more important, math or history?” My eyes are closing, but I just push myself to stay up late. Sometimes I drink coffee, so it’s unhealthy, too! . . . And it shows: I’m always tired in class, because I spent all my night doing my homework!

Vivian has a point. Across the board, researchers report the same thing as did this study done in 1998 by Amy Wolfson, M.D.: “Altogether, most of the adolescents surveyed do not get enough sleep, and their sleep loss interferes with daytime functioning.”

Specifically, there is mounting evidence that “sleep deprivation has its greatest negative effects on the control of behavior, emotion, and attention, a regulatory interface that is critical in the development of social and academic competence.”

Dr. Wolfson’s studies reveal disturbing results in adolescents who get insufficient sleep. One study concluded:

Students who described themselves as struggling or failing school (C’s, D’s/F’s) reported that on school nights they obtain about 25 minutes less sleep and go to bed an average of 40 minutes later than A and B students.

Maggie Jones’s fascinating article in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine discusses the effects of too little sleep on our cognitive performance—and the many ways in which we fool ourselves about it. For example, after just a few days of getting four or six hours of sleep, one group of lab subjects reported:

Yes, they were slightly sleepy. But they insisted they had adjusted to their new state. Even 14 days into the study, they said sleepiness was not affecting them. In fact, their performance had tanked. In other words, the sleep-deprived among us are lousy judges of our own sleep needs. We are not nearly as sharp as we think we are.

Might teachers actually be hurting their students’ performance, not helping it, with the homework they assign? What might such studies mean for how, and when, to give homework? What solutions can you propose?

I’ll send a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind to the best answers I receive.

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5 thoughts on “Falling asleep over homework

  1. I think this speaks to a bigger issue about making school more relevant for students. This means starting with where kids are, using their interests and passions to explore and integrate content. And while many will say that homework helps to reinforce what is taught during the school day, I think there can be ways to build rigor into the daily school work that is also relevant. Ultimately this will be what helps students retain more. In addition when school work is meaningful and relevant to kids, they may be more likely to work on it outside of school. Piles of homework on top of other commitments or responsibilities that kids have also does not help students to build an understanding of how to live a balanced life. So its not just about sleep either.

  2. So true, Greg! Since deliberate (effective) practice so often requires a coach nearby, I’m a big fan of doing it in the classroom, not at home–where so many kids aren’t in the position to do it anyway. I’m seeking good examples from teachers about how they build guided practice into class, with the opportunity to extend it as possible/necessary outside school. Please send yours!

  3. As far as schools that are doing this work, Big Picture Schools (eg: Met Center in RI), Outward Bound Expeditionary Learning Schools (eg: Casco Bay HS in Maine), and The Walden Project in Vermont are all great examples where students engage in relevant and rigorous work. There are a bunch of strategies that teachers can use:
    - Individualized learning plans, which can be used school wide or just for an individual classroom.
    - Project based learning, can be adopted for any subject.
    - Learning Styles inventories – get to know how your students learn, which can help customize assignments that work on weaknesses by using strengths.
    - Internships, work-based learning, using outside mentors. This can help shift the role of teacher from “sage on the stage” to a connector or agent of student learning.

    These are obviously deeper than just whether to assign homework or not, but I think they are relevant to the discussion about how do you help students learn more (the intended outcome of homework).

    www . bigpicture . org
    www . edutopia . org/outside-in
    www . elschools . org

  4. I think guided practice and/or deliberate practice are an essential part of successful learning experiences for kids. Practice is often relegated to homework where it cannot be guided because of short instructional blocks of time. In schools with longer instructional blocks of time it is much more common to see practice included in the basic lesson. I have found this to be one of the strongest arguments for longer class periods in secondary schools. I have observed this to be especially effective in subjects like math where effective practice needs guidance. Longer periods allow time for guided practice for each lesson

  5. Pingback: Why I Dislike Homework and How the Research Backs Me Up – Imagination Soup Fun Learning and Play Activities for Kids

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