Homework Help Hurts Learning
    By Garth Sundem | February 28th 2012 11:06 AM | 14 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    Last Friday was my son’s lower elementary invention fair. And his project was resplendent – a powered K’nex conveyor belt designed to transport a picture of our aging Labrador, Gus, through a diorama of our living room (without the clutter). It glittered among the many cardboard boxes slashed and duct-taped into laser-shooting alarm clock robots and crocodile egg protectors. Leif was so proud, explaining again and again, “The problem was my dog has a hurt leg. I made a conveyor belt so he can get around the house.”

    The thing is, I built it. Or at least most of it. And touring other kids’ homespun and authentic projects, I started to realize how profoundly I should not have. To discover exactly how much I had messed up my kid, I called Temple University psychology professor, Laurence Steinberg, author of The Ten Basic Principles of Good Parenting.

    Here’s what he said: “I think the research is pretty clear that parents should not help with homework unless (1) the child asks for something specific that is beyond the child’s capability (asking the parent for help using a tool, for example), (2) the child does not understand what the homework assignment is (and you can explain it), or (3) the teacher has explicitly developed an assignment designed to have the parent and child work together on something.”

    I also talked to Patricia Miller, SFSU professor and 2009-2010 president of the American Psychological Association division of developmental psychology, who said, “I think there’s HELP, and then there’s help. Based on developmental psychology research (and being a parent), I’d say that the best kind of parental help is ‘scaffolding’ — providing support in the form of prompts, hints, suggestions, reminders, etc. The child is more likely to learn something from that kind of help than from parents doing it themselves.”

    When I tweeted the question of homework help, Sandra Aamodt, past editor of the journal Neuroscience and author of Welcome to Your Brain replied, “Costs of unfortunate results are low in kindergarten, will be higher later on. Let the kid figure it out.”

    Points taken (not really).

    Let me take a step back. I’m not necessarily a product-oriented parent. This year's Christmas cake was a drooping, kid-created "tree" inexpertly smeared with pseudo-marshmallow “fondant” (which, according to my wife, is a real thing, sometimes used decoratively on the Food Channel). The kids' Lego projects are as likely to be postmodern expressionist interpretations of "Death Star" as they are to be built from plans.

    But for some reason homework is different. I want to help; I want Leif to do it well and right. And I think that by sitting with him and “helping” I can make it so. Because dedicated parents are the only group more determined than climate change deniers to cherry-pick science that supports our point of view, I went trolling through the literature this weekend looking for studies that might refute the experts. Here’s what I found:

    A 2008 meta-analysis titled Parent Involvement in Homework: A Research Synthesis found “a stronger association [with higher achievement] for parent rule-setting compared with other involvement strategies.” And found that parental involvement with homework had “negative association for mathematics achievement but a positive association for verbal achievement outcomes.”

    On aggregate that’s a swing and a miss for homework helping.

    More: a study of 709 kids titled Homework in the Home found that “More parental support for autonomy was associated with higher standardized test scores, higher class grades, and more homework completed. More positive parent involvement was associated with lower test scores and lower class grades, especially for elementary school students. Student attitudes toward homework were unrelated to parenting style for homework.”

    In other words, the best thing we can do as parents is to “support autonomy.” See Steinberg’s points above – answering specific questions or explaining the assignment is autonomy support. Strike two.

    In fact, the only concrete support I could find for parents’ hands-on helping with homework is from a 2011 study of a structured intervention called Teachers Involve Parents in Schoolwork (TIPS). The program, tested at four urban elementary schools in which 70% of students qualified for free or reduced lunch, included a weekly assignment with “specific instructions for students to involve a family partner in a discussion, interview, experiment, or other interaction.”

    Completion rates, attitudes about homework, and test scores all went up. But what is TIPS, really? Their discussion calls the program a “homework intervention designed to ease some homework tensions between students and families.” Rather than an adult sitting at a child’s shoulder and playing the role of teacher, TIPS asks students to proactively involve adults, much like a reporter interviewing an adult subject (who comes to expect, check up on, and sign the completion slip for this weekly project).

    It’s “autonomy support” and Steinberg’s third point – composed of thoughtfully designed assignments that compartmentalize a student’s autonomy and a parent’s involvement. It was also the third strike against involved, teacher-like helping.

    I still want to help. I still want Leif to succeed. And after this weekend, as hard as it is, I know what that has to look like. For daily assignments, I need to lovingly provide support for autonomy and then get the heck out of the room. And next science fair, I need to provide the time, cardboard, scissors and duct tape – and see what happens.


    In helping kids with projects or homework, it's very easy to provide excessive guidance or none at all, and many guardians are like electrons: they follow the path of least resistance.

    Striking the right balance is a craft known as teaching. But the most difficult thing to teach is an open ended project.
    Correlation is not the same as causation. Perhaps more parent involvement is associated with kids who are already struggling while students who are independent learners are well ...independent. One of the best indicators for success in middle and high school is parental involvement. I think there is a difference between doing for and providing support. Doing homework is helpful only if it increases your child's understanding. That will only happen if they do the actual work. Homework is in and of itself a fairly ineffective teaching tool. It is best used as a means to practice an already acquired skill but it can be an opportunity to help your child learn if you are capable of providing appropriate support.. So much depends on your individual child's needs. But a project that is all about creativity is something that a parent should stay out of.

    Gerhard Adam
    Well, it seems obvious that much depends on the circumstances, but it also presumes that the homework is appropriate and actually conducive to being "figured out" and result in learning.  In far too many instances, the student simply isn't prepared to handle the homework assignment which invariably results in frustration or worse, the loss of confidence.

    While my experience is strictly anecdotal, I would argue that the best approach is to spend as much time consistently helping the student, explaining over again, and assisting in whatever way helps to bolster confidence.  When people learn, invariably they would prefer to do it themselves, but they aren't likely to make a reasonable attempt without a reasonable level of confidence.  Once that is attained, then they truly are prepared to take on the homework by themselves.

    Since few teachers or classrooms are prepared to actually let people "learn", the sheer volume of homework can often become discouraging and lead to additional failure.  In my personal experiences, this has often resulted in kids having misunderstood or completely missed the basics which they need later.  So, I don't think there's anything wrong with helping frequently, consistently, and to whatever extent makes the most sense.  After all, if your child is actually sitting with you for the whole period of time that you're involved, this is precisely how learning actually does occur.

    I don't know where people ever got the idea that learning is something that one does by themselves.  That almost NEVER happens.  You always depend on a mentor to show you what to do, and in that fashion you teach study habits, and persistence to achieve.  We would still be living in caves, if it weren't for adults and senior members of our society consistently and repeatedly teaching younger people how to do things.

    By being with a parent or someone that can begin to generate motivation, then you eventually have the chance to have a motivated student that is prepared to extend themselves outside of what's required.  I don't want my kids to "figure out" relativity.  That's already been done.  I want them to be motivated to go beyond that, and that isn't going to happen if I leave them stranded in trying to "figure out" the basics.

    As usual, your mileage may vary.
    Mundus vult decipi
    I don't want my kids to "figure out" relativity.  That's already been done.  I want them to be motivated to go beyond that, and that isn't going to happen if I leave them stranded in trying to "figure out" the basics.
    You're very right about that, Gerhard. Too bad some pedagogical theorists haven't figured that out yet!
    Stop thinking your child is an extension of yourself. He is a separate person with a future of his own choosing. HELPING your kids is detrimental on many levels besides homework. Parenting is about working yourself out of a job. Let them make mistakes (and learn from them) while they are young when the consequences are minimal. Taking all the rocks out of their road is NOT good for them. Don't rob them of the joy of discovering how to crawl over, go around, move, or cope with the obstacles of life. You do want your child to grow up into an independent, problem-solving, self-motivated adult, right?

    Gerhard Adam
    You do want your child to grow up into an independent, problem-solving, self-motivated adult, right?
    While that is certainly admirable, reality suggests that this rarely occurs, since many that proclaim themselves to be "independent" and "self-motivated" aren't.
    Mundus vult decipi
    ...since many that proclaim themselves to be "independent" and "self-motivated" aren't.
    I don't think anyone can entirely be "self-motivated". As social beings, we're part of an intricate web, so there's always a social contribution to what seems like motivation "from within".
    If you don't have a kid your raising, you can't really respond to this....I raised 3, of which 2 have their own businesses in creative fields, and the youngest is a computer geek. The most important thing you can teach a child is that there are consequences for all behavior, good or bad. When parents "take over" and prevent the natural consequences of not studying, not doing required reading, or not listening in class, then the masquerade begins. "Covering up" rather than suffering consequences, only delays any help. Better to uncover any problems early on. Talk to the teacher and find out what is going on. Don't wait until the problem has grown even larger.

    The are not many "quick fixes" as a parent. Take the long view. Don't coddle them for the short-term benefit of your ego. Life is not fair so prepare them to cope with difficult bosses, cranky neighbors and reality.

    Gerhard Adam
    What you're talking about is not parenting, teaching, or helping.  When you use phrases like "cover up" then even the most apologetic parent must recognize that no one can learn if they don't actually do the work.

    My point is that it doesn't have to only be divided between those two extremes.  There is a great deal of time that can be spent helping someone learn without "taking over" the assignment, nor is it necessary to leave them to flounder.

    Of course, "suffering the consequences" is always the mantra of those that don't actually have to deal with such a problem.  My involvement is often helping other kids [not my own] that have been left to their own devices for years and now the "consequences" are catching up with them.  Guess what?  It solves nothing.

    The point is to avoid such consequences and despite your comments, I seriously doubt that you would simply let serious consequences occur without some attempt to help or intervene.  After all, the consequences of failing to do work in school, or to learn is failing the grade.  If this persists, then inevitably it will result in increased frustration and a higher likelihood that the child will drop out of school when possible.  This is further exacerbated by ensuring that this person is "turned off" from learning anything else in the future.

    How exactly do these "consequences" help in any way?
    Mundus vult decipi
    In this article, the author is a highly educated, motivated parent, with a bright child. The concern is the effects of "helicopter" parenting, "describes parents who attempt to sweep all obstacles out of the paths of their children. It is also called "overparenting". "Some college professors and administrators are now referring to "Lawnmower parents" to describe mothers and fathers who attempt to smooth out and mow down all obstacles, to the extent that they may even attempt to interfere at their children's workplaces, regarding salaries and promotions, after they have graduated from college and are supposedly living on their own. (Quotes are from Wiki)

    Your kids are NOT in this group. Any child who has little or no parent involvement, does not have the "over-parenting problem" of an over-the-top science project for a 5 year old!! This article is about what happens when the pendulum swings too far into the area of "over-parenting". Does it have consequences? Yes, it does. Like the kids you are helping who are at the other end of the pendulum, with little meaningful parent involvement, there are also consequences. Kudos to you for helping kids who suffer the consequences of no parenting.

    My discussion about allowing kids to suffer consequences of their own decisions, esp. as it applies to school work. The kid gets a low grade on a test, the "normal" parent goes to the teacher to ask what is going on, only to find out their child is busy talking in class, not doing homework assignments, etc. The "normal" parent would have a discussion with their child about changing their behavior in class, create better communication about homework assignments, etc. In general, "supporting" their child's learning process, while instilling more respect for teachers and importance of education.

    Meanwhile, the helicopter parent would say to the teacher that "test wasn't fair", my child needs to be re-tested or be given more time, accusing the teacher of doing a bad job, etc. Notice how the parent is creating excuses for the child's behavior and removing any normal consequences for the kid's decisions. These kids grow up thinking, "I can do anything I want and my parents will cover up / clean up/ fix up the impending result."

    Garth Sundem
    Thanks, Anonymous, for your thoughtful comments! Consider registering? We tend to have likewise civil conversations around here and could use your voice. Cheers.

    Garth Sundem, TED speaker, Wipeout loser and author of Brain Trust

    Gerhard Adam
    Yes, you make some good points.  I would add one more wrinkle to this, and consider the parents that are pushing for "over-achievement".  These are the ones where they talk about how "active" their child is while they outline a schedule that would make any celebrity insane.

    I find that there are many cases of where these kids are perpetually on the edge [if not over] of burn-out because they are committed to all manner of extra-curricular activities and then still expected to excel academically.  While some may succeed in doing this, it is difficult to sustain for anyone.

    In many cases, these are the parents that are doing the interventions you describe, because any obstacle to their child becoming a super-tasking "well-rounded" adult is viewed as an act of sabotage to reduce or eliminate future opportunities for their child's success. 

    Basically I'm just saying that learning isn't possible if you don't actually have time to absorb anything because you're too busy.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Garth Sundem
    My wife had a sixth-grader who did year-round, after school harp, ballet, and gymnastics -- and was absolute top of the class in conscientiousness and test scores. By ninth grade she was in the alternative high school, and then she failed to graduate.

    Garth Sundem, TED speaker, Wipeout loser and author of Brain Trust

    Yes, I agree completely with your comments about "over-achievement" parents. And since the original article was about a kindergarten, I want to segue into the topic of "forest kindergarten" which is a educational movement started in Europe. Please wiki "forest kindergarten" to see another educational system that stimulates creative play using the child's imagination rather than a toy designer's static functionality.

    Another very important activity in kindergarten should be the teaching of how to interact with others, practical opportunities to be empathetic, sharing, learning to be honest and kind, and personal responsibility that will naturally boost self-esteem. Even a highly educated society will not be very beneficial to the human race without these qualities.