Monday, July 14, 2014

Homework - what amount and what value for adults learning a foreign language

Vicki Abeles is  the co-director and
producer of the
documentary "Race to Nowhere"
In a recent article on student stress Vicki Abeles, one of the members of the Race to Nowhere movement, recently described how her teenage daughter spent the last few weeks before finals in an anxiety-ridden state, suffering from the flu and allowing herself little sleep to keep up with constant studying. Having completed the finals, she was then glued to the the online site that would report the results of the standardized tests, on which her future academic career rested. As a mother, she asked herself: "Is this what childhood has come to?"

Abeles cites some worrying statistics:
  • teens report feeling stress levels even higher than what adults report
  • adolescent suicides have quadrupled in the last sixty years
  • eating disorders are rampant in teenagers
  • 10% of high school students said they used a "study drug" not prescribed by a doctor.
  • a vast majority of teenagers are sleep-deprived, getting at least two hours less sleep than recommended for their age.
Abeles is referring to American teenagers, but looking at her descriptions of the education of an American teenager, I cannot help but think the situation is even worse in Turkey. In particular, the issue of homework is one that keeps cropping up, with certain 'myths' that have led to more and more homework and less and less of a normal childhood. This short video clip about a 'new vision' for homework puts forward a number of common sense arguments for a rethink on how we educate for a better future.

This all relates to students going through elementary and secondary education in America, but it does seem to fit the Turkish educational experience. It would, in part, explain some of the attitudes of young adults who have made it through the Turkish university entrance exam and find themselves in an English Preparatory School to learn English in order to received English medium instruction at university. Tony Gurr, in his analysis of what needs to be improved in English Preparatory Schools, reports that students often refer to English Preparatory Schools as "Lise 5" -- basically an extension of their high school education. This view is not unsurprising, when one considers the approach to homework often mirrors exactly what happens in "Lise 4".

Surprisingly little has been done in terms of researching the benefits of homework in learning a foreign language with adult learners.  In one recent study, psychologists analyzed the attitudes of 2,342 American adults learning a foreign language toward assigned homework and time spent on assigned homework in relation to their achievement in their foreign language courses.  They found that there was a positive correlation between their ratings for the relevance of homework and the usefulness of feedback and achievement.  However, when they compared the actual time students spent on homework, they found that more time spent doing homework actually resulted in lower achievement.  More research needs to be done on this area, but the researchers speculated that spending more time on 'standardized' homework actually decreased the amount of time students could spend on their own individualized study to work on areas that were relevant to their learning needs.  One conclusion the researchers draw from these findings is that adult learners need to be allowed to work on their own individual language areas, rather than a 'one size fits all' type of homework assignment.  Of course, while it may not be realistic to expect teachers to design tailor-made study programmes for individual students, the common sense approach would be to train students to do this for themselves.  After all, who better knows their own language deficiencies and needs than the learner.  This is especially true of adult learners, who could benefit a lot if given the right support to exercise greater autonomy in deciding how best to complement their in-class learning outside the class.  It's just that they have come to expect the teacher to tell them what to do. But, with a bit of thought and persistence in guiding students to the path of more autonomy, it may reap huge benefits in the long term.

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