Too Much Homework and Cognitive Load Theory

I am so happy to be hosting my first guest post from the authors of Technology in Class. Technology in Class offers a wealth of information, not just on technology, but also on teaching strategies and education issues. They have a knack for finding lots of useful and interesting links as well.

I student taught at a nationally recognized high school for academic excellence.  The students are motivated, organized, and grade-driven.  Nothing wrong with that.
However, as I got to know the students, I saw how much they were working and how little they were sleeping. It was common for a student’s schedule to consist of a nap after school, homework, dinner, homework until 2:00 a.m., sleep, arise at 6:00 a.m., homework, breakfast, and commute. There is something wrong with that.
With all of that work, how much learning is short-term, and how much of it is long-term?  Were they developing higher-order thinking skills or just getting better at busy work and test-taking?
Research in cognitive load theory tells us that whatever we are learning in the short term needs to be connected to the long-term memory in order for the material to be stored.  When learning is all short-term and the long-term connection is not made, the learner will forget the material.
Instructors need to lighten the load on students’ short-term (a.k.a. “working”) memories.  Integrating multiple intelligences into a lesson is one way to give students’ working memories time to process and make the connection to long-term memory.  Assigning less busy work and more long-term projects is another way to facilitate long-term memory storage.

Busy work not only stifles creativity, but also overloads working memory.  It makes learning less effective and efficient.  Instead of assigning busy work, why not assign long-term projects and presentations where students construct knowledge?  In this way, they can stop whenever their working memory is overloaded.  They can come back to their project when their minds are fresh.  They don’t get a chance to do that with busy work.  It’s due tomorrow, whether their working memory is overloaded or not—whether learning takes place or not.

 -Technology in Class
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