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Everything Bad About Homework is Good

a student feeling frustrated by their homework

Think of all the things you don’t like about homework: it’s hard, it’s time-consuming, it’s annoying, it’s boring.

All of these supposedly bad things are actually good.

Don’t believe me?

Let’s break it down.

Homework is Hard

Good. It’s supposed to be hard. Doing challenging mental work makes you smarter. It exercises your brain muscles.

Homework is Time-Consuming

Good. Putting in time to learn something or master a skill is one way to convince your brain to care about it, which is essential for memory formation. If you don’t put in time at home, you probably won’t retain what you learned at school.

Homework is Annoying

Good. That’s mental toughness training. It builds up mental calluses. It prepares you to do annoying things you actually care about, like doing the taxes for your side hustle or editing a video for your YouTube channel.

Homework is Boring

Good. In the modern world, people don’t experience enough boredom; we expect to be constantly entertained. Thus, when we have to do something boring or deal with a boring situation, we give up or have a meltdown. Homework is a way to regularly practice dealing with boredom.

Homework is Training for Life

I sincerely hope you do something meaningful with your life – work that you care about, work that you enjoy, work that matters.

But even if you get to spend your life on a career you love, there will be challenges. You will struggle. Projects will take longer than you’d like. Some aspects of the work will be annoying. Some aspects will be boring. These challenges also arise in the pursuit of athletic or artistic excellence, home ownership, marriage, and raising kids.

So the next time you sit down to do your homework, remember that it’s not just a way to earn points, and it’s not just preparing you for next week’s test – it’s also preparing you for life.

How to Learn Slippery Concepts

a slippery, wet frog

Some ideas are just plain slippery. Like a wet frog, they’re hard to grasp and even harder to hold onto.

In other words, some of the things you try to learn will be difficult to understand and difficult to remember. They’re more likely to “slip” from your mind.

Classic examples of slippery concepts include: dividing fractions, properly using semicolons, completing the square, indirect object pronouns, naming ionic compounds, irregular preterite conjugations, the French Revolution, the steps of mitosis, and long division.

The things that are slippery for you might be different than the things that are slippery for another student, but the strategies for making them less slippery are the same.

How to Make Slippery Concepts Stick

The first thing you must do is write.

If all you’re doing is looking at the concept or listening to the teacher explain it, you’re not doing enough. That’s like trying to grab a greased-up grapefruit with just your thumb and pinky finger – it’s going to slip out of your grasp. You should use your whole hand. Heck, you can even use two hands.

So take notes, not in order to have a reference to look at later, but because making written product leads to greater understanding and memory.

a student taking notes

The second strategy is to hook the slippery concept onto something familiar. Connect it to something you already know. Draw an analogy between the idea and a related or similar idea. This helps the concept make more sense, which is essential because confusing things are harder to remember.

Now, it’s not necessarily your job to come up with these connections. If your teacher doesn’t provide them, look to other resources. Educational YouTube videos, like Crash Course, often do a great job relating new concepts to old concepts or explaining things via metaphor. Tutors and good textbooks do this too.

The third strategy is to use a memory trick or pneumonic device to make the slippery concept easier to grasp. Songs like the preterite irregulars song affix the slippery concept to a catchy tune, making it easier to remember. Acronyms like PMAT (the steps of mitosis: prophase, metaphase, anaphase, telophase) give you something firm to grab onto. For learning biology, no one does this better than The Amoeba Sisters.

More, More, More

I often describe learning as “walking the mastery path,” and explain the phenomenon of forgetting by pointing out that the mastery path is a muddy slope:

For a slippery concept, the slope is steeper and muddier. Making it to the “I get it!” milestone takes more focus, and forgetting happens more quickly if you don’t revisit the idea soon.

If you already have good study practices that work for you, the answer is to simply do more. To get far enough up the hill that you won’t slip back down requires more repetitions, done more frequently. If you can normally create a long-term memory of a concept with three extra repetitions in a week, try doubling that for slippery concepts. If you can normally wait 24 hours before needing to rescue the memory from being lost, try revisiting the idea within six hours. Test yourself early and often.

There’s Nothing Wrong With You

When something is difficult to understand or remember, it doesn’t mean you’re not smart enough to learn it. It just happens to be a slippery concept for you. If the strategies that usually work for you aren’t working, try different ones. If the amount of studying that usually works for you isn’t working, do more.

With the right resources and enough effort you truly can learn anything.

How to Help Your Kid Become a Better Writer

A student writing

In one of the live Q&A sessions from our parenting for academic success course, two parents brought up a similar issue:

“My kid (middle school) gets 100% on his writing assignments even though they’re not very good. He believes his writing is great because it’s getting 100% percent. How can I show him that he needs to improve?”

“My kid’s language arts teacher doesn’t read or grade their writing – they just have peers read it and give feedback. I know their writing isn’t very good, but they’re not getting any adult feedback about how to improve. They think their writing is fine because they’ve never been told otherwise. What can I do?”

A Common Struggle

Writing is one of the most important skills you learn in school. No matter what career you wind up in, you’re going to need to be able to write clearly. And too often kids don’t receive good writing instruction, good reading materials that model effective writing, and – most commonly – they don’t get constructive feedback from teachers.

When a student is motivated to learn how to become a better writer, they’re happy to let me review their writing and get ideas for how to improve. They might even be eager to practice writing in order to build their skills. And if they don’t know why they’re getting low grades on papers, I encourage them to ask their teacher for better feedback. This might require an after-school meeting, but the one-on-one attention is extremely valuable.

But what about kids who aren’t motivated to improve, like the children mentioned earlier?

How to Help Your Kid Become a Better Writer When They Don’t Think They Need To

Here’s what I suggested to those parents:

First of all, don’t read their story/essay and pick it apart like an editor. Don’t highlight all the things they did wrong and admonish them to put more effort into their writing. Don’t insist on reading their papers before they turn them in. These behaviors will only do two things: trigger resistance and make them hate writing.

an adult looking critically at some writing

Instead, be curious about their work the way you might be curious about a story written by a second grader. At that age, we’re just happy they wrote something at all, and we express excitement to read their creation. We ask questions about what they’re saying – about the characters, the plot, the ideas. We don’t criticize them for misspelling words or forgetting a comma.

Ask to Read Their Writing

Ask to read what they wrote, out of pure curiosity – because you’re interested in the topic. (This might require a bit of acting.)

Also, it has to be okay if they say “no.” If you’ve been critical of their writing in the past, they might not be comfortable having you read it. If you have a two-parent household, let the parent they’re most comfortable with take the lead on this. If Dad’s always criticizing their writing, Mom should be the one to ask to read their paper.

Be Curious, Not Critical

If you get permission to read the paper, remember that you’re not playing editor. Oh, you’ll notice things – misused words, grammar errors, ambiguous sentences, etc. – but don’t point them out! We’re going for curious not critical.

a curious kitten

Instead, pick a line from the paper that’s genuinely confusing, something where you’re not sure what they mean and ask about it:

“Hey, when you said ______________ I got a little confused. What were you trying to say?” (Note that you’re not saying their writing was confusing; you’re saying that you got confused.)

As long as your tone is uncritical and genuinely curious, they’ll probably reply by explaining what they meant:

“Oh, I was saying that ______________.”

Then you can paraphrase that back to them using clearer language:

“Ah, I understand. So you were saying ______________.”

“Right.”

Helpful Feedback Without Defensiveness

This process lets them know that their writing was unclear and lets them hear how another person might have expressed the idea more clearly, all without triggering defensiveness because it wasn’t under the guise of criticism.

They’re not being judged. They’re not being given instruction. You’re not asking them to rewrite their paper. You’re only asking because you want to make sure you understand their ideas.

a parent and child looking at writing together

If they respond well to this interaction, you might do it once more after a few more minutes of reading. But please don’t bring up every instance where their writing wasn’t great. They’ll see right through you. They’ll disengage or get defensive, and you’ll never get to try this tactic again. Of the dozen or so errors and ambiguities you find in their paper, limit yourself to asking about one or two.

Encouraging Greater Depth

This approach would also allow you to encourage your child to write and think in greater depth.

The traditional approach is to ask them probing questions about their ideas or outright tell them that they only scratched the surface. This will, of course, generate resistance, so another approach is called for.

Instead, mention some part of the paper/story, and say, “This is interesting … It makes me wonder why that is” or “It makes me think of __________.”

This method allows the student to hear opportunities for greater depth without feeling criticized.

Also Comment on the Good

The goal here is to motivate them to improve their writing, and you don’t do that by making them feel like a terrible writer. You want them to see how they have room to grow without making them feel bad about themselves.

So find things to comment on positively. “Oooh, I didn’t know that.” Or “That’s a very interesting observation.”

Do this before, between, and after any clarifying questions you ask. Mention the positive more often than you mention the confusing.

Don’t fake it. Find something genuinely interesting or well thought out and mention it. And don’t exaggerate. Kids usually see right through overblown praise, and even if they don’t, it’s bad for their self-esteem.

The Curious Editor

Maybe (I said maybe) after doing this a few times, they’ll realize that they’d like your input before they turn in their essay, at which point you get to play editor.

But you’ll only get to continue playing editor if you keep the same light, curious tone that you used before. Don’t be hypercritical. Don’t expect college-level writing from a 10th grader. Your kid might be in Honors English, but they don’t write for The New Yorker.

More likely – and more importantly – they’ll start to see the need to become their own curious editor. They’ll get better at noticing the shortcomings in their own writing. They’ll think more carefully about what they’re really trying to say and make an effort to express themselves more clearly. And that, in the end, is how they become a better writer.