Jan 26, 2010


One of the hottest areas of contention amongst teachers, parents and students is the role that homework plays (and should play) in the academic careers of American learners. Surprisingly, this debate has been raging for quite some time, and yet new opinions on the subject seem to spring up on a regular basis. Rarely, however, do we see the scientific approach taken when dealing with this hotly debated issue.

To move beyond the various attitudes and points of view surrounding homework, Countdown to College Radio host Beth Pickett interviewed Dr. Harris Cooper, Chair of the Department of Neuroscience and Psychology at Duke University, and author of the book The Battle Over Homework: Common Ground for Administrators, Teachers and Parents. Throughout the interview, Dr. Harris explains how his research and meta-data analyses showed a strong correlation between academic achievement and homework. This, however, does come with certain stipulations.

There is less success, for example, when homework is “overdone”. When a student feels tired and frustrated with an assignment, homework begins to lose its efficacy- essentially, more is not always better. Also, students may begin to identify themselves as “good” or “bad” students based on their ability to complete at-home assignments, both in terms of time spent and overall correctness.

Students should watch for signs of “burnout” and adjust their work schedules appropriately. Just like studying for a test all-night won’t necessarily equate to a better grade, grinding away on a difficult assignment won’t necessarily help you learn the material. Homework is practice, and while it is crucial to academic success, it should be treated like an afternoon at the batting cages, not the bottom of the ninth at the World Series.

Give yourself a chance to really complete an assignment. Working at home can be difficult due to a myriad of distractions- try to limit these as much as possible. If you devote a few blocks of time where you won’t have annoyances like television and background conversations to pull your attention, you’ll complete your daily work more quickly and more efficiently.

If you feel frustrated on a regular basis by assigned homework, do something about it! Try to pinpoint the cause- do you have a good space to work in? Is the material really difficult? Do you have other concerns, like a part-time job, eating away at your time? Talk to your teacher, talk to your boss, and talk to your parents. Odds are that if these interested parties can help, they will. You’ll still have to do your homework, but making it manageable should be a top priority. Don’t suffer- the worst thing you could do is nothing!

Jan 12, 2010

Build That Vocab

The digital age has expanded and evolved communication, and the average person is now expected to textually express themselves in many different forms every single day. Most of this writing is in non-formal bits and pieces that have been whittled down to the bare essentials for the expression of an idea, with text and instant messages leading the way in acronym-laced short-hand. This makes the importance of a wide vocabulary even more pronounced- not only are there more opportunities to throw in that $5 word, but with proper use, you could really make yourself stand out from the crowd. Choosing just the right word has benefits all over the place, whether you are writing a blog, taking the SAT, applying for a job, or merely just trying to sound like you know what you’re talking about.

Without a doubt, reading is your best friend when it comes to building up your word-repertoire. And if you’re reading this blog post, odds are you have an Internet connection at your disposal, which will make finding appropriate material simple. Start with a subject you find interesting and track down articles that delve into the complex issues and opinions that surround it- the establishment of an argument or point of view is often fertile ground for challenging words.

Another great way to build your vocabulary is by studying word roots, prefixes, and suffixes. For example, let’s take the word “pseudonym”. While you may not know the exact definition, you could pull out the root word “pseudo”, which means “false”. In context, it might then be possible to deduce the definition (“Samuel Clemens wrote under the pseudonym Mark Twain as a reference to riverboat terminology.”).

In terms of speed and volume, repetitive rote memorization is often the best method for vocabulary building, but if you are looking to have a little fun while you learn, gameslike crosswords or hangman are a good choice. Word-a-Day emails are also an easy source for word-knowledge.

And of course, don’t hesitate to look up the definition to any unknown word that you come across. Usually, this is as easy as typing it into a browser search box, but don’t forget that paper and binding dictionaries are just as effective if you don’t mind spending an extra ten seconds turning pages.

Jan 5, 2010

Escape Plan

James Cameron’s latest bonanza, the sci-fi epic “Avatar”, has sailed past the $1B mark for global box office ticket sales and now rests at fourth for all-time highest grossing movie ever. This feat of financial fortitude is a tell-tale sign of the power that “escapism” has on the human psyche.

Escapism is a psychological term used to describe a mental retreat from the reality of daily life, or a willing “immersion” into a fictional existence. A brief list of the various forms that escapism could take include: television, movies, art, literature, music, videogames, and simply browsing the Internet. Even activities that are completely natural, such as eating or sleeping, can be a form of escapism. While the term usually arouses a negative connotation, escapism is quite common and can be one component of a normal, healthy life. However, it is important to mention that some individuals could become addicted to their specific form of escapism , usually resulting in a refusal to acknowledge the real aspects of life, such as personal relationships, work, and health.

In a fascinating multi-blog series from Psychology Today, Norman Holland, Ph. D., explains escapism: “1) with literary works, even the humble comic book, we suspend disbelief; that is, 2) in order to comprehend, we believe; we have poetic faith; 3) we believing humans detect lies poorly, no better than by chance, and literature is a form of lying”, and finally, “we believe because we don't act on narratives we are perceiving.”

This final component is particularly interesting because, as Dr. Holland points out, “the primary business of any brain is to move its body-to act in relation to what that body and brain perceive.” We don’t, for example, duck and cover when we see a bomb falling to the ground and explode during a movie. We permit our brains to involve the self in the “unreality”, but only to a point.

Dr. Holland points out that the importance of this belief to the human psyche is similar to play- it is a simulation, rather than the full-blown experience, permitting some of the associated benefits (for example, the exhilaration of riding a giant dinosaur-like bird amongst floating mountains in “Avatar”) without the negative consequences (crashing).

There are a few things that can throw off this belief, with unrealistic effects being one of the most common diversions. This might, in part, explain the huge success of “Avatar”, which is presented in a new 3-D digital format that puts the audience even deeper into the story by making the images seem more real.

The next time you feel like sitting down with a good book or flipping on the TV, take a minute to analyze what’s going on in your head. You may be surprised by what you permit yourself to believe in, even if it’s for just a little while.