The transition to junior high school can be challenging for many students, but particularly for those with learning difficulties.
Moving from a single classroom and a teacher they know well, these students now face several different teachers whose teaching styles and class requirements vary greatly. Low-achieving students are most at risk for adjustment and academic problems.
Billie Eilam, University of Haifa, Israel, observed and interviewed students and teachers to identify the obstacles related to homework that these students experience. After identifying the problems, Eilam designed a curriculum to address them. She implemented it during summer school with students entering seventh grade the following fall.
Difficulties performing homework
The goal of the first part of the study was to identify the obstacles that students encountered with their homework. Observations and interviews revealed that students had problems in three areas: recording homework assignments, initial organization of the tasks, and making sense of the assignment.
First, students with learning difficulties often failed to recognize a homework announcement when it was made. When they were aware of the announcement, they recorded the assignment randomly — on any empty space. These students often had difficulty accurately recording all the information within the time allowed by the teacher.
Students had the most difficulty with non-textbook assignments. Eilam suggests that these students may have attention or memory problems, difficulty writing quickly enough to get all the critical information recorded in the time allowed, or problems holding information in their working memory.
Students were frequently unable to locate their record of the assignment and often could not meet assignment deadlines. While many were able to complete the simplest textbook tasks, they seemed unaware of resources available to tackle the more difficult and less structured tasks.
These students also had difficulty making sense of an assignment. They had trouble understanding the meaning of what the teacher said and were unable to rephrase the assignment in their own words. They were not able to identify the central theme or highlight the key issue. They did not understand a variety of question formats or recognize different types of questions that facilitate the search for a solution, and they were unable to select an appropriate reading strategy — for example, skimming versus deep text reading.
Devloping homework skills in summer school
Eilam developed a curriculum unit for teaching students skills and strategies for overcoming these homework difficulties. Fifty-six academically challenged students being integrated into heterogeneous junior-high classrooms were required to attend a summer school program for two weeks (thirteen sevenhour days).
The program aimed to improve their ability to cope with the demanding new learning environment, fast-paced instruction and the need for self-regulated learning both in class and at home. The academic content of the program focused on language and mathematics as well as a detailed orientation to the school staff, facilities, routines, school practices and learning activities (homework assignments, class discussions, note taking, exams). Homework strategies were taught one to two hours per day.
Students were divided into four classes with similar academic and social characteristics. These students showed a striking deficit in the skills and strategies necessary to manage homework assignments in junior high school. The curriculum included training in skills for recording, accessing, organizing and making sense of homework assignments. This intervention resulted in a significant improvement in the management and basic comprehension of homework tasks, and made the participants as adept at these tasks as academically excellent students entering the same school.
The students were tested immediately after the summer school class and again three months later. No decline in skills was seen after three months, demonstrating the lasting effectiveness of Eilam’s homework intervention.
At the start of this project, Eilam and colleagues were surprised by the overpowering influence of low-order skill deficits in these students. These students seemed unable to take advantage of the help teachers offered. These low achievers lacked not only knowledge, but the cognitive tools to help them learn meaningfully and make sense of information. The goal of the intervention was to increase students’ effectiveness as learners — to enable them to acquire the skills and motivation to become more involved in their schoolwork.
Despite the brevity of the summer school program, these low-achieving students had no trouble mastering the basic tools its curriculum provided. Eilam states that these findings highlight the need for teachers to be aware of the kinds of problems students with learning difficulties face with their homework assignments.
Eilam concludes that low-achieving students need explicit instruction in how to approach their homework.
“Primary Strategies for Promoting Homework Performance” American Educational Research Journal Volume 38, Number 3, Fall 2001 Pp. 691-725.
Published in ERN February 2002 Volume 15 Number 2