cindy hovington

The brain of an early elementary school student is not ready for homework

Written by Cindy Hovington, Ph.D. in Neuroscience and Founder of

Montreal, Canada

There is an ongoing debate regarding whether homework contributes to student’s academic achievement. Here in Montreal, some schools are “banning” homework, following in the footsteps of world leaders in education such as Finland, whose students also have very little homework. Homework gets a lot of heat online, with some headlines reading “Is homework bad for kids?”, “Kids get 3 times too much homework” and “Does homework help or hinder learning?”.

After reading articles in education and peeking into some topics in neuroscience (brain science), I realized that perhaps we were misplacing our attention. What we really need to focus on is helping young children build their learning-related skills (brain-related skills/cognitive skills) in order to better prepare them for homework.

Homework helps students get better grades only as of late elementary school.

The majority of research studies suggest that doing homework regularly can help a student get better grades (Zimmerman and Kitsantas, 2005). However, it appears that homework given to younger children in lower elementary school levels may not be as beneficial (Cooper et al. 2006, Review of Educational Research). It seems that certain brain-related skills are often not developed enough in these younger students. This can hinder a child’s ability to successfully do homework and prevent them from developing positive behaviour towards homework as well. Underdeveloped skills in early elementary can lead to some students having to spend too much time doing homework, and this can lead to a risky path such as a child losing academic confidence, feeling that they “are not smart enough” or consequently losing motivation in school.

Parental involvement during early elementary is also crucial in helping children build a positive relationship with homework. With younger children, researchers found that parents tend to pay more attention to whether their child is advanced or lagging on a specific subject (i.e. math). This is in comparison to older students who are more independent during homework and a parent’s role is to review homework or help when their child requests it. Research has shown that when a child perceives a parent as being positively involved in their homework, they develop stronger internal motivation, which also promotes school success.

It is recommend that parents try to be aware of the following 4 qualities when doing homework with their child (Pomerantz et al. 2005, 2007):

1.     Autonomy support vs. control: Are you supporting your child in developing their own schedules for doing homework vs. are you making decisions without your child’s input.

2.     Process vs. person focus: Are you helping your child focus on the process of mastering the school work vs. are you emphasizing achievement.

3.     Positive vs. negative affect: Are you establishing a sense of connectedness with your child by maintaining positive affect (positive emotions and expression such as cheerfulness and enthusiasm) and intrinsic motivation (not using external rewards such as offering a gift or a candy if they complete their homework) vs. are you being hostile and critical when checking your child’s homework.

4.     Positive vs. negative beliefs about children’s potential: Are you trusting your child’s capabilities to do well vs. are you focusing on them avoiding complete failure.

The environment also plays a large role in helping a child succeed with homework. Distractions such as television, siblings, or parents talking or arguing around them can have a negative impact. Create a peaceful environment when your young child is doing homework (as much as possible!). Include them in creating a homework schedule. Ask them when they prefer doing homework and which assignment they would prefer to start with. Also, don’t forget to let them take breaks! A child’s ability to stay focused is about their age in minutes (for more information on this click here to read an article). If you are doing homework with a 7 year old and you notice they are not as focused after 10 minutes, let them get up and move around. You also don’t have to stay seated to do homework. They can stand at the table or sit on an exercise ball.

Learning-related skills that are still developing in early elementary school.

Homework, requires certain learning-related skills; skills that neuroscience research suggest are often weaker in early elementary school students since they are still being developed. Children are not born with these skills. The environment we create for them will encourage the development of these cognitive skills. Skills such as executive functions, self-regulation, intrinsic motivation and metacognitive skills.

Without taking the time to develop these skills, their can be consequences in their academic success later on. For instance, between the ages of 7 and 14 years old, those who scored more poorly on working memory tests (part of executive functions) scored below average on English, mathematics and Science national exams (Jarvis and Gathercole, 2003).

Here are the descriptions of brain related skills that are often under-developed in young elementary school students:

1.     Self-regulation is a skill that allows a child to regulate their emotions and behaviour during challenging situations.

2.     Executive functions are mental skills that include working memory, flexible thinking and self-control. According to the Harvard University Center for Child Development, each are defined as:

·      Working memory governs our ability to retain and manipulate distinct pieces of information over short periods of time.

·      Mental flexibility helps us to sustain or shift attention in response to different demands or to apply different rules in different settings.

·      Self-control enables us to set priorities and resist impulsive actions or responses.

3.     Intrinsic motivation is when a child is driven by internal reward rather than external rewards. This skill can help a student perform well with their homework and succeed in school since they have the drive to so.

4.     Delayed-gratification is when a child delays or resists temptation for an immediate reward or for a later reward. In essence, it is about self-control and being patient and this is a skill that some argue is the most important trait a child can have that in turn, will help them throughout their academic and personal life.

If you are interested in learning how to help your child develop these skills, stay tuned for an upcoming article!

Kindergarten to grade 3 is the perfect time for students to work on building learning-related skills

Between kindergarten and grade 3, children should focus on practicing reading during evenings as well as spending quality time with their family with the intention of building important learning-related skills. Parents should receive guidance (stay tuned for our upcoming article on this topic) in terms of what to do in order to help their child develop these learning-related skills. For example, instead of doing homework for 20-30 min every night, families with younger children should play games, such as checkers, Go Fish, memory, Dr. Eureka or Uno, which can help children develop skills such as: longer attention spans, planning, critical thinking, learning to wait for their turn, motivation and more. Not to mention that spending quality time as a family helps a child build a stronger bond and can help develop their self-confidence.

While working privately with young children, I became aware of their struggle with homework , especially in early elementary. These young students are tired from long days at school, their attention spans are shorter during the evening, they want to play since they have been in school all day and their parents are tired from their work day as well. When a child begins school, we should be nurturing their curiosity, their love for learning and helping them develop the right learning-related skills that will contribute to their success as students!

Quizzing yourself before an exam can enhance your learning

Written by Cindy Hovington, Ph.D and founder of

Montreal, Canada

Studying for exams can be daunting for many students. They need to read a large amount of material in their textbooks, read over their class notes, try to figure out what they will be tested on and manage their time with other exams and homework. Some students use highlighters and highlight just about every sentence in their textbook, albeit with 4 different colours of course! Others take notes while they read and end up with almost as many pages as in the textbook. Most importantly, a large number of students will re-read their material over several times. Nonetheless, after long hours of studying (or cramming the night before for some), there are students who still feel unprepared or don’t remember what they studied. If exam anxiety is not a factor, then perhaps the student is not studying effectively. According to a research study by Jeffrey Karpicke (Memory, 2009), the majority of students are using the wrong study strategies and this impedes memory and learning.

The wrong way to study: Rereading material.

Studies have shown that repeatedly reading the same material as a study strategy is inefficient in terms of getting the information into long-term memory (learning). There is even a name for this type of studying in research. It is referred to as “labour-in-vain” learning and is defined as students who spend large amounts of time studying despite no gains in memory (Roediger & Karpicke. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2006). There is simply too much information to register into your memory when you study this way. Essentially, there are 3 steps to memory. Dr. Sonial Lupien provides a simple way to understand these steps. “You can think of the three stages of memory processing in the following way: encoding is like listening to songs, consolidation is like recording those songs (or burning a CD), and retrieval is like playing back the songs.” In education, practicing retrieval rather than encoding the same information repeatedly, has been shown to enhance learning.

The right way to study: Quizzing yourself.

According to research, a phenomenon called “The Testing Effect” (practicing retrieval) suggests that “taking a test enhances long-term retention more than spending an equivalent amount of time repeatedly studying” (Roediger & Karpicke. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2006). However, there is only one caveat to this “perfect way to study”. Research on the Testing Effect has also highlighted the fact that when students are asked to assess their own learning, they often lack the awareness (or metacognitive awareness) that testing themselves is a far better strategy than repeatedly reading the material (Karpicke, J. D., & Roediger. Science, 2008). In fact, students even predicted that repeatedly reading their textbook was a better study strategy than testing themselves. This is alarming to researchers because it suggests that even if teachers recommend this study strategy, students will not see the benefits and will stick to their usual study methods. This is also why small quizzes before an exam can also help with student retention.

Tips for teachers: Help students learn how to study and build their metacognitive skills.

If we as teachers hope to contribute to lifelong learning, then we must hose classroom methodologies, actions, and activities that improve thinking
— Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa, Making Classrooms Better

I love this quote from the book, Making Classrooms Better. Indeed, students need to be more conscious of their own thinking (how and why’s of ideas). This is referred to as metacognition (thinking about your thinking) and is an important factor in student achievement. Teachers can bring more awareness about learning and the brain, for instance, by discussing with their students the importance of practicing retrieval rather than encoding. Studies that suggested the importance of practicing retrieval stressed the fact that students needed stronger metacognitive skills to have a deeper understanding of the importance of this study strategy. Here are some tips from Donna Wilson on how teachers help their students build metacognitive skills.

Talk about metacognition with your students and guide them as to how to develop this skill. For instance, after reading a paragraph or section of their textbook, have your students question themselves about the concepts and material discussed in the paragraph. Self-questioning is a common metacognitive comprehension monitoring strategy (Livingston 2003). If a student can’t answer their own questions, have them read over the paragraph to determine what they need to understand in order to answer their question. Incorporate “think aloud” activities in your class. If you assign a long-term project for students, ask them to find a partner and outline the steps needed to complete the project out loud (from start to finish) and outline the goals they have for this project (what they need to learn). They can even record themselves as they think aloud. You can also do this to “think through problems”. Helping students develop metacognitive skills falls under a student-centered approach to learning, which customizes learning to each student and helps build their confidence and motivation. Lastly, guide students on how to “set appropriate goals, how to track progress toward them, appropriately adjust learning strategies, and accurately assess learning outcomes” (Jobs for the Future). These are all skills that they need to be taught and will help build their executive function and metacognitive skills.

Share your experiences with us in the comments below! Your experiences can help other teachers as well! If you have any questions email us at

What type of "attitude" does your student have?

written by Cindy Hovington, Ph.d. Founder of


Your attitude has an influence on your effort. Teachers see it everyday in their classroom. "Student A" gets 65% on a math test and says, "I will never be good in math. I was born dumb in math!". "Student B" gets 65% on a math test and says, "I thought I studied well for this test, maybe I missed something." and asks their teacher to explain their mistakes. Both these students have different "attitudes" towards failure. As a result of their attitudes, they will study differently and this will pave the path for either success of failure. 


Which attitude does "Student A" have?

Entity attitude. A student with this type of attitude believes that they were born either "smart" or "not smart", and that it is fixed. These types of students do not respond well to errors. They need extra guidance and support to boost their motivation both in and out of the classroom. Even if they think they were born smart, they will not make an effort to do better. Teachers might struggle to get this type of student to go the "extra mile". The student who thinks they were born "not smart" might also have negative inner self-talk or exam anxiety. They might need more positive feedback on assignments and exams


Which attitude does "Student B" have?

Figure 1.

Figure 1.

Incremental attitide. As Dr. Carol Dweck describes in her book Mindset, a student with incremental attitude, or a "growth mindset", believes they can get more intelligent with effort and that their intelligence is not fixed. It is this type of student that will put in the time and effort and will also have greater success than the student with an entity attitude. As you can see in this graph from one of Dr. Dweck's studies,  incremental improvements in math grades can be seen in students with an incremental attitude.  


Science behind motivation and achievement in a nutshell.

Motivation is a complex subject in neuroscience. Motivation recruits brain areas involved in both emotions (limbic system) and thinking/ cognition (frontal lobe).This is why it has a great impact on student learning. Scientists are beginning to get a better understanding of the relationship between emotions, cognition and motivation. An article by Crocker et al. (2013) beautifully outlines this relationship in greater detail for those of you who are interested. In addition, studies have shown that a person places greater effort when they anticipate a positive outcome. If a student begins to anticipate a low grade on a test, especially while studying or writing a test, their effort will most likely be lower, which will in turn impact their level of thinking. Stay tuned for a future article on motivation, make sure your subscribe to our mailing list at the bottom of the page.


My advice: Bring these attitudes into a students awareness. 

“As students learn, these experiences shape the architecture of their brains. Therefore, abilities are not fixed but rather continuously developing. This plasticity enables students to overcome many learning challenges. ”
— Dr. Kurt Fischer, Harvard University

My experience with students has taught me that learning about their brain empowers them, regardless of their age. Learning that the brain is plastic (able to change its architecture through learning) is fascinating to students. One of my favourite quotes from Dr. Fischer, a world class researcher who used to be the Director of the Mind, Brain and Education department at Harvard University, is that as we learn, the architecture of our brain changes (see full quote).

In the Blackwell study (2007), they studied 7th graders and followed them for a period of 2 years to assess their "attitudes". Students who believed their intelligence is malleable (incremental attitude) had a steady increase in math grades over this 2 year period, whereas students who believed that intelligence if fixed had a slow decrease in math grades (see Figure 1 above). More importantly, researchers examined whether teaching students about these attitudes and how their brain functions could change their way of thinking. See figure 2 for details of the intervention. Indeed, this intervention promoted positive change in student attitude and motivation, strengthening the fact that we can change a students attitude.

Figure 2.

Figure 2.

Classroom Application.

Challenge your students to build something. For instance, give your students toothpicks and mini marshmallows and ask them (either individual or small groups) to build the tallest possible tower. However, set some sort of limit that will make it challenging and almost "impossible". For instance, ask them to build a tower that reaches a 4 foot mark (place some tape on the wall) and give them only 15 min. Within a few minutes you will start hearing them say, "THIS IS IMPOSSIBLE" or "I CAN'T DO THIS". Perfect, the activity worked!. Don't say a word!! After 15 min, hand out this worksheet or write out the questions on the board and discuss it with them (this worksheet might be more appropriate for younger students). How many gave up? What thoughts went through their mind? Did they change strategy?  Go back to discuss the activity. Did you ever set limits for what materials they could use? No! Stack some books or bins on the floor near your 4 foot mark, and build the smallest structure with your toothpicks and marshmallows! VOILA! What is the take home message from this activity...YOUR MINDSET IMPACTS YOUR EFFORT!!!

This coming school year, start the discussion on mindset with your students or do this activity early on. Place this Poster of Growth Mindset Questions to Ask in your classroom. Be mindful of the students and their attitudes as this will guide you on how to support them. If you need advice on how to do this, feel free to email me!

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