Whilst research and projects seem like ideal homework tasks to cultivate independent learners, inevitably they become tasks for parents, and if the parent isn’t able to offer assistance, the student suffers greatly.

I argued in a past post that homework should primarily be used to consolidate understanding of already taught content. The premise was that, because there is so much content taught and at such a fast pace, that quite often students are not as secure in their knowledge of concepts and ideas as they could or should be, and this impacts on new learning – they simply haven’t had enough opportunity to practice to make permanent. By designing homework tasks that attempt to equip students with other skills, such as research and independent inquiry, not only do we miss the chance to help students develop understanding of what’s already been taught, but we also run the very real risk of setting up the context where students have to outsource their learning.

There is simply nothing more frustrating to me than when I see my daughter given homework tasks that require her to find/research the relevant knowledge from the internet in order to then do something with it. The reality is that such open ended tasks ultimately result in two things:

  • she becomes exhausted by the research element, which becomes a rabbit hole, and is then content with copying and pasting what she has found as a final product – the hour spent ‘feels’ like work has been done.
  • I end up having to teach her the necessary knowledge for her to actually complete the intended learning in the task.

At the end of a long working day, I am certainly displeased when this happens. What’s worse is that my daughter won’t come to me either – I have to enquire about where her homework is up to, which makes me even madder because there are assignments that I am missing that she is not scoring/learning well in, and it’s so frustrating because I know it’s got nothing to do with her intelligence or her motivation. The irony of my daughter becoming a statistic of the Matthew effect is too much to bear.

The good intentions of developing an independent learner by encouraging research skills are not enough. Such a strategy simply misses the mark. The other day she had to research the history of nuclear power as part of an assignment about its advantages and its disadvantages. It was a difficult proposition for a grade 9 student, with an internet search producing thousands of references. She had no idea where to start, and less chance of efficiently curating a short list of relevant grade 9 level sources, comprehending and then paraphrasing them to suit the assignment, which was to deliver a speech outlining her position.

I’m sure you can guess the outcome of me enquiring about the project. In order to make the learning about nuclear power have any sort of meaning to her, I had to become the teacher. I then had to teach her how to write a speech and then how to deliver it, two things the homework should have been more about. How I absolutely know the task was inappropriate is that together we took about 3 hours simply doing the research, in which I, as a novice like my daughter, had to learn about nuclear power. After an hour, she was completely over it, and couldn’t have cared any less about Oppenheimer and the like.

Did she learn from observing me in the research process? Not really, as most of the links I found contained information that was too complex, and/or had vocabulary and sentence structuring etc well beyond her level. If she had more knowledge in all of these fields, then the task may have benefitted her. The reality is that spending such a long time trying to find a site that suits is terribly inefficient.

Do you have a similar experience? Have you had to do most of your child’s homework?

Research type projects as homework for high school students just don’t work. My daughter would benefit significantly more from using her time in homework that is designed to consolidate what has been taught in class, so that knowledge has a greater chance of becoming permanent in the long term memory. 20 – 30 minute tasks that focus on consolidation and retrieval would better equip her to deepen her knowledge, which she could then, and only then use to explore topics in a more meaningful way.

I’m Paul Moss. I’m a learning designer at The University of Adelaide. I’m on Twitter too


  1. Research is critical. Knowing that, we have got to make it part of the teaching process. Why not do it with them for the initial experience—a think-aloud type thing? I still struggle with narrowing resources after decades. Thanks for this invaluable perspective as a parent and a teacher. Having said this, and it certainly doesn’t obviate the need for instruction, SweetSearch does cull some for students.


    1. Thanks for replying. I think a very scaffolded process may work, where students only had a small selection of sites and the teacher modelled how those sites were evaluated for use. But when topics are quite general, just sending students to the internet is really inefficient for the reasons I state in the post. What is SweetSearch?


      1. Sweetsearch.com bills itself as a “search engine for students.” I’ve had my students use it, after introducing research pretty much the way you describe it, for historical fiction pieces. (I hope the hyperlink works.)


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