Parental Conflict and Learning

February 22nd, 2017

The brain is a funny thing. We use our brains constantly and don’t even think about it. We can walk, talk, solve math problems, and much more! But how did our brains learn that 5-3=2? Many of us learned through brute memorization and repetition that wore a neuron pathway in our brain until we could recall the fact easily. According to Anita Woolfolk, its because “the brain seeks meaningful patterns and connections with existing networks…” (Woolfolk, 2014, p. 46).

However, before you learned to subtract, you had to learn to count. Without the ability to count, learning to subtract would probably have been outside of your zone of proximal development. What is the zone of proximal development? “The zone of proximal development is a phase in which a child can master a task if given the proper support” (Woolfolk, 2014, p. 67). Your teacher was probably familiar with this theory by Lev Vygotsky. This theory helps teachers understand how to help students learn by providing them with support as they work to complete goals within their realm of achievement based on previous knowledge.

Strategies such as Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development are very helpful as teachers work with students to help them learn. However, there are often circumstances outside the classroom that can also affect students ability to learn, and it can sometimes be very difficult to see how these circumstances affect a student’s zone of proximal development and ability to learn. Urie Bronfenbrenner, a professor of psychology, introduced the idea of “context” as a way to understand how development and learning are shaped by factors surrounding a student.

Context is the “internal and external circumstances and situations that interact with the individual’s thoughts, feelings, and actions to shape development and learning” (Woolfolk, 2014, p. 86). To simplify, context acknowledges that students are a part of a bigger world around them and are affected by what goes on in their family, neighborhood, school, and world. One particular context I wanted to learn about was the role of a parent’s relationship, or lack thereof, in development. Thus, I studied a phenomenon that plagues almost half of students in today’s culture- divorce. My parents filed for divorce my junior year of high school, so this topic was of particular interest to me.

As I searched online for additional information regarding the effects of divorce on child development and found a great TedTalk by Professor Tamara Afifi. Professor Afifi discusses that there are many variables to how children cope with divorce and that children react differently. She suggests that the biggest factor of a parent’s relationship on a child is how parents, both married and divorced, handle conflict (Afifi, 2012).

Afifi conducted a studied that took saliva samples of children before and after talk about a stressful subject related to the parents’ marriage. The saliva sample were taken multiple times after the discussion and all saliva samples were tested to measure cortisol levels. Cortisol, the stress hormone, makes our heart rate increase by narrowing the arteries to our heart and raises our blood sugar levels. Parents that discussed in a competent, supportive, and affectionate way, children saw a slight increase in cortisol levels immediately after the conflict, but eventually returned to normal levels. Children of parents who were married and chronically fighting saw irregular patterns in cortisol and were unable to calm down and regulate their stress levels (Afifi, 2012). If you want to learn more about Professor Afifi’s work, the video is below.

For teachers, the book provides some helpful tips for ways to be sensitive to students who have parents with struggling relationship. Three strategies that I found the most helpful are (1) “Talk individually to students about their attitude or behavior changes, (2) Watch your language to avoid stereotypes about “happy” (two-parent) homes, and (3) Help students maintain self-esteem” (Woolfolk, 2014, p. 92).

In conclusion, it is not only important that teachers understand how the brain learns, but also how circumstances surrounding a student affect how the brain is learning.


Afifi, T.D. [TedxTalks].(2012, May, 20). The impact of divorce on children: Tamara D. Afifi at TEDxUCSB.

Woolfolk, A. (2014). Educational Psychology: Active Learning Edition. Pearson.


Research: Impacts on Teaching and Homework Practices

February 6th, 2017

For the past few weeks, my Educational Psychology class has been discussing the relationship between research and teaching. Often we don’t even think about the relationship, we just know that the two go hand in hand. However, teachers and schools can sometimes find themselves falling into routine practices instead of instituting policies based in empirical research. One of my biggest takeaways from this unit is that research can be used to inform educational policies and practices (NCTE). As one of my classmates remarked “Research provides the ‘why’ to the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ we teach in our classrooms”. Instituting research based policies could help teachers and administrators justify changes, practices, and even additional funding. Yet, often we see practices in education that lack a solid base of evidence. One of these practices is assigning students homework.

This conversation heightened when a note that a Mrs. Brandy Young sent home with students appeared on social media. Below is a picture of the note.

Dear Parents,  After much research this summer, I am trying something new. Homework will only consist of work that your student did not finish during the school day. There will be no formally assigned homework this year.  Research has been unable to prove that homework improves student performance. Rather, I ask that you spend your evenings doing things that are proven to correlate with student success. Eat dinner as a family, read together, play outside, and get your child to bed early.     Thanks,     Mrs. Brandy Young

Mrs. Brandy Young’s Homework Policy Note to Parents

This was an idea that was met well by some parents, and not so well by others. Yet, Mrs. Brandy Young may have had the correct idea. During the period of time that we discussed the pros and cons of homework in class, I engaged with quite a bit of research on the topic. Initially, I thought that more homework would improve student learning, however, after digging deeper into the topic, I was surprised by what I found.

The first article studied the relationship between a student’s attitude towards homework and their course outcomes. This study surveyed foreign language students, analyzed their final scores, and concluded that if the students perceived the homework as relevant, perceived the feedback as useful, and perceived the grading as fair, they were more likely to do well on course outcome (Chang et. al). Prior to reading this study I hadn’t considered how students attitude towards homework could impact performance.

The second article I found examined pre-existing research and reached the conclusion that “in nearly all circumstances, homework has a positive association with achievement and that this association is strongest and most positive at the secondary level” (Maltese et. al). This conclusion fit my initial stance, but I appreciated the authors clarifying that homework has the most positive effect on the secondary level.

The third article examined how well students performed on tests in the areas of English, math, science, and history. This study reached the conclusion that “we find that math homework has a large and statistically meaningful effect on math test scores throughout our sample. However, additional homework in science, English and history are shown to have little to no impact on their respective test scores” (Eren & Henderson). This contrasts sharply with the article by Maltese. However, in comparison to the article by Chang, one might call into question whether the homework administered in this study was viewed well by the student and was structured appropriately.

Lastly, the fourth article I found takes another perspective on the homework debate and analyzes whether or not students actually have a homework problem. This article analyzed time-use surveys from eight countries and reached the conclusions that American teens don’t necessarily have an excess of homework, but instead may have additional stress from all the other areas on which they spend their time (Zuzanek).

These articles challenged me to think about homework differently. As a future teacher in secondary education, I hope to implement small amounts of homework that relate directly to course outcomes. I would also like to take into account students personal situations and perhaps use a tiered model of homework- allowing students to choose from an array of assignments in order to fit their academic or time-use needs.



Chang, C. B., Wall, D., Tare, M., Golonka, E., & Vatz, K. (2014). Relationships of attitudes toward homework and time spent on homework to course outcomes: The case of foreign language learning. Journal of Educational Psychology, 106(4), 1049-1065.

Eren, Ozkan, & Henderson, Daniel J. (2011). Are We Wasting Our Children’s Time by Giving Them More Homework? Economics of Education Review, 30(5), 950-961.

Maltese, A. V., Tai, R. H., & Xitao, F. (2012). When is Homework Worth the Time? Evaluating the Association Between Homework and Achievement in High School Science and Math. High School Journal, 96(1), 52-72.

Understanding the Relationship between Research and Teaching. (2008). Retrieved February 06, 2017.

Zuzanek, J. (2009). Students’ Study Time and Their “Homework Problem”. Social Indicators Research, 93(1), 111-115.