How to ace your homework

Homework is the biggest time investment during school years. And after the school homework disappears. Or not? How can we ace homework? What can we do after school is over?

Why do the kids get homework?

Kids spend much less time at school than they do at home. Students spend more time at school than doing homework. Grown-ups have chores and moonlighting and kids, so we hardly have any time to do homework.

School teachers rely on homework quite heavily. Kids have to practice math and physics A LOT to get automatic and effortless with most math tasks. Literature and history teachers cannot cover all of the materials in class and need kids to read at home. Language teachers need the kids to memorize words in their own time.

In the university, there are lots of classes. So there are fewer homework tasks. Literature students write long essays two or three times per term, as writing an essay often takes several days. Math students need to practice, but they do not have to get automatic and effortless with computations. Computer students write short programs: it does not take long to write those.

At work, we take “homework” from clients and meetings into our quiet office spaces. Teachers have a lot of homework with their students. Programmers write code according to Jira. Businessmen build and fine-tune presentations. Yet this is not homework in the school’s sense: we do not need to acquire new skills for each task we handle. The things that apply to kids, in some sense also apply to the grownups.

Faster and better

The better we know the subject, the faster we can finish the homework. Then we complete all the homework we need and learn the subject better. This is a virtuous cycle.

If somehow the homework is not complete, there are gaps in our knowledge. We will start failing some tasks and spending too much time on other tasks. This will reduce our confidence, and slow us down further. We will work even harder with worse results. This is a vicious cycle.

Treat homework as a low-risk investment. Invest early, and use aggregated revenues. If there is a gap, close it as soon as you can. Otherwise, it will drain your budget. Time is money, especially if you need to pay for tutors.

Timing the homework

It is not recommended to do the homework the day you learn the subject, as it is not recommended to wait too long. Homework is a form of spaced repetition. It is best to do it the same week it was given, but not the same day.

The weekend is the likely candidate, especially the morning of the first day of the weekend. It might be hard to shake off the need to procrastinate. But what are the alternatives?

Usually, the morning of the first day of the weekend is the time to do the chores, and the evening is time to socialize. Then there is a hangover, and then we need to prepare for the next week one day or another.

During the weekdays in the evening, we might be too tired for the homework. And let us face it, not everyone is the morning type.

As you read faster and remember more, it gets easier to make all of the homework within a couple of hours.

Memory vs understanding

You kind of need both memory and understanding. To some degree, they complement each other. Understanding is usually retained over longer periods of time than just memorization, and can further be adapted to new situations.

When asked about the reasons for WWI, you can tell what you understand. But then you might have too few reasons for an exam. Alternatively, you may memorize a list, but then you will be asked to talk about one of the items in the list in great detail. So basically you need both memorization and understanding.

In math, you should be able to apply the theorems you learn. This means you can basically use the memory. But in more advanced classes you will be asked to prove new theorems. By then you should better understand how to prove things efficiently. Also, if you are off by a large amount, you should understand how to check that you made a mistake.

In short, you need both to understand the logic and to encode the key pieces of data.

To copy or not

Quite often we will be able to get some answers one way or another. After all, teachers tend to repeat themselves year after year. There is a strong temptation to copy.

If you can do the job quickly, it is best to do it. After all, you need practice.

In case of effort-intensive tasks or subjects you do not understand well, you can look for clues in the answers. Do not copy the answers directly, but let them guide you through. In any case, copying something without understanding it is risky.

So if you can find sources to copy from, do find them. Yet you should address them only after trying and failing to do the task on your own.

Speedreading pros and cons

You can definitely speedread some of the stuff you need to read. But not everything. Here are some limitations:

  • In math or physics, small mistakes in understanding the task (not the explanation) make you calculate the wrong values.
  • You cannot speedread languages you do not use fluently.
  • Do not speedread poetry. You will lose the fun of it.
  • If a subject is new for you, you need to create visual markers dictionary. Take it slowly at the beginning.

History and biology, business, and economy are great for speedreading provided you already encoded all the special words. If there are illustrations, they usually matter more than the text…

In all other cases, 90% of the time, do speedread.


Teachers ask to copy things from the board. When we copy we remember better. This has something to do with motoric memory and feedback mechanisms in the brain.

Furthermore, if the writing is not clear or we skip steps we are likely to do mistakes in math, in dates, and in names.

Now, you are not the only person checking what you write. If you write all the details of the derivation, it will make it easier for the teacher/mentor to see that you made a small mistake and give you a high grade.

Penmanship pays off, at least until we start taking a laptop to each and every class. Even then, due to qwerty keyboards typing is slower than cursive writing (unless you use a stenotype), and it is less memorable.

For yourself or for the teacher

Quite often a teacher has a very specific understanding of what the right answer is. A student needs not to answer the actual right answer, but instead, answer what is expected of him. This is a very limiting experience. Basically, this means that a student needs to be in the class physically rather than study from books.

Unfortunately, there is no workaround. Paradigms clash. You should not talk with your biology teacher about the god creating the world in six days, and you should not discuss evolution with your bible teacher. If you discuss history with a republican and a democrat you may get very different answers. Teachers want you to take their side of the argument. Some will give you a bonus for independent ideas, but most will give you penalties.

You do not need to satisfy the particular teacher. It is sufficient to use the paradigms he presented.

Science projects are for parents

Some projects at school and at work cannot be handled adequately by the person who gets them. At home, the parents step in. At work, the mentor.

I am still not sure why kids need to present these monstrous cardboard structures made by their parents to the class. And I am not really sure why I have to write 20% of the code for my kids’ projects.  You kind of read the task and immediately understand it is not for the recipient. I am not sure there is anything a child can learn from designing and painting cardboard models, except for model-building skills.

So, do not even give it a second thought… Just get over with the task and move on…


Using tutors for homework is not very effective. A tutor should do one example with the kid, the next example the kid does himself while asking questions and the other examples the kid should solve by himself without a tutor. The same applies to work with a mentor.

Anna told me that when she was a girl she has a math tutor that was doing the tasks for her. She did not remember a thing. Now she helps my sons with their homework, and she finally starts to understand math.

Try to reverse the roles with the tutor. Do not be passive. Be active, be corrected, and learn from the corrections.

Improving scores

Anna had a program taking students from C to A in 5 sessions. Basically, it was as following:

  • Everything happens for a reason. Understand the reasoning, not just the outcomes.
  • If you understand the paradigm, it makes it easier to fit in the details.
  • Practice a little bit every day, or at least every week. Do not leave everything to binge-practice.
  • Once the person is comfortable with the tasks the tutor should move from his way.
  • Accelerated learning should be used as a complementary tool, not replace the other learning methods altogether.

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