Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Student Skills: Getting a Handle on Homework

Mathematics homework
Mathematics homework (Wikipedia)
by John Steely

In my experience as an instructor, I have seen students handle many different activities.

While each student is different, some things show up again and again.

Difficulties with homework is one of those common characteristics, and it can hold a student back from earning the deserved grade.

Handling homework is something that should be approached with planning and understanding.

On Class Day

Whenever I arrive to teach a class, one thing that I see often is students sitting outside the room doing the homework from the last class.

Usually they are trying desperately to complete the assignment in the few minutes that are left before class starts, and almost never get it done. Why do they put it off? This is a question that I ask myself every time I see this, and one I hope to answer here.

When a student does the work immediately before the class, there are several negatives happening.

First, the student, as I said, almost never completes the assignment. Second, what is done is rushed and incomplete, again having a negative impact on the grade. Third, there is little or no understanding of the content of the homework, given the lack of time for reflection.

So doing the homework immediately prior to class provides minimal benefit. Yet the costs are high: the student feels rushed, the understanding achieved is minimal, and there is a sense that the homework is simply there to justify the power of the instructor.

Homework Has a Purpose

An instructor assigns homework for several reasons, and none of them are about establishing a domination over the student.

Remember, whatever the student turns in needs to be graded, so by assigning homework the instructor has increased his or her workload between classes.

Grading homework is not something most instructors like to do; we prefer to focus on the classroom activities and the interaction with the students, not the process of grading.

So what is the purpose of homework? There are two primary reasons why an instructor assigns homework. Before I list those reasons, let me eliminate one: knowledge evaluation.

Homework is one of the worst ways to evaluate how well a student has learned the material because of the delay. If we want to know if a student has learned something, we want to know relatively soon.

But homework is delayed, both by the time needed for the student to perform the homework and by the time needed to grade it. This delay makes homework almost useless as an evaluation tool.

Homework is assigned for the benefit of the student. First, the homework forces the student to practice what has been done in class.

Seeing something, even doing something in a class is not enough, usually; a student needs to exercise the techniques more than once or twice to learn what has been taught. Second, homework is designed to force the student to go beyond the class.

Seldom can every aspect of a subject be covered in a class; there is simply not enough time or energy to cover everything. So instructors assign homework to encourage, entice, and even force the student to see more than what happened in the class.

Implications For The Student

If these are the reasons for the homework assignments, it is clear that doing the homework either immediately after the class or immediately before the class basically negates any benefit of the homework.

Since the benefits have been negated, the homework simply becomes a chore that has to be done, and an unpleasant chore at that. How should a student do the homework to get the benefits the instructor believes are there?

There are two keys here. First the homework should be done at a time separated from the class. If a class meets twice a week, the homework should be done on days between the classes. If a class meets five times a week, make sure some time has elapsed.

Second the homework should be done over multiple, short periods. Do not try to get the homework done in a single effort. Short bursts of effort are a more effective learning effort that one long burst.

The Best Tool

What I am getting at, in a roundabout way, is that to get the most from the homework, and the get the best results, a student needs to practice time management.

Depending on the level of the class, a student should plan on a hour to three hours of homework for a class, and that time should be divided into at least two time periods, if not more.

Create a habit of working on one part of the assignment and then leaving the rest for a later time. This will have several benefits: better learning, more energy, and a more positive perspective.

And most likely better grades.

John Steely has been teaching mathematics, study skills, and habits of success for over 25 years. You can access a number of free resources he has found and made at Steely Services

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