Monday, January 10, 2011

The Homework Paradox

This week, in honor of #FYCchat, and the fact that I'm working on my syllabi for the upcoming semester all week, I'm posting all about some of the decisions we face as instructors, trying to come up with a plan for our students for the semester. First up, homework!

I have a love-hate relationship with homework. When I was a student, in the dark ages, before computers and word processing programs, I used to be reduced to tears, writing and rewriting my essays and other assignments because I am a terrible speller. "Good copies" could only be written in pen, and we were only allowed three White-Out marks to correct mistakes. I used to sit at the kitchen table as my mom proofread my work, dreading the inevitable: the fourth spelling mistake which meant I would have to start all over again. 

I was lucky, because I had parents who were very involved with my school work and education. I always had help with math, French, or whatever else I was tasked to do. But, my parents also never over-stepped their role as tutor and coach, much to my dismay. Every piece of writing, every problem solved, every verb conjugated, it was all done by me, but if I got stuck, I would sit with my mom she would guide me as to how to figure out my problem. When I had trouble with biology and she couldn't figure out how to help me, she hired one of my swimming teammates who was older and studying biology to tutor me. The idea was always to help me become self-sufficient in my learning and studying.

(A quasi-relevant aside: my friend who tutored me in biology figured out that I needed a narrative in order to learn; biology was hard for me because it was a lot of memorization. I always complained that I didn't understand biology, when really, there was nothing to understand, only things to memorize, at least at the high school level. So we wrote stories about the cell and all of the parts and their functions, a tool I used to study for all of my biology tests from then on. I would start each biology test by writing down whatever story or stories I had come up with and then filling in the blanks. It worked, as I passed biology, and my friend went on to become an excellent university professor.)

As a professor, homework is essential if we, myself and my students, are to be able to accomplish our learning goals. I remember my mother's lessons, and I try to help my students see how they can become self-sufficient learners. But it is nearly impossible to get my students to do their reading or take any active reading exercises I assign seriously. While they complain about how they are bored by lectures, they fail to see the connection between being able to have meaningful class discussions and exercises if they haven't done their reading. One day, I really will stand in silence for an entire class period waiting for students to answer my discussion questions to show I am serious a) about students doing their readings and b) that I want to do more than just lecture.

But I also understand my role as a coach for my students in their learning (see the above parenthetical aside). For example, when we are working on editing and revising their essays, I have them do their peer reviews or self-assessments in class, so if they have any questions or need any help, I'm there to give some guidance. What do I hear from them? Do we have to do this right now, or can we just leave and do this at home? Really? I can't get you to do homework because of a variety of excuses (no time, too much other work, etc) and now all of a sudden you have time to do this? It frustrates me, but I tell the students that they can take the time now or take the time later. 

I understand the argument that students (children especially) need free time to explore and play, and that homework often drills the love of learning from them. But in university, I don't see my students every day, and the time we spend together is very limited. I don't have the time in class to learn all about the students' strengths and weaknesses, and how they learn best. Tasks assigned to them to be completed outside of class is also one of the ways I can gage what tools work best for certain students. And, because we don't see each other every day, it forces them to practice and reinforce what we've been doing/reading/learning. 

Homework, especially in college, isn't going anywhere. But I remember my 10-year-old self, and I work to make sure that every exercise we do, inside and outside of class, has a clear purpose. I just wish my students would actually do it.

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