Friday, April 15, 2011

Is homework worth the time?

I have never been sure whether I should be assigning homework in my classes. For one, they give additional work, from their formulation to their grading. Second, I am not sure of their effectiveness, in particular given that the students doing them are the ones that least need them. The same applies to extra credit problems. But before college, homeworks are routinely given to children who mostly have no choice but hand them in. Are homeworks worth the time spent on them? While my children certainly spend spend less time on them than I did at the same age (it only appears they spend more time, they are constantly distracted, see yesterday's rant on the Internet at the workplace...), do they really learn with them?

Ozkan Eren and Daniel Henderson use the National Educational Longitudinal Study to not only look at achievement in mathematics, as previous studies, but also in science, English and history. And it is only in mathematics that homework matters (positively). I am especially astonished that homework does not matter in English, as practice certainly improves ones writing (and I should obviously have done more homework). But my impression appears to be wrong.


mOOm said...

Now I moved to Australia I've stopped giving homework in my economics classes. We go over and practice problems in groups in the "tutorials" and then every couple of weeks I do a 15-20 minute mini-test in the tutorial class. It's up to the students to practice more questions to prepare for the mini-tests and the exams. There will be a short paper for the course as well, though. This is a grad course also, so I'm not sure how things are in undergrad courses here.

Anonymous said...

I recently completed my BSc in Maths, and an MSc in Econ.
During undergrad, for each course we were given problem sets every week, and we had to return 3 of them a term that were graded. Each one was only worth 3% of the final mark, but we still felt forced to work on them for long hours to get full grades. Some of them were extremely difficult, and by working on them for 2-3 long evenings, we would undertand the material a lot better. On the other hand, during all 3 years of the BSc, I barely touched a non assessed coursework until it was revision time for exams.
We also had to hand in problem sets during the MSc, but it did not contribute to the final mark so I never handed them in.

Some students are very motivated and will do whatever work is available. Others are completely uninterested in the subject, and will end up probably doing a poor job on a homework that is not worth a significant amount. But then there are a few like me who love the subject, really enjoy learning, but are not disciplined enough to study in an optimal manner unless they feel the pressure to do so. Given the choice between working on a problem set and going to the pub with friends, I'll always choose the latter. But change that to choosing between pub and a problem set worth only 2% that I have to hand in tomorrow, I'll choose problem set.

What I'm trying to say in short is that introducing graded homeworks will not make a difference for most of your class, but will affect the learning of a few people that have preferences like mine.