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Homework – with apologies to the Fixx November 7, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, engineering, teaching.
Tags: , ,

How much is enough (homework)?

I was correcting  a homework submission this weekend.  The homework was actually a ‘test review’: that is, I wanted the students to write down specifics about how they studied for an exam; how well they did on the exam, especially looking at which errors they made; and trying to tie their performance on the exam to how they studied for the exam.  In other words, I’m trying to teach metacognition and self-evaluation skills for exam preparation.

This has been a frustrating homework because so many of the students are very vague.

“I did x and y to study for the exam, but not z.  I did okay on the exam, so I guess I’ll keep doing that.”  I was really hoping they’d get very specific about how they studied for individual concepts.  I’m not grading very harshly because I view this lack of specificity as a result of my lack of specificity in assigning the homework.  I keep making notes of things that I need to do better next time around, but I’m not going to punish the students for not doing the homework I intended but did not clearly articulate.

That said, I came across a perplexing bit of commentary in one submission: “I didn’t have much time to study for this exam because of all the other homework I have to do.  I have a lot of assignments for my university studies class, which is only worth one credit.”

So the student was passive-aggressively complaining about how much homework I assign.

Believe it or not, nothing pisses me off more than a professor who is callous about study time required for courses.  The professor who assigns 30 minutes of homework per week is not adequately preparing the student, and the one who assigns 30+ hours is an ass.  I do realize there’s a bit of a curve involved, and some people need to study more and some less.  When I took my first calculus class, I was fresh out of trig and jumped straight into Apostol’s calculus text.  It often took me in excess of 20 hours per week to study and finish homeworks, but I was also the only freshman who’d never stepped near a calc book before putting foot on campus.

When I planned my course out, I tried to break the topic matter into bite-size chunks.  Our class meets one hour per week for about 15 weeks.  I’m also a big believer that I’m wasting my students’ time if all we ever do is talk.  So therefore, I planned either short lectures or in-class activities for most classes.  Then, to reinforce the concept, I will assign a relatively short homework assignment.

I use the rule of thumb that you need to put in three hours of homework time per credit for an A (on average).  I’m teaching a one-credit class, and the assignments are pass/redo (or fail if they don’t turn them in or don’t redo them within the specified time), so I try to shoot for a homework time of about one hour.  That is, you can do a mediocre job of the homework if you put in a full hour.  If you want to do a better job and lower your risk of having to redo the assignment, you’ll put in more time, but likely not more than 3.

I have some students who obviously put in a lot of time.  I have some that hand in assignments with every i dotted and t crossed.  Then I have some who wander in and hand me scribbles on a piece of paper.

The student’s comment is interesting because I think it indicates both that (s)he has failed to sit down and think about how much time is actually required to study.  I find that disappointing, but if I teach the class again, maybe I really should consider talking about time management.  (As an aside, I find it frustrating that universities will often let you take more than full-time credit loads without any additional costs.  I think it’s to encourage people to get through faster, but I’ve noticed it simply has the effect of overloading the students and not giving them adequate time to study for any of their classes sufficiently.  They feel like they have to do this to reduce their overall loan and/or financial burden.)

It also indicates the student has failed to realize that I have spent time thinking about how much homework I should be giving.  I am guessing the student will be very surprised when they get into certain classes where the professor thinks a student should be able to accomplish a task in the same amount of time as the professor.  There will be classes where it’s impossible to even pass without an excess of 20 hours devoted solely to that class.  And that student will really be floundering then.

I simply left a comment on the paper:  “Wait until you get into upper-level EE classes. :-)”  I’m guessing they won’t appreciate what I’m talking about for another year or two.

In the meantime, I think I’ll kick back and listen to the Fixx…and think about how much is enough.



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