Homework: Learning Tool or Academic Arms Race?

During my freshmen and sophomore years, I had one goal for my homework: get it done in as short a time as possible. Why? Because I would rather be doing anything else!

I know I am not alone.

I meet very few students who are actually excited about their homework. They’re not sure WHY they hate homework so much, but they’re sure they do.

Goal: get it done with a little time/energy possible

The interesting thing about goals is that they drive our behavior. If the goal is “to be done as soon as possible,” then one wouldn’t think twice about being the weakest link in a study group (dare I say hangers-on?) or even resorting to copying work from people, solution manuals, or the internet.

And then the faculty get involved.

We see a lot of homework that looks “similar.” We realize that the students aren’t learning from the homework (because they don’t score well on quizzes and exams) and instantly jump to words like”lazy” and “unmotivated.” We up the ante by grading harder and implementing systems whose primary goal is to stop students from cheating.

So, students are looking for crafty ways to trick the faculty into believing they’ve done their homework, and faculty are looking for crafty ways to strong-arm students into doing their homework.

Welcome to the arms race, faculty:

  • scan text to catch plagiarism, sending the message that students can’t be trusted
  • use automated systems to give every student different problems, isolating learners from one of the most valuable resources at a university (the learning community)
  • ramp up grading with tricks like picking random questions to review in detail, causing students to play guessing games while they study

Welcome to the arms race, students:

  • pay people to write unique papers for them so that they can’t be found using plagiarism software
  • subscribe to services which allow them to scan problems and automatically return solutions
  • divide and conquer: everyone in the group works one problem on a homework set and shared the solutions

Yep. BROKE college students would rather pay extra than do homework. What’s that say about their perception of the value of the assignments!?

Arms race:

when we fail to understand each other, and so we try to create ways of beating each other while sidestepping the real issue. The blame lies on both sides, and this week I am going to explore what we might do about it.

Here’s a preview: the goal of college is to learn, the goal of homework is to offer learning experiences. Faculty need to create assignments that actually foster learning, and students need to actually engage.

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