Dear Prof., Your Homework Stinks

Homework. Many students hate it. Many have only one goal: get it done as quickly as possible because they’d rather do anything else with their time.

And I don’t blame them.

Today, for the first time in over a year, I am writing critically about faculty instead of students. Tomorrow will be the other half of this coin. Students, you’re not off the hook.

Bad Homework

Unfortunately, many faculty seem to have no idea how to design effective homework (I was/am guilty). A common approach is to scan through the textbook and pick exercises they wish their students could complete. That’s one method for designing an exam (assessment of learning), but not a way to design a new acquisition experience.

Homework isn’t supposed to be an open-book take home exam. It’s supposed to be a learning experience.

Three Keys to Creating Effective Homework:

  • Students must be Interested the topic
  • Students must see the Relevance of the assignment to their learning
  • Students must experience the Appropriate Level of Challenge

Interest.

We often forget that it’s rare for someone to be so interested in a topic that they study it for years, earn a PhD in it, and take up a career teaching it. Most people in your class haven’t found that passion yet! Faculty: one of your jobs is that of a salesperson. Sell your subject by taking students on the journey that helped you find your fire! Bullet points don’t work here…

Relevance.

We all hate busywork. We’ve all done plenty of it. If your students don’t see how the activity you’re asking them to engage in will actually translate to a deeper understanding of the subject, then it will feel like busywork. As strange as this may sound, faculty are in the business of teaching their students how to teach. By telling the students the educational reason behind a particular activity, you earn their buy in and show them how to become effective lifelong learners.

Appropriate Level of Challenge.

We want students to go through the experience of engaging with this topic that they don’t understand. We want them to explore it. We want then to struggle with it until they don’t struggle with it anymore.

If we want students to engage, then the challenge must be of appropriate difficulty. The student needs to be stretched, but not snapped. One counterintuitive way to do this is to add more problems: easy and medium difficulty questions. As the students work the problem set, they gain confidence by being incrementally stretched.

Since ADDING questions to my homework sets, the completion rate jumped from less than 30% to over 85%!

Bad Response.

Unfortunately, many faculty don’t realize the true issues with their assignments, and so they jump to the conclusion that their students are “lazy” or “unmotivated.” This only expands the gulf in your classroom. Students and faculty resort to tactics rather than connection.

Faculty: if students aren’t doing well or aren’t engaging, ask what you can do better. Don’t escalate by going on the offensive and placing all of the blame on your students. When we play blame games, no one comes out ahead.

Students: tomorrow I’ll be talking about the other half of this: the responsibility students own. You’re not off the hook!

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