Homework 8/28/19

Academic piece by Richard Bleil

Students hate homework. I know that. Today, I’ve had a couple of homework “incidents”, so I thought that perhaps I should write a quick piece about it.

First, I should probably take a moment to discuss the goal of homework. I know that students dislike homework; I get that. I used to as well. Now, as an adult, I know that I have far more homework than I ever had in school. Students have this idea that homework is cutting into their “free time”, and therefore don’t like it. I guess there’s a level of truth to this, but homework is for practicing. It’s designed to help students prepare for something bigger coming down the road. Like practicing a role to play the part on stage, homework is to learn how to do what you have been taught. This is the best thing for students to keep in mind as they do their homework. Rather than thinking, “oh, if I finish this quickly then I can watch this dumb show”, it would be more rewarding to think, “oh, if I practice my homework well, I will learn the material.” And, yes, you want to learn the material, because you want a good grade.

That being said, the first incident is a social media post a friend of mine made with a website that has solved “every homework question of every textbook ever published.” First of all, I doubt it, but even if it is true, is it really a good thing? Presumably, it does show the steps on how to solve these problems, but this is not enough. I used to purchase the study guides for my homework, They would often show the steps to solving problems, which I would look at, understand, and figure it was good enough. But, I lacked the practice, so when it came to actually taking the test, I wouldn’t know how to solve them.

But I knew I knew how.

With help.

Students sometimes “work together” on homework assignments to get them done, but, often don’t know how to work together. All too frequently, they’ll split the work, “you do these problems, and I’ll do those.” The problem with this approach is that, come exam time, each person will know how to do about half of the problems (unless they are working with more people, then they’ll know less).

In math and science, the typical homework problems are set up with a very specific plan. The very first set of questions are drill. They’re designed to let you practice some quick one or two-step calculation over and over and over again. You practice converting pH to hydronium ion concentration, then hydronium ion concentration to pH, and over and over. Then, the next step begins combining calculations, pH to pOH to hydroxide, and so on. It’s drill; just practice over and over. The next series combines calculations with previous chapter calculations. Percent hydronium concentration to molarity to pH to pOH and so on. Finally, the last set is synthesis. They’re designed to stretch your thinking, the application of the new calculations, and to move from rote practice to becoming an actual expert.

I always thought that, if a student understands homework layout, it will hopefully help them to know why they are doing it, and maybe make it easier. “Out there” in what some ostensibly refer to as the “real world”, there are no study guides. Creative problem solving becomes critical to success, figuring out the dimensions for that playhouse in the back yard that is unlike anything anybody else has is critical to your children being impressed and happy. Yes, you can look up “how to” videos, but in the end, it’s up to you and your skills at problem solving.

Finally, don’t be afraid to do more than the assigned homework. Some things will be second nature to you, some things will take more work. The instructor will assign what they believe to be the minimum needed homework to get a concept, but only YOU know if you actually learned the material to the level you should know it or not. The college where I teach has a learning management system, and students do their homework on the computer.

Students have suggested I should write my own textbook. Personally, I think this is an extraordinarily bad idea. The author of the textbook should have a different voice than the instructor. When I teach, I teach what makes the most sense to me. I teach how to solve problems the way that I would solve it, the way that seems easiest to me, but there are other approaches. The author should use their own voice, so the student can decide which approach makes most sense to them. Homework is kind of the same; the instructor assigns what should be necessary to learn the concept, but it’s up to the student to decide if more is necessary.

Embrace homework. You’re learning, your knowledge is expanding, you’re growing. Enjoy it; it’s an opportunity!

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