Homework survey results inform teaching practices

Sophia Vahanvaty, Editor-in-Chief of Newspaper

Complaints about excessive homework are a constant presence in the Urban School’s hallways. But how much truth is there to these claims? Led by Geoff Ruth, the Academic Dean, the school administration began to answer this question with data collected through homework surveys: schoolwide surveys that have gathered quantitative data on the amount of time students spend on homework.

According to Dean of Faculty Jonathan Howland, the need for the survey arrived long before the surveys were first conducted. He explained that two main obstacles had caused hesitation towards the aggregation of data about homework in the past: “It airs out divergences and anomalies in teachers’ practices and departments’ practices and sets an expectation on the part of students that we may not be able to or choose to meet: which is that we will do something about it,” Howland said.

Two years ago, the first homework survey was intended to inform a potential modification of the set of homework guidelines that try to ensure that a manageable amount of homework is being assigned. Currently, under these guidelines, underclassmen should be assigned up to 45 minutes of homework per class, upperclassmen should be assigned up to 60 minutes of homework and students in UAS upperclassmen classes can be assigned slightly more than 60 minutes.

Though “median homework loads are within the homework guidelines of our homework policy,” according to the report provided by Ruth, the results indicated that the amount of time spent on homework was not always in line with the homework guidelines. According to the key takeaways of the survey, as provided by Ruth, in UAS 11th-12th classes, “average values are above those guidelines [and] there’s a wide range in how long students take to complete homework, with a long tail of higher workloads per class.” In addition, the report goes on to say that “many students are spending more time on homework over the weekend than is expected per homework guidelines.”

However, this does not necessarily mean that homework loads will be lessened in the future in order to meet the aforementioned guidelines. In fact, the administration is considering revisiting the homework guidelines, given the large changes to the schedule implemented at the start of the 2017-2018 year. Howland explained, “Geoff and I think that we may need to revisit those guidelines due to the new schedule where there are 6 fewer class meetings per term. What are the teachers of those classes supposed to do? Should they cut 15% of their curriculum or should they have longer homework assignments?…We did not issue any prescriptions but we gave time and opportunities last year for teachers to make adjustment to their curricula for the new schedule. I think it’s fair to say that most teachers did a little of both: trimmed at some content as well as made adjustments to in-class activities and instruction in order to pack it in. We’re surveying teachers about that this month.”

The continued collection of data is matched by continually evolving department homework policies: both Courtney Rein, English Department Chair and Matthew Casey, Science Department Chair, have been dedicated to implementing changes that make homework more manageable and meaningful. Rein, for example, explained a new approach to annotation that the English department is trying out: “In [English] 2B, we’re reading the 3rd and 4th novels without requiring annotating. Kids are reading a fair number of pages but it helps them remember how to like reading without feeling the burden of annotation and it’s also good practice to learn how to get through big chunks of reading. In college, professors will say ‘read 200 pages of this novel by Wednesday.’ So one of the skills we need to teach kids is how to get through stuff.”

Rein emphasized the importance of setting realistic expectations so that students can complete the homework efficiently: “I think we’ve historically bred a kind of over-annotating Urban overachiever which actually doesn’t serve them later in life.”

Science Department changes have included avoiding assigning additional homework on days when students are preparing for quizzes and also providing more intermediate deadlines to assist students with time management.

As the administration continues to gather information from both students and teachers, the data will be informative to the refinement of the new schedule, specifically concerning a potential updated 4-day week schedule.