College Preparatory School for Girls Grades 3-12

Head's Notes

Susanna A. Jones

Homework. Students, teacher, parents—we all care about homework.

To me, homework serves a range of important purposes. I count as homework all the schoolwork done outside of class-time, including reading (the kind of reading for pleasure expected of Lower School students) and studying for assessments. Homework provides an opportunity to practice a skill or a concept; this is particularly true for math and some science courses (such as physics and chemistry), as well as for world language study through level three. In history and biology, students learn content, both facts and concepts, by reading texts, while in English, reading literature lies at the heart of that discipline. One could simply lecture in history and biology, but students wouldn't learn the material with the same depth; moreover, solely lecturing and reading during class would limit opportunities for discussion-based activities. It is hard to imagine an English class where one didn't read in preparation for class discussion. This is also true in higher-level language classes, where reading in the target language constitutes a key skill students should master and where advance reading informs classwork. Writing represents another important type of homework, whether preparing a lab report, writing an English essay or a research paper, or writing in world language class where, again, writing in the target language represents a key skill to be mastered. Students can write in class and are frequently asked to do so. However, good writing grows from the revision process, a process done best over time with breaks between rewrites. A quality education, especially in the humanities, depends on homework.

That said, too much homework becomes self-defeating. When students feel overwhelmed, they cannot learn effectively and any joy of learning evaporates. In addition, schools and individual students shouldn't measure "rigor" and their worth—how "good" they are—by homework quantity. Like many things in life, quality outranks quantity in determining homework's value.

Over the past several years at Holton, we have worked to address what we recognized as homework issues. In Lower School, we now follow the guideline of the grade level multiplied by 10 as the appropriate amount of time students should spend doing homework (in other words, a fifth grader should do 50 minutes of homework), plus 20 minutes reading. We have smoothed out the transition between sixth and seventh grade so that seventh graders no longer feel slammed as they enter Middle School. In Upper School, teachers have reduced the amount of homework they assign, a fact that students have acknowledged in the past couple of years.

However, under the new schedule this year, Upper School classes meet more often (six out of every eight days instead of four out of every six) and students are more likely to have classes meet two days in a row. We were aware of this change and teachers have adjusted their assignments accordingly. However, to some students at least, it feels like more homework. Responding to these concerns, we conducted a homework survey among Upper School students. The survey tells us that we have some work to do in ensuring that students understand the purpose of their homework. We also learned that time spent on homework proved to be generally about what we would expect. Juniors do appear to be an exception as they do, on average, about 3-4 hours of homework a night; however, they also spend a fair amount of time doing homework at School as well, pushing the total higher than we probably want.

Given that teachers are assigning less than in the past and that students, especially juniors, are still spending quite a lot of time doing homework, we need to address the homework issue from another angle. Here, I would strongly recommend that we turn to advice from Dr. Lisa Damour, advice she shares in her book Under Pressure and that she talked about with faculty, administrators, parents, and student leaders when she visited Holton last November.

Two characteristics girls frequently exhibit can contribute to homework overload: perfectionism and a desire to please (in this case their teachers). Perfectionism leads girls to do more work than may be necessary, including such unnecessary activities as rewriting notes in different colors and making study guides "pretty." Damour encourages us to encourage our daughters to behave more like our sons and be tactical about their schoolwork, an approach that will make them more efficient. Boys are much more likely than girls to determine what they need to do—and no more—in order to achieve the grade they want. This means thinking both about what one needs to do and, importantly, what one does NOT need to do. This is a critical skill that will serve girls well in college and in life.

I can hear parents (and teachers) as well as girls say, "But doesn't that mean I'm not giving it my best? Shouldn't I do everything I'm assigned at a level of excellence? Aren't you suggesting that I shortchange my learning?" No, no, and no. Girls will still learn plenty with this approach and do so with less stress, while probably leaving themselves more time to engage in activities that are also valuable and affirming, such as spending time with friends or family. With less stress, they may also learn better since high levels of stress impede learning. If a girl is truly passionate about a subject and genuinely enjoys the process of learning about it, she should certainly pursue it as much as she likes. But that kind of passion leads to more reading and deeper learning, not rewriting notes.

To this end, we can help girls be more efficient in their studying in many subjects by encouraging them to use the online quizzes associated with their textbooks or others they find on the internet. Ascertaining their knowledge level allows them to suspend studying what they already know and concentrate on areas they still need to learn. Obviously, this won't work completely—in history, for example, you don't just need to know the facts but also how you use them to construct an argument. However, it is a good start towards greater efficiency.

This approach is especially important advice for girls who feel anxious about tests. They find that studying reduces their anxiety, which is logical, but then they keep studying beyond what is necessary. The law of diminishing returns applies to studying, and we need to help girls gain confidence in their knowledge and skills and learn when to let go and stop studying.

This leads us to the second concerning characteristic: the desire to please. We in schools act as though girls should love every subject equally. Really? Did any of us, even those of us who became teachers, love every subject we took equally? No. We need to give girls the freedom to admit that some subjects interest them more than others. Admitting this allows them to ease up on some subjects while directing their energies to those they enjoy. Middle school, when grades don't appear on transcripts, is a good time for girls to experiment with ways to be more efficient while maintaining their performance goals. They will need to adjust as the nature of work shifts in upper school, but they can establish good habits in middle school.

Certainly, some girls do not do enough work. Holton is a school, however, where our students generally are "all in." They work hard and are proud of it. I am much more concerned about the girls doing too much than not enough because I think we have way more of them. Indeed, Damour asked our girls if they ever do more work than they need to. Their answer? Yes. We need to help them change that answer to no.