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U.S. college courses should take the busy work out of homework

The views expressed in this article are the views of the author.

I walked into the library late at night during the second week of the spring semester and found, to my surprise, that it was not empty. I was there to use a computer for just a few minutes, but many people had set up shop to tackle what is often one of the most inane parts of the college experience: homework.

Before the fall semester, I was resigned to the idea that homework, even when it felt useless to my overall learning experience, was just a part of education .While studying abroad, however, I was able to take classes that didn’t hold assigning homework as a priority, and I learned more in those courses than some of the most homework-heavy ones at UMBC.

Those experiences showed me that hours of homework after each class session is not a vital part of learning. In my courses abroad, active participation in discussions, guided readings and activities were all completed in class to develop students’ understanding of course material.

That’s not to say that there was no homework involved. It’s to say homework played a reduced role in the courses I took, that the overall instruction was counterintuitively more effective. Homework could also be scaled back in UMBC courses and institutions of higher learning around the country.

It’s hard to reduce homework without a shift in mindset about the college experience. It’s easy to say, “well, college students have always had homework and they’ve been just fine.” But the “busy work” homework that is piled upon students is unique to the United States.

But homework is an important part of the education system that helps students to develop their skills, gain experience and practice with course material, right?

Right. But also wrong. In my three years at UMBC and about fifteen years of schooling overall, I have done a great deal of homework. And some of it actually enriched my life, not just as a student, but as a person. It made me question things I believed and consider things I never had.

But most of it was a pointless slog that felt designed to waste my time and increase the solid crop of gray hairs that my friends try to pull out of my scalp. It seems especially pointless when I read up on a subject extensively, just to go to class and have my professor lecture the exact content about which I just read. The current system feels ridiculous especially in classes where attendance is required.

At that point, either the homework or the professor is unnecessary. Since professors often have more knowledge about subjects with contemporary insights and emerging data to offer, I’d prefer to keep them over homework.

When discussing the differences between my education in the United States and my recent experiences studying abroad, I realized it was hard to quantify exactly how much homework I had in the fall. Because there was some, but it was spaced out and some of it didn’t feel like homework, because it felt integral to my learning and like an extension of the classroom. The homework was saved for when it served the learning experience, and when we discussed it in our classes, people actually had things to say because they didn’t struggle through forty pages of dense language. Despite this reduction, I feel that I learned more from my classes abroad than I have from many courses at UMBC.

It’s okay if a student doesn’t necessarily understand why an assignment fits into their class or education when they execute it, but to have assignments that even weeks, months and years later feel pointless is frustrating. It makes our overall education feel valueless, makes classes less enjoyable, and adds stress to an already stressful few years.

Homework can work, by reserving it for when students can benefit from it and get something out of it that their professor can’t give them, not by piling it onto students’ overfilled plates like dry Thanksgiving turkey. Or on the other end, we could get rid of some professors, but as I’ve said, that’s not my preferred solution.